Saturday, November 29, 2014


This ought not to be news, but apparently we needed a research study to prove it.

Psychologists and ethicists know that people who practice self-control and self-discipline do better in their lives.

But, how does one learn self-control? How does one learn to resist temptation… whether the temptation to have another drink or the temptation to slack off?

One imagines that people build their capacity for self-control by exposing themselves to temptations and then either overcoming them or succumbing to them. Yet, that is not the case.

In truth, people who practice self-discipline make a habit of avoiding temptation. They do not put a muffin in front of them and then spend their time and mental energy trying not to act on the urge to eat it. They do not buy the muffin in the first place. If it is placed in front of them, they kindly decline it.

Researchers discovered this by performing the following experiment. Link here.

They gave some students a choice. They could work on a problem in a noisy lounge now or they could work on it in a quiet lab later. The students who had better self-control chose to work on the problem in the quiet lab, later.

Apparently, they were more interested in working effectively than in getting it over with, regardless of how well they did the job.

If your goal is to solve a problem, you do better to avoid distraction. Students with good self-discipline understand that if they put themselves in a situation where they are surrounded by distractions they will have less energy available to concentrate on the problem at hand.

It’s not about deferred gratification. It’s not about learning how to fight against distraction. It’s about doing what is necessary to find the best work conditions.

This ought to be somewhat familiar. It’s one of the pillars of 12 Step programs. Doesn’t AA tell recovering alcoholics to stay away from bars, not to hang out in places where everyone is imbibing and where alcohol is readily available? Doesn’t it tell them to avoid people who had in the past been their drinking buddies?

Apparently, the rationale is not merely that they are too weak to exercise any self-discipline when faced with temptation, but that exposure to alcohol or to people and circumstances that they associate with it will break down their self-discipline before it has a chance to develop.

You build discipline and even character by avoiding situations where your discipline will be tried and tested.

You cannot build self-control by struggling against constant temptation. You do so by using your ratiocinative powers to avoid situations that might undermine it.

Self-control is not about mental struggles. It is about how you conduct yourself in the real world.

The experimenters assumed that temptation is generated by outside circumstances as much as by inner emotions, but we should note that the idea is not uncontroversial.

Beginning with Plato theorists of the human mind have imagined that life is a constant struggle between what we will call, for the sake of this post, the rational and irrational portions of the mind. Plato fictionalized a rational charioteer trying to guide his unruly steeds—his instincts-- in the right direction at the right pace.

Freud used the same image.

But, it’s one thing to say that the mind is filled with irrational impulses that are trying to destroy you and yours. It’s quite another to say that some situations elicit irrational responses. And that you can guard against such impulses by learning how to avoid the situational stimuli.


Ares Olympus said...

Excellent discussion, and of course temptation is related to the virtue of temperance!
Temperance is the espousal of moderation, marked by personal restraint. It has been studied by religious thinkers, philosophers, and more recently, psychologists, particularly in the positive psychology movement. Upheld as a virtue throughout time and across cultures, it was one of the cardinal virtues in Greek philosophy, being believed that no virtue could be sustained in the face of inability to control oneself, if the virtue was opposed to some desire, and was subsequently incorporated in the Catholic catechism's Seven heavenly virtues.

And as you show, avoidance of situations of temptation is an effective strategy, but first you have to fail multiple times in multiple ways, remember you failed repeatedly, and determine it is important to stop failing. So that would seem to be the virtue of Prudence:
Prudence (Lat. prudentia, contracted from providentia, seeing ahead) is the ability to govern and discipline oneself by the use of reason. ... The word comes from Old French prudence (14th century), from Latin prudentia (foresight, sagacity). It is often associated with wisdom, insight, and knowledge. In this case, the virtue is the ability to judge between virtuous and vicious actions, not only in a general sense, but with regard to appropriate actions at a given time and place.

All in all, the key component I see is you need an accurate and honest memory. Like people will have regrets when they do something that causes negative side effects, but a regret alone isn't enough because if the consequences moderate later, its easy enough to come up with a rationalization that the outcome wasn't caused by the action, but by a failure to master the situation.

So for myself I sometimes treat behavior sort of like I'll treat a speed limit sign. If I want to avoid a ticket, I know what the speed limit is, and if I break the speed limit I don't want that to be because I wasn't paying attention, but because I recognized the risk, and I decided to consider myself 100% responsible for the outcomes. (Or driving after drinking any amount of alcohol even more dramatically risky.)

So this is where memory works, and where it fails. If I can break the speed limit for 10 years without a ticket (or drink and drive without an accident), I'll have a false confidence in my ability to speed. So Prudence will take statistical facts beyond one's direct experience to judge risk.

I can also see the opposite problem is that prudence can encourage undue moderation, basing caution on assumed risk. So again prudence must weigh the probability of negative consequences AND the degree of negative consequence.

Learning from a traffic ticket is a life-friendly lesson, while learning from a hit-and-run accident where you killed someone, and got away with it, but have let your conscience carry that for the rest of your life in secret, that's an unfriendly life lesson.

Then its time to try for justice and courage, to clear your conscience I guess:

dwyprov said...

re: Ares Olympus comment, I've always tried to live by, and preached, especially to my children, 'moderation in all things, including moderation'. Sometimes you have to blow it out, but it can never be part of your routine.