Self-control is the master empathy ability – build it and your life improves
If you could imagine what you were like as a four-year-old, would you have resisted the temptation to eat two marshmallows on the table in front of you for about 15 minutes? In the 1960s at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School, some, not all, pre-schoolers were able to exercise enough self-restraint to wait for two marshmallows instead of one right away. They used all kinds of distractions to extend their ability to put off instant gratification.
Over the ensuing longitudinal study by Stanford through various life stages the high will power four-year-olds as adolescents, for example, thought ahead more, were goal-focussed, not easily side-tracked by setbacks and when under stress did not go to pieces as much as low delayers did. Follow up brain scans of adult alumni confirmed that high delayers more actively used their “cool” executive functioning (EF) centres. The low delayers activated parts of their brains related to desire, pleasure and addictions. Scores of other researchers have confirmed these findings.
So it seems that if we find ways to improve our self-control, we are by association building our executive functioning. We are developing our higher order thinking skills. In turn, by improving our self-control we are in effect gaining ground on our thoughts and feelings about ourselves and others in a positive way. That shows up in less reactive, more measured behaviour, leaving more room for mutual creativity and problem solving.
You are not doomed by your social or biological history
So are you doomed if you were a low delayer four-year-old? No, you are not. Fortunately the high delayers have provided us with bountiful ideas for strengthening our will power, thereby decreasing or protecting us from our vulnerabilities while increasing confidence. Walter Mischel eloquently describes in his book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, that there is hope for us all.
You can learn to turn the on switch to your cooler self when faced with hot moments or triggers that may take you down the wrong path in relationships, stressful situations and when faced with non-technical decisions that have no clear answers. Meditation is a classic way to build such capability. But if that is not your thing, then the “if, then” or “when, then” strategy is worth a try. It’s a great mind tool for bringing New Year’s resolutions into reality.
The key is to plan ahead how you will deal with specific “hot” situations
Here’s how it works – prepare an implementation plan in advance for a hot stimulus situation that stands in the way of a better habit. For example, “If I feel myself becoming impatient in the grocery checkout line (the hot stimulus context), then I will take a few deep breaths and scan the magazines (the cool stimuli).” Another example – “When the dessert menu is offered, I will not order the chocolate cake; instead I will order the sorbets and share with my dinner partner.” Or, in the work situation context, “if so-and so snaps back at me during a team meeting, then I will ask open-ended, neutral questions to explore further her point-of-view, to better understand where she is coming from.” These examples might seem frivolous; however, the self-control strength building from particularly vexing and specific contexts expands to other areas simultaneously. The benefits snow ball. The key is to choose the times and places or cues that trigger your hot responses and then to implement your cooling down, self-control plan.
The lesson for all of us is that self-control is more than determination or an annual resolution. It needs an infrastructure – a plan or strategies – to thrive. The lessons learned as the “If, then” or “When, then” plans are executed reinforce or add new ideas for the new habit-building journey. It is the essence of deliberate practice used by those aspiring to elite status in their respective fields of endeavour. Eventually the new habit becomes automatic. There is no going back to the way we were, for the most part. In this era of many distractions fueled by technology, the insights from the marshmallow and related experiments may be just the antidote for us to recapture the present moment and sustain our grit.