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What Does Science Suggest About Self-Control Early in Life as a Predictor for Future Prospects?

In the late 1960s, Walter Mischel tempted children with marshmallows: have one now, he offered, or wait to get two. The study is one of the select few that has entered popular consciousness, a success helped by Youtube clips that show children squirming as they try to maintain their resolve to wait. Age makes a big difference. Almost all three year-olds fail, whereas most six year-olds succeed. The interesting period falls in between. With four year-olds, Mischel found wide variation. Some children managed to wait successfully whilst others succumbed.

What made the experiments particularly significant was the ensuing long study. Mischel and his colleagues tracked down the original subjects and found that the ability of a four year-old to hold out—to “delay gratification” in his phrase—is a powerful predictor of later success. The ability to wait at age four is correlated with, amongst other things, higher SAT scores, less use of addictive drugs, and less obesity. Other studies suggest that it is a better predictor of academic success than IQ.

A second group of studies have shed light on the mechanism involved. Willpower, it seems, can be depleted. Test someone’s willpower with one task—resisting the chocolate chip cookies that are supposedly reserved for another experiment—and they will have less to expend on other unrelated tasks—persisting with insoluble puzzles or in holding a handgrip exerciser. In the conception of the experimenters involved, willpower is like a muscle. Exercise tires it in the short-run, though perhaps—here the studies are less clear—it can help to build it up in the long run.

Put the two literatures together and the picture can easily emerge of life as a tug-of-war against temptation: whilst training might help a little, it is those endowed with the largest self-control muscles who are able to pull the hardest. Diagnose a child’s endowment with the marshmallow test, and we have an excellent predictor of how they will do in later life.

However, as the researchers themselves would be the first to admit, the real picture is much more complicated than that. Even if the muscle analogy is right, technique and motivation can be as important as brute strength. More fundamentally, other research suggests that the kind of muscular self-control deployed in the marshmallow task is a last resort. It is much better to structure things so that temptation does not arise, either by engineering the world so that temptations are not encountered, or, more securely, by engineering one’s own mind so that what is encountered does not tempt.

Let’s take these possibilities in turn. Mischel himself found that much of the explanation of success in the marshmallow task came from technique. Those who successfully waited were those who were able to distract themselves. Showing people the rewards for succumbing makes them more likely to succumb; but surprisingly, showing them the rewards for waiting also makes them more likely to succumb. The only effective technique is to show them neither. Subsequent research has shed further light on what happens here. When faced with temptation the children’s judgments tend to shift: they tend to devalue the reward for waiting. Two marshmallows are judged hardly better than one. So if a resolution is to be effective, it had better not be reopened in the face of the temptation, lest a new decision is formed that the reward is not worth the wait. Studies with adult dieters confirm the point. Forming a simple intention not to take dessert is surprisingly effective: faced with the temptation the subjects simply repeat to themselves their resolution and move on. But get them to add a rationale for the resolution—get them to say to themselves “I am not taking dessert because …” and then  fill out their reason—and the effectiveness is lost. Adding the rationale reopens the question, and then it is all too easy to tell a story as to why the resolution should be abandoned, at least for today: one serving of dessert is not going to make all the difference, and beside, it’s been a tough day, and a serving would cheer me up, and tomorrow would be an excellent time to start a diet.

In contrast, if agents can form resolutions that do not require extensive deliberation—ideally they will be simply cued by the circumstances, like refusing dessert when it is offered, or going to the gym when the clock strikes 6.00—then they will be much more likely to stick with them. In fact, experiments indicate that sticking with such resolutions does not deplete agents’ willpower: it does not mean that there is less to be used elsewhere.  And this suggests that sticking to such resolutions isn’t using will power at all. Willpower is needed once deliberation is open. If that can be avoided by a implementation of a prior resolution, especially one that has attained the force of habit, then the use of willpower can be avoided. Agents can avoid temptation if they can restructure their intentions so that tempting options are, for them, out of the question.

How important is this? Clearly there are many cases in which people do have to rely on their willpower: after all, Mischel did find that there were many areas in which those with greater willpower do better. But in focusing on these areas we may be missing even more important areas in which we have learned not to need it.

Aristotle held that there are two ways in which a person can do the right thing. They can be continent, in which case they feel the pull of behaving badly, but they resist. Or they can be truly virtuous, in which case they no longer feel the pull of the bad. As we have seen, the contemporary psychological literature suggests that Aristotle was onto an important distinction here. But in applying it to moral behavior, Aristotle was applying it to an area that is only just being empirically explored.

On Aristotle’s picture, moral education results in the inculcation of certain habits. These are not simply habits of behavior; they are also habits of thought. Agents acquire a moral sensibility which, for the virtuous, renders certain actions unthinkable. To take an example from Bernard Williams: we might discuss various ways to respond to the threat posed by a political opponent, but, for most of us at least, the idea of having them killed is simply off the cards. We don’t contemplate it and then reject it on the grounds that it would be morally wrong. It never gets onto the agenda in the first place, and so it never poses a real temptation. The same goes for more mundane cases. The idea of cheating on an important exam, or on a spouse, is, for many people, simply out of the question. They don’t need willpower to resist, since the temptation is never real.

Contemporary psychological opinion is still divided on the importance of moral education: we do not know how much is learned and how much is innate. But the existence of different moral standards in different societies shows that learning has a role. Central is the idea of moralization. Take the case of vegetarianism. People become vegetarians for different reasons. For some it is primarily a health issue; for others it is moral. Studies suggest that for those who see it as moral issue, the idea of eating meat slowly moves off the agenda. Even if they were initially convinced by highly abstract arguments, meat typically comes to be seen as disgusting, and eating it comes to be unthinkable. Such a shift is far less marked for those who avoid meat for health reasons.

It is early days for research in this area, but perhaps these findings will help to reconcile one of the deepest divisions in accounts of ethics: between those who see moral responses as, at base, emotional, and those who see them as rational. Rather than taking these accounts as rivals, we can see them as complementary. Rational moral conviction can give rise, over time, to an associated emotional response. What better way to keep an option off the table, than to find it disgusting?

In sum then, self-control is a many faceted thing. We know something about how to test children’s ability to resist a temptation that they feel. But we know very little about how they can come to treat an option as unthinkable. Is this a skill that they have early in life that remains largely unchanged? Or is it instead something that can develop over a lifetime? That remains to be seen.

Discussion Questions:

1. Can we show self-control when we’re not even tempted?

2.  Wouldn’t even a virtuous person be tempted if we forced the temptation under their nose strongly enough? Doesn’t that show that options are never really off the table?

3. How plausible is it that our emotional reactions line up with our moral judgments? Don’t we often find that we are emotionally repelled by an action that we theoretically judge to be morally acceptable? Or are emotionally attracted to an action that we theoretically judge unacceptable?