Who’s In There? A Behavioral Toolkit to Enhance Self-Control

Self-control is associated with many consequential outcomes in our life: the ability to create a network and develop social relations, long-term savings, academic and professional achievement, stable and harmonious relationships, and maintaining healthy habits, among others. Therefore, it represents a key competence to work on.

Common sense has it that self-control can be achieved through sheer willpower. If we are “strong enough”—that is, able to exert effortful actions to inhibit temptations and impulses—we can assume control of our thoughts and actions.

However, psychologist Kentaro Fujita and colleagues disagree with this approach: when people suggest others “use willpower,” what do they actually mean? What kind of tool or behavior are they referring to? Fujita states that instead of a single, disciplined, and highly effortful response such as willpower, self-control is better conceived as a “toolbox of strategies.” Individuals looking to develop their self-control should look test out the different tools and find the one that works best for them in a given situation. Therefore, “improving self-control is not about becoming stronger, but rather about becoming smarter.”1

A behavioral toolkit for self-control

Different behavioral tools have been identified to help us deal with everyday challenges. Because we tend to overestimate our self-control, Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch suggest making decisions in advance, when our “cooler head” prevails, in order to promote more desirable, long-term decisions.2 This is a way of anticipating the choices that our more restrained, controlled selves would make, and committing ourselves to those decisions before we find ourselves in a more tempting situation. This is particularly helpful for moments where our emotions are running high or we’re under stress.

Another option is self-punishment: once people commit to a decision, they can establish a costly penalty if they fail to make the desired choice. For instance, Ariely & Wertenbroch give the example of making a monetary donation to a political group whose views are completely opposite to yours.2 This kind of punishment, and the emotional burden it imposes, can motivate people to forgo temptations and enhance self-control in certain cases.

Katy Milkman also suggests pairing “should” behaviors, which promote long-term self-controlled goals, with more enjoyable “want to” behaviors, represented by short-term gratification.3 Examples could range from listening to your favorite music only when you go out for a walk, or allowing yourself to have candy after four healthy meals in a row.

Finally, there is choice architecture: modifying the environment so that the desired behaviors are encouraged and easy to perform. Do you want to reduce the time you spend on your phone? Try leaving it in another room or inside a drawer, rather than in your pocket all the time. You need to focus on finishing an academic paper? You’d better take your books to a library or someplace where there are no distractions.

These are all valid strategies to overcome temptation when it comes to making decisions. In specific contexts, they could help you navigate out of a ruminant posture and analyze the facts with an increased learning approach, too. Still, Ethan Kross, Ariana Orvell, Kentaro Fujita, and other researchers believe in a simpler way to achieve that, shifting from the effortful willpower-based methods to a more “mundane” and natural one: one that has to do with our inner voice, and the conversations we have with ourselves.

The voice inside our head

We frequently talk to ourselves. Those inner dialogues represent a powerful tool our brains have evolved to help us make plans for the future, applying a systematic view and determining all the necessary steps to get there. This important shift lets us go beyond “survival mode” to a more strategic approach: Once we’re able to project scenarios long ahead of our time, life suddenly became a little more predictable, a bit less uncertain.

But aside from forecasting the future, our voices also have a rearview mirror function that leads us backward. They recall episodes, conversations, thoughts, feelings, and much more to create scripts and discuss the roles we played then.

Although this is an important feature for self-development, it can also be a double-edged sword, especially in moments of distress. After all, our memories are not so precise,4 and our own interpretations of the world are skewed by biases.

Negative episodes, in particular, can trigger ruminant behaviors, which can contribute to increased distress and, in turn, make a difficult situation even more difficult. Distorted contexts, animosity, judgments based on perception rather than facts—all consequences of a rationale that prioritizes subjectivity over maintaining a more neutral position, where words and actions can be analyzed in a cold state.

Moreover, when individuals are not able to release themselves from those damaging thoughts and conversations, things tend to become harder, as they avoid new experiences and block themselves, even from happiness.

Recent behavioral research,5 however, discovered interesting (and less effortful) strategies we can develop to deal with such harmful dialogues.

Recounting vs. reconstruing

People commonly talk about their own experiences afterward—with friends, family, or someone they feel intimate enough to do it. And this is a good thing: as addressed in several experiments,6,7 venting a negative feeling contributes to emotional adjustment.

Nevertheless, how you do it matters a lot. Research by David Lee and colleagues8 tested people who had gone through unpleasant events. In one experimental group, participants similarly recounted the episode to another person, whereas in the other, they were prompted to reconstrue what had happened to them from a new perspective.

The results demonstrated that members of the first group “experienced an increase in negative affect compared with baseline”—in other words, felt worse—while in the latter participants “were buffered against this increase in negative affect, despite spending just as much time talking about their negative experience as recounting participants. They also reported having more closure.”

Recounting versus reconstruing have different impacts: the former means going over near the same emotions felt before, perhaps even exacerbating one’s feeling of unfairness, or the desire for justice. Reconstruing an experience, on the other hand, “helps people make meaning out of their negative experiences.”8

Although these two approaches can look quite different, there is a very simple strategy we can apply to move from one to the other: the researchers observed that the reconstruing group spontaneously used the word “you” generically more often than the recounting group. That is, reframing your experiences from an external perspective, as you were telling a story about someone else, improves our ability to find significance in past events so that we can learn from them.

Research conducted by experimental psychologist Ethan Kross and colleagues9 indicated that “reflecting on negative personal events using distanced (vs. immersed) self-talk leads people to consider their experiences akin to the perspective of an outside observer,” and that this process promotes emotional regulation. For example: when preparing for an anxiety-eliciting speech, individuals who were cued to use distanced self-talk were more likely to view the upcoming speech as a challenge that they could cope with rather than as a threat over which they had no control. Furthermore, they also reported lower levels of anxiety.9

Creating a distance—in both time and space—between yourself and the negative experience is, therefore, an effective way to perceive those events as further away from the self, and consequently reduce emotional reactivity when trying to make meaning from them.

Curiously enough, this is an embedded mechanism several people already practice unconsciously: it is common that we use the generic “you” to refer to hypothetical situations that require self-control. Studies by Ariana Orvell and colleagues10 found that people are up to five times more likely to use the generic “you” when prompted to make meaning from negative experiences.

Generic “you” enhances self-regulation

Self-regulation, which includes skills such as executive function—working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control—gratification delay, and persistence can be improved through self-distancing.5 As we create a mental space between the stimulus and the response, we are able to step back from the current problem and (re)gain self-control.

Beware, though: this psychological distancing is neither avoidance nor distraction. On the contrary, it helps us reflect on our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors from a different perspective, whilst focusing on why we were feeling what we were feeling.

A study from Kross and colleagues revealed that individuals who are prone to suffering from past negative experiences also benefit more from self-distancing.11 In fact, “the more symptoms of depression individuals had, the more useful they found self-distancing.”

Children also benefit from self-distancing. Recent experiments12 with 4- to 6-year-old kids demonstrate that the greater the distance from the self, the better they perform on self-regulation tasks. In other words, incentivizing children to shift from a self-immersed voice (“What should I do?”) to a third person (“What should ‘you’ do?”) improves self-regulation. Additional tests found successful results when an even more distanced tone was used, i.e. “What would Batman [or any other fictional character the kid admires] do?”

One last voice

Altogether, those studies and experiments improve our understanding of the human brain, especially how inner dialogues can influence our behavior towards learning processes, emotional control, relationships, and ultimately, happiness.

As behavioral science dives deeper into this matter, new findings will emerge shedding light on potentially disruptive approaches. For now, the research suggests that this subtle linguistic device is capable of:

  • Enhancing feelings of connection between people and ideas (framing an idea as applying to people in general rather than to a specific person or moment);13
  • Eating healthier (redirects one’s attention from hedonic temptations toward self-control);14 and
  • Improving outcomes for individuals in therapy.8

This considered we may want to pay more attention to this little “us” inside.

Or is it you?

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