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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Self-Control Can Be Contagious

Frog knows about self-control
Here's a  topic about which I know almost nothing from personal experience: self-control.

A short story, readers, if I may. Once upon a 1970s school fair, there was a young girl in a potato sack race. This young girl hopped her way towards the finish line in her burlap sack. She was feeling pretty good. She was feeling all right. She was doing fine. Until other hoppers started passing her. Until all the other hoppers had hopped on by. The little girl was near the finish line, but everyone else had crossed it. What did she do? Did she double-down and hop her way over the line to show her grit? Did she think to herself, "I am of the growth mindset and even though I won't win this race, I will do my very best anyway, so that I can improve my time?" Or did she quit?

Readers, she quat.

Look, I already admitted I know almost nothing about self-control. Also known as Willpower. Or Strength of Character.

Which is why I'm turning you over to the experts. Frog and Toad, for one. Or two. As Frog tells Toad in "Cookies," a chapter in Frog and Toad Together (Newberry Honor, by Arnold Lobel, published 1971,) regarding a batch of same, "Will power is trying hard not to do something you really want to do." Like trying not to eat the cookies.

Personally, I think the flip side of Frog's definition is also true. Willpower is also trying hard to do something you really don't want, or are afraid, to do-- but don't take it from me. I am too busy eating chocolate-covered almonds to think it through thoroughly.

Luckily, others have. Around about the time Frog was speaking, maybe a few years earlier, a psychologist at Stanford named Walter Mischel did an experiment with kids and marshmallows. You've probably heard about this. He took 4-year-olds one at a time into a small room, and sat them at a table. Then he gave them a marshmallow. He told them they could eat that marshmallow, BUT that if they waited until he came back, they could have TWO marshmallows to eat. Then he left the room and watched them behind a two way mirror.  This is a clip of the experiment, but it's a little hard to tell if it's the original participants, or participants in a repeat experiment. When did color film make it to psych labs? Anyone?

So do you want the good news or the bad news?

The bad news is, if you were one of those kids who ate the marshmallow before Mischel returned, you were doomed. That's right. Mischel followed up on these subjects later in life and discovered that the ones who had enough willpower or self-control to wait for that second marshmallow tended to reap the metaphorical second marshmallows throughout life. They were more successful, in other words, than the poor cuties who gave in to temptation. Those kids, I am sorry to say, were much more likely to use drugs and do poorly in school, and basically lump along, than the ones who delayed their gratification.

Mischel's studies of the marshmallow effect have yielded a whole field of research on self-control. Also known as willpower. Or Strength of Character. What they've proven, over and over and over again is, according to Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, is that self-control is a better predictor of success than academic achievement or IQ tests.

So was that the bad news or the good news? Depends on how you feel about marshmallows. Or, in my case, about chocolate covered almonds. (Not good news.)

Here's some definite good news. Self-control is like a muscle. Like a muscle, it gets weak from underuse, it can fatigue from overuse, but you can work it and build it and bulk it up with practice.

So, how can you build your self-control? There are, thank goodness, many ways to build it up. Today I'm focusing on one. Or one-ish.

Remember goal contagion? Triggers? Things to get you motivated? Goal contagion works to develop willpower, too. Apparently, just watching someone do something you'd like to do can get you going. That's why motivational posters and photos of people or things that remind you of your goals can truly help motivate you. People picking up habits you want to pick up can also inspire you.

Another short story.  A few weeks ago, a full-grown woman with a penchant for chocolate-covered almonds and an expanding waist that I know, visited her friend at her friend's bucolic vacation spot in the mountains. Her friend, a woman with outstanding self-control, who doesn't even eat chocolate, had begun a running regime. This woman, I mean, talk about willpower. I mean, not only did she hold out for that second marshmallow at four, she held out for quadruple-or nothing when the psychologist came back into the room. Life has been upward ever since.

The almond-eater had been sporadically adding a bit of jogging to her workout for months with no real progress. Are you surprised? I am not. Lack of willpower. Also known as Strength of Character. However, the almond-eater did have the goal of running, no matter how pitiful her attempts might have been, to date. So when she got to the bucolic mountain retreat, her friend, let's call her Jane, urged her to run with her. The almond-eater--alright, it's me, for God's sake--I-- resisted at first. Fear. Jane had been running for a while now, and I had not. There were mountains. It was hot. I declined, and so my first day, Jane set off for her run without me. She persisted, however. The next day, when Jane urged me to join, I agreed. Feeling dubious, I set out on the mountainous route Jane chose. And do you know what? While it is true that Jane had to maintain a continuous conversational patter to distract me, and to literally take me by the wrist and urge me on at a couple of key hills, I, the almond-eater, did indeed succeed in running more than fifty yards at a time. The next day we went out again, and I ran further. And the next day.

Since then, I, the almond-eater, have continued to run, much longer than I've run since I developed shin splints in college. So that the other day, when I went out to run, I set myself the goal of running all the way to a particular fence, and instead of stopping short of the fence, as I have been wont to do since the burlap potato sack race days, I did. (Yes, that was me, the quitter in the burlap sack.) Now, running has become a habit (maybe), and when I hit a rough spot, I picture my running friend Jane just a couple of steps ahead of me, taking my wrist, and urging me on.

Goal contagion in action. And the reason why I say I know *almost* nothing about willpower, also known as self-control. Inch by inch, etc.

The End.


  1. Yay for you! Truly, what a great story.
    - alison

  2. Hope
    I discovered you blog via Allegra Goodman. Very nice post. Well done!
    Were you punning on squat/quit in paragraph 3?

  3. Thanks for the comment! "quat"-- just an olde English major's intentional bad grammar! Hope you'll keep reading...