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Self control

Self-control is our ability to resist short-term temptations for long-term goals. It's linked to positive life outcomes like better grades and social skills. However, self-control is a limited resource and can be depleted. Strategies to improve self-control include changing our environment, operant conditioning, and classical conditioning. Deprivation, or completely removing temptation, is not recommended. Created by Brooke Miller.

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Video transcript

- [Voiceover] One aspect about ourselves that has a lot of influence on how we behave, is how much self control we have. And when we talk about self control, we're talking about the ability to control our impulses and delay our gratification. Humans naturally have desires, which are motivations associated with pleasure, or release from displeasure. And desires aren't necessarily bad. For example, I often have a desire to drink water, which is good, because I need it to live. However, a desire can also become a temptation, and this can happen when the desire conflicts with our values or long-term goals. So we might have some short-term temptations, for example, I might really want to eat a candy bar, but I also have long-term goals, like being healthy or watching my weight. Or, I might really want to sit down and watch an entire series on Netflix, but that kind of conflicts with my desire to finish my dissertation and graduate with my Ph.D. So self control is about focusing on our long term-goals, while putting off those short-term temptations. And because of this, research on self control is actually really important, because it's one of those things that we can really apply to our daily lives. And perhaps the most famous psych experiment about self control is commonly referred to as "The Marshmallow Test." And in this experiment, preschool kids were each given a marshmallow, and told that they could eat it at any point that they wanted to. But, if they waited for 15 minutes, they would get another marshmallow. So then they would have two marshmallows that they could eat. So these kids were challenged to forego immediate gratification, and instead wait for a better reward. And there are a few things that I should say about this study. The first is that if you have ever been around kids, you know that, to them, 15 minutes is like an eternity. So while, as adults, we might be like, "Okay 15 minutes, that's not that bad." For a child, that could actually be a pretty long span of time. I also want to point out that there are lots of videos of this study, and that they are amazing. And I highly recommend that you google them, or look them up on Youtube, because these videos are actually hilarious. The kids are trying all of these different strategies to figure out ways to reduce the temptation of the marshmallow. They sit on their hands, they turn around in their chair and look in the opposite direction. And of course, there were children who ate the marshmallow, and some of them ate it right away, while the experimenter were there, or right after the experimenter left. But other kids did things like licking the marshmallow, and putting it back down, I guess maybe they hoped the researcher wouldn't notice. And while I think that this study is best known on the internet for being really cute, it actually had some really interesting long-term findings. Because it turns out that those preschoolers who were able to wait and didn't give in to the temptation of the marshmallow, tended to have better life outcomes. Even more than 10 years later, these kids had higher SAT scores, higher levels of education, better social skills, even things like lower drug use and fewer relationship problems and less stress. And there's other research that backs this up. Individuals who are able to display self control tend to have more positive life outcomes, they have better grades, better social skills, lower risk for depression, they eat better and they smoke less. It really seems that having self control leads to improved self management in all aspects of life. However, there's one really serious issue that we need to talk about with regards to self control, and that's ego depletion, which is the idea that self control is actually a limited resource, that if you use a lot of it, it can get used up, and that you'll have less of it to use in the future. And I know that that seems a little far-fetched, but it's actually somewhat true. Self control requires a lot of energy and focus. And if you have to use a lot of it over long periods of time, you can basically use it up. One experiment that demonstrated this, found that those who were made to resist the temptation to eat these delicious, fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies that were in front of them, wound up giving up sooner on an unrelated, tedious task, than those who did not have to resist. Another study found that individuals who were forced to give a speech that campaigned beliefs that were different from their own, didn't persist as long on a difficult puzzle task, as compared to those who had to make a speech that were in line with their views. So a task that depletes self control can have a negative influence on later, unrelated tasks that also require self control. And this is why psychologists often use muscles as a metaphor for self control, because, like a muscle it can get fatigued if it's overused. But it can also be strengthened over time with repeated practice. So if you're working on a task that requires a lot of self control, make sure you get a lot of rest and relaxation after working through those high demands. We also know that training self control in one area can to help to strengthen it in all areas of life. So you should really take time to exercise, especially if you don't want to, and to improve your time management or study skills, because these things can all lead you to be better off in the long-run. So let's try to relate this back to our first point about desires and temptations. What are some different ways that people try to implement self control? Well one way is to change our environment. So you work to make the object of your temptation harder to get, while making other, better options easier to get. And I think a good example of this would be that I have a friend who works at a big tech company in San Francisco, and this company has free snacks for their employees that are really easy to get. But one thing that my friend noticed was that all of the healthy snacks were at eye-level and reaching-level, while all of the non-healthy snacks were either really high up or on the very bottom shelf, so you would have to exert more action to get to the unhealthy snacks. And this may seem like a really small measure, but apparently it actually has a pretty big effect. I know that if I was hungry and went to get a snack, and had to choose between apples and Oreos, that I would definitely go for the Oreos. But if apples were the only thing that I saw, and I'd have to maybe go and get a stepladder to get the Oreos, I would definitely be more likely to get the apple. Another thing that people can use to control their temptations, is operant conditioning, and you might remember this from a previous video, but operant conditioning focuses on increasing the likelihood that a certain behavior will occur by reinforcing good behaviors. So maybe I can try to reward myself by watching an episode on Netflix, for every subsection of my dissertation that I complete. And so I would be using positive reinforcement, because I might be more likely to complete my work if I know I can watch a show at the end. Or, and maybe this one's kind of a stretch, but maybe I can use negative reinforcement. Maybe I can somehow change the settings on my computer that would make it beep really obnoxiously and the only way to stop that beeping would be by typing into Microsoft Word, theoretically on my dissertation. So I would be more likely to increase the behavior of working on my dissertation, in order to avoid an annoying stimulus. I could also use punishment, which, in operant conditioning, is put in place to decrease the likelihood that a behavior will occur. So maybe I'll ask my husband to turn off the internet if he notices that I'm watching a show instead of working on my dissertation. So in that case, I would be taking away something that I did want, in order to stop the temptation. And it's also possible to use classical conditioning to help with self control. So maybe, whenever I have a desire to eat chocolate, I choose the healthier, but still sugarier, sweet snack instead. So maybe I'll keep strawberries, or pineapple, or watermelon in my house, and hopefully, over time, I'll start to crave those healthy treats instead whenever I want something sweet. And I wanna point out something that isn't on this list, and that's deprivation, or the complete removal of the object of temptation. And I think the idea there, is that maybe removing something completely will remove its power, but there are actually two problems with this. The first is that completely removing something that we really want can actually just make us want it more. And the other point has to do with ego depletion. It really takes a ton of work and mental effort to deprive yourself of something completely. And this is one of the reasons that people on really strict diets are more likely to fall to temptation. So maybe in the future, instead of depriving yourself of something completely, try to use some of these other strategies instead. Make it harder to get the object of your temptation, but don't remove it completely, reward good behavior, punish bad behavior, and try to refocus your desires, to something that's more in line with your long-term goals.