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.