The Basic Idea
You’ve assembled your ingredients, mixed and baked them, and behold: a perfect pound cake. Nothing compares to that first slice, sweet and delectably dense. All your hard work has paid off. After you finish your first few heavenly bites, what ultimately stops you from eating the whole thing right then and there? This is your self-control coming into play. While we’re all familiar with this concept, research over the last few years has shown that self control is not as straightforward as it might seem. It’s also not static: certain situations, stressors, and even smells (like that of your impeccably prepared cake) can influence one’s self-control.
Theory, meet practice
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Stoicism: Stoicism is a school of thought originally created by Zeno of Citium in about 300 B.C. One of its basic tenets is that one needs to discipline oneself, and resist the influences of pleasure or pain in order to be in harmony with nature. Further, it purports that events do not influence us and that we can control how we react to them.1
Hyperbolic discounting: Our inclination to prefer immediate rewards rather than future rewards, even if those future rewards are greater.
Ego depletion: According to this theory, once we’ve depleted our ego, we no longer have the mental energy to stave off temptations and consequently make poorer decisions.
Decision fatigue: Decision fatigue is what happens when we’re presented with too many options, and our cognitive abilities begin to erode. It’s why we feel overwhelmed when there are too many options presented to us.
The story of human self-control is a long one, and it has an interesting origin point: tool-making. Humans first began to make elaborate hunting tools about 500,000 years ago, which is the first evidence of our ancient ancestors putting aside current needs for future benefits: more efficient hunting, self-defense, and ultimately, a longer life2. These tools began to emerge around the same time that our brains began to develop into what they are today; that is to say, they grew larger and gave us the ability to think ahead.2
As our tools and civilizations began to develop, theories of being came into existence. Enter Zeno of Citium, who lived between 334 and 262 B.C, and was Rome’s intellectual leader at the time.3 A philosopher inspired by the teachings of Socrates, Zeno believed that ethics should be at the center of one’s philosophical foundation. Due to these beliefs, he took the facets of the prevailing philosophy of Cynicism that he didn’t like and replaced them with these values, therefore creating the philosophy of Stoicism. This school of thought teaches that the challenges of life can be overcome with self-control and mental strength. Moreover, Stoicism preaches that one should not let oneself be overcome with pleasure or pain, but instead should use self-control to monitor one’s emotions and act justly.4
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a psychologist by the name of Walter Mischel had a question: if a child is presented with a sweet treat, how long will they be able to wait before giving into temptation? Based on this, he built the Marshmallow Test, which became a critical experiment in self-control.
In the experiment, a child was put into a room where a treat — usually a marshmallow — was placed in front of them.5 The adult in the room told the child that if they waited to eat it until after the adult returned, they’d get a second marshmellow to enjoy.5 The adult would then leave the room for 15 or 20 minutes, waiting to see if the child would eat the treat. Over the years, Mischel repeated this experiment with hundreds of children between 3 and 5 years old. This was one of the first key studies that looked at self-control, and has prompted future researchers to look at other components of this behavior.
Today, our modern daily devices are designed to prevent us from practicing self-control. Social media and technology have been created to release more dopamine in the brain. Dopamine, more than other neurotransmitters, is “vital for the ‘stamping-in’ of stimulus–reward and response–reward associations.”6 A study in 2018 observed that people generally fail to resist temptations to use social media.7 Worryingly, being capable of practicing self-control did not translate to reigning in one’s social media use when other tasks and obligations were at play.7
Far from the likes of Stoicism and marshmallows, our world has become increasingly designed to prevent us from enacting self-control. In addition to social media and technology, the food we consume has more addictive qualities than ever before; even our shopping is tailored to instant gratification and hyperbolic discounting. Further research will help us understand our modern world and will hopefully give us back the self-control that has defined us since the Stone Age.
Zeno of Citium
Having lived between 336 – 265 B.C., he is credited as being the creator of Stoicism. He was a merchant until he came across the teachings of Socrates, which proved to be so influential to him that he would quit this profession and become a philosopher and teacher for the rest of his life. To him, the meaning of life was to live with universal reason, with desires and impulses in check.
Mischel was an Austrian-born psychologist who specialized in social psychology and personality theory. According to a 2002 Review of General Psychology, he was ranked as the 25th most cited psychologist of the 20th century. His most famous experiment is the Stanford marshmallow experiment, described above.
A co-creator of the famedSave More Tomorrow retirement plan (more on that later), Thaler has consistently deepened our comprehension of human behavior throughout his decorated career. His understanding of self-control helped him create the influential retirement plan, which was signed into law as part of the U.S. Pension Protection Act of 2006. In 2017, he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in behavioral economics.
If self-control is so important, why do we so often fail at resisting temptation? The strength model of self-control asserts that self-control is a finite source. Once it’s expended, we experience reduced capabilities to control our own motivations; when this happens we encounter ego depletion. In other words, once we’ve hit our limit of self-control abilities, we are unable to make the best decisions for ourselves. Similarly, decision fatigue occurs when we’re overwhelmed by available options and tired of making decisions, thus taking mental energy away from other, more important tasks.
These concepts are incredibly important to our world today. Researchers at Cornell University estimate that the average adult makes 35,000 conscious decisions each day, each with differing levels of importance.8 If we experience ego depletion by, say, decision 25,000, what are we to do about the remaining 8,000 in the day?
Recent research has shown that mindfulness helps us be more aware and accepting of our emotions, which ultimately helps us better pilot our behavior.9 Researcher and lecturer Rimmer Teper, who published a study on the topic in 2013, states that “previous research, including some of our own, has suggested that mindfulness may help to improve executive control. In addition, previous research has also linked mindfulness to improvements in emotion regulation.”9 While the consequences of impaired decision-making can have lasting impacts, mindfulness can serve as a lifeline to maintain self-control.
As we’ve seen in the History section, your conceptualization of self-control differs widely depending on your era or field of study. While there are countless definitions of self-control (and doubtless many more arguments on why each one is wrong), let’s focus on a few from the fields of psychology and economics.
One economic perspective, first proposed by Richard Thaler and H. M. Shefrin in their 1981 paper “An Economic Theory of Self-Control,” is this: self-control suggests the presence of two different forces at play, that of a Planner and a Doer.10 The Doer acts on impulses and cares about current satisfaction, whereas the Planner thinks long-term and manages immediate desires. With this structure, Thaler and Shefrin could then think of people like organizations, which are often divided up into those who plan things and those who execute them. In essence, our minds are made up of a business strategist and a worker. By doing this, Thaler proposes that we can use many of the same strategies that solve companies’ “self-control” problems on an individual level.10
In psychology, the definitions vary greatly; for example, there are over 100 different measurements for the abstract concept of self-control.11 With that said, there are a few main definitions that have been documented. One of the more popular definitions claims that self-control is limited to inhibiting impulses. This definition’s popularity is a based on its utility, as measuring inhibition is a key component in many self-control models.12 Another definition is that self-control is the capability to delay immediate gratification of a small reward for delayed gratification of a larger award.12
Further theories delve into additional or specialized topics. For example, some studies try to better understand how self-control relates to crime and eating habits, or how neurotransmitters affect one’s ability to limit inhibitions. As an abstract concept that has varying applications from field to field, it’s daunting to try to understand how many conflicting conceptualizations there are, but really what matters is that each field has some type of a standard that will guide future studies.
Case Study 1:
Throughout 2020, people refrained from travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, when the winter holidays rolled around, airports began to see many more travelers than the previous few months of the pandemic, and today, travel has almost returned to a normal state. The Transportation Security Administration noted in July 2021 that it has screened hundreds of thousands more passengers a day than in 2020.13 Why is this the case, given that the pandemic is still raging in many parts of the world? While there are many reasons for this increase, a plausible answer is that people are experiencing ego depletion on a mass scale. We have exerted self-control since the pandemic began: we have been reminding ourselves to wear masks, keep 6 feet apart, and not travel to see our loved ones. After exercising such restraint it is understandable that many people are collectively tired and seeking novelty.
Case study 2:
In 2004, Richard Thaler and his colleague Shlomo Benartzi created a retirement initiative called the Save More Tomorrow (SMarT) program. This, unlike others at the time, took advantage of behavioral principles: once enrolled, an employee’s retirement contribution rate increases each year — aligned with a raise — up until a maximum has been reached. They created this program because at the time, they found that people weren’t contributing much (or at all) to retirement, as it requires significant amounts of self-control, to stash away a portion of their salary for future use. During their investigations prior to launching the program, they saw that “when surveyed about their low savings rates, [employees] report that they would like to save more but lack the willpower.”14 Taking self-control out of the equation altogether by making saving automatic yielded higher savings rates.
Related TDL Content
Who’s In There? A Behavioral Toolkit to Enhance Self-Control: Self-control is difficult. Unfortunately, there are many instances in which a lack of self-control can have serious consequences. While mindfulness is one solution, this article dives into other potential options for boosting self-control.
Giving People The Tools To Nudge Themselves: The Decision Lab sat down with Samuli Reijula to discuss whether it is ethical to use nudges to change how people think. In this conversation, he talks about how nudges can be used to compensate for self-control and gives his perspective on the future of nudge research.
Precommitment and Procrastination: Behavioral Tools for Students: We’ve all struggled with getting tasks done at one point or another. Whether it’s the buzz of a text, the ping of an email, or the magnetic pull of the TV screen, so many things can send us down a procrastination spiral. How can we use precommitment to get our self-control back in check? Read more at the article linked above.
- Gonzalez-Berrios, N. (2021, January 4). A Complete Guide to Stoicism: How You Can Use this Ancient Philosophy to Live a Better Life. TheMindFool. https://themindfool.com/stoicism/
- University of York. (2020, May 13). Researchers trace evolution of self-control. Phys Org. https://phys.org/news/2020-05-evolution-self-control.html
- Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2020, April 3). Zeno of Citium. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Zeno-of-Citium
- Lewis, J. (n.d.). Stoicism. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved September 8, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Stoicism
- Mischel, W., & Baker, N. (1975). Cognitive appraisals and transformations in delay behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31(2), 254–261. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0076272
- Wise, R. A. (2004). Dopamine, learning and motivation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 5(6), 483–494. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn1406
- Du, J., van Koningsbruggen, G. M., & Kerkhof, P. (2018). A brief measure of social media self-control failure. Computers in Human Behavior, 84, 68–75. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2018.02.002
- Graff, F. (2018, February 7). How Many Daily Decisions Do We Make? UNCTV. http://science.unctv.org/content/reportersblog/choice
- Nauman, E. (2014, March 24). How Does Mindfulness Improve Self-Control? Greater Good. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/How_does_mindfulness_help_control_behavior
- Thaler, R., & Shefrin, H. M. (1981). An Economic Theory of Self-Control. Journal of Political Economy, 89(2). https://doi.org/10.1086/260971
- Duckworth, A. L., & Kern, M. L. (2011). A meta-analysis of the convergent validity of self-control measures. Journal of Research in Personality, 45(3), 259–268. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2011.02.004
- Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. L. (1989). Delay of Gratification in Children. Science, 244(4907), 933–938.
- Chiwaya, N. (2020, December 29). The holidays brought air travel to its highest levels since March. It’s still way down. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/2020-holiday-air-travel-numbers-n1252514
- Venkataramanan, M. (2021, July 27). Still planning summer travel? Here’s how to make it as painless as possible. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2021-07-27/summer-2021-covid-air-travel-how-are-airports-flights
- Thaler, R. H., & Benartzi, S. (2004). Save More TomorrowTM: Using Behavioral Economics to Increase Employee Saving. Journal of Political Economy, 112(S1), S164–S187. https://doi.org/10.1086/380085