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Self control: The strength of restricted life.


"The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts" wrote Darwin (1871) in The Descent of Man. From Darwin's observation it can be understood how difficult it is to control our own thoughts and behavior. The goal of human life is happiness and happiness is usually equated with success. Success can be seen as a satisfying career, a happy family, financial security, good health, the freedom to pursue your interests etc. Psychologists, repeatedly, have found out two traits accountable for these desirable outcomes: intelligence and self-control. Researchers are yet to learn how to permanently increase intelligence but they have found out how to improve self control. Psychologist Baumeister and his colleagues (2011) have noted that improving willpower is the surest way to a better life. These psychologists have realized that most major problems, both social and personal, center on failure of self control. These problems include underachievement in school, impulsive violence, procrastination at school and work, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, chronic anxiety, explosive anger, alcohol and drug abuse, and compulsive spending and borrowing (Baumeister & Tierney, 2011).

If you ask people about their greatest personal strengths, they will inform you with honesty, kindness, creativity, humor, bravery etc. but not self-control. In one study, it found its place in dead last among the virtues studied by researchers who studied one million people around the world. Self control was recognized as the least important "character trait" among two dozen character traits. But when asked about their failings, self control was at the top of the list.

Ever Increasing Temptations: During the middle Ages, most people were peasants who spent long, dull days in the fields. They weren't striving for promotions at work or trying to climb the social hierarchy, so there wasn't an external reward for extra effort. The villages didn't offer many obvious temptations beyond sex, alcohol, or laziness. Virtue was generally confined to avoiding public disgrace rather than by any desire to achieve human perfection. In the medieval Catholic Church, salvation depended on being part of the group and following the standard rituals than on heroic acts of willpower. But as farmers moved into industrial cities during the early twentieth century, they were no longer controlled by village traditions and social pressures and universal beliefs. Religious reformations had made religion more individualistic, and the Enlightenment had weakened faith in any kind of dogma. In the west, moral certainties and rigid institutions of medieval Europe died away. A popular topic of debate was whether morality could survive without religion. Today people feel overwhelmed because there are more temptations than ever. Your body may have dutifully reported to work on time, but your mind can escape at any instant through the click of a mouse. You can stop any job by checking e-mail, Facebook or Whatsapp, surfing gossip sites, or playing a video game. A typical computer user checks out more than three dozen Web sites a day. You can do enough damage in a ten- minute online shopping spree to collapse your budget for the rest of the year. Temptations never cease (Baumeister & Tierney, 2011).

The Marshmallow Test: a Landmark study on self control: During 1960s Walter Mischel and his colleagues began a study with preschoolers at Stanford University. They gave the children choice between one reward (for example, a marshmallow) that they might obtain immediately, and a larger reward (two marshmallows) for which they could have to wait, alone, for up to 20 minutes. Next to the treats was a desk bell they could ring at any time to call back the researcher and eat the one marshmallow. Or they could wait for the researcher to return, and if they hadn't left their chair or started to eat the marshmallow, they could have both. Mischel observed that looking at those children struggling to restrain themselves from ringing the bell could give fresh hope to the parents for the potential of even young children to resist temptation and preserve for their delayed reward. What the preschoolers did as they tried to keep waiting, and how they did or didn't manage to delay gratification, unexpectedly turned out to predict much about their future lives. The more seconds they waited at age four or five, the higher their college admission SAT scores and the better their rated social and cognitive functioning in adolescence. At age 27-32, those who had waited longer during the Marshmallow Test in preschool had a lower body mass index and a better sense of self- worth, pursued their goals more effectively, and coped more adaptively with frustration and stress. At midlife, those who could consistently wait ("high delay"), versus those who couldn't ("low delay"), were characterized by distinctively different brain scans in areas linked to addictions and obesity. The children with willpower grew up to become more popular with their peers and their teachers. They earned higher salaries. These were stunning results, because it's quite rare for anything measured in early childhood to predict anything in adulthood at a statistically significant level. The willpower to resist a marshmallow may have had a genetic component, too, but it also seemed amenable to nurture, producing that rare childhood advantage that could pay dividends throughout life (Mischel, 2014).

Failure at self control may contribute to high divorce rates, domestic violence, crime, and a host of other problems (Baumeister & Tierney, 2011). Some researchers compared students' grades with nearly three dozen personality traits. They found self- control to be the only trait that predicted a college student's grade point average better than chance. Self- control also proved to be a better predictor of college grades than the student's IQ or SAT score. The study showed that self- control was more important than intelligence because it helped the students show up more reliably for classes, start their homework earlier, and spend more time working and less time watching television (Wolfe & Johnson, 1995). In workplaces, managers scoring high in self-control were rated more favorably by their subordinates as well as by their peers. People with good self- control seemed exceptionally good at forming and maintaining secure, satisfying, attachments to other people. They were shown to be better at empathizing with others and considering things from other people's perspectives. They were more stable emotionally and less prone to anxiety, depression, paranoia, psychoticism, obsessive-compulsive behavior, eating disorders, drinking problems, and other maladies. Less often they got angry, and when they did get angry, they were less likely to get aggressive, either verbally or physically. On the other side, people with poor self- control were likelier to hit their partners and to commit a variety of other crimes again and again. Some researchers tested prisoners and then tracked them for years after their release. They found that those with low self- control were most likely to commit more crimes and return to prison (Mathews, Youman, Stuewig & Tngney, 2007).

In 2010, an international team of researchers tracked one thousand children in New Zealand from birth until the age of thirty two. Each child's self-control was rated in a variety of ways (through observations by researchers as well as in reports of problems from parents, teachers, and the children themselves). This produced an especially reliable measure of children's self-control, and the researchers were able to check it against an extraordinarily wide array of outcomes through adolescence and into adulthood. The children with high self-control grew up into adults who had better physical health, including lower rates of obesity, fewer sexually transmitted diseases, and even healthier teeth. Self-control was irrelevant to adult depression, but its lack made people more prone to alcohol and drug problems. The children with poor self-control tended to wind up poorer financially. They worked in relatively low-paying jobs, had little money in the bank, and were less likely to own a home or have money set aside for retirement. They also grew up to have more children being raised in single-parent households, presumably because they had a harder time adapting to the discipline required for a long-term relationship. The children with good self control were much more likely to find themselves in a stable marriage and raise children in a two-parent home. Lastly, the children with poor self-control were more likely to end up in prison. Among those with the lowest levels of self-control, more than 40 percent had a criminal conviction by the age of thirty two, compared with just 12 percent of the people who had been toward the high end of the self-control in their youth (Moffitt et al., 2011).

Need to teach self-control in schools: As discussed above, psychologists have studied and found two traits that are crucial for success in classrooms and many domains of life. These traits are intelligence and self-control. Though there is not much that you can do to improve intelligence but you can develop self-control by adopting some exercises that the psychologists have tested. Our schools in India give importance to academic performance of the child more than anything else. Though many schools have started many extra-curricular activities like sports and music, activities related to self-control need to be implemented at a large scale. By learning to delay gratification for a bigger future reward will facilitate students to learn the importance of giving preference to big but distant goals in life at a relatively small cost of giving up small present rewards. Many schools use different techniques to correct misbehavior among students but relatively few schools or teachers in particular focus on improving "character traits" among their students. Psychologists have found that encouraging students develop their strengths while paying less attention to their negative behaviors have more advantages than just trying to minimize negative traits. They have found that developing a single character trait can automatically reduce other unfavorable negative traits. Particularly, hope, kindness, sociability, self-control and perspective have been found to be protective against the negative effects of stress and trauma (Park & Peterson, 2008). These researchers have also found that effective teachers- judged by the improvement of their pupil on standardized tests-show high levels of character strengths: sociability, enthusiasm and humor (Park & Peterson, 2009). Teachers and parents need to understand that self-control is a vital strength and key to success in life.

Techniques for developing self- control: Psychologists have found some important techniques to develop self- control. Some of them are discussed below:

1. Inhibition Exercise: Self control strength model developed by Muraven and Baumeister (2000) suggests that it may be possible to increase people's self-control by doing regular practice (interspersed with rest) of small acts of inhibiting moods, urges, thoughts or feelings. The researchers note that this increased strength should generalize to any and all tasks that require self control. Hence, the particular self-control task is not important as long as it enables the individual override or inhibit a response.

2. Physical exercise: Oaten and Cheng (2006) conducted one study in which regular physical exercise was a program that the participants were required to undergo for two months. At the end of the program the researchers found that the participants who exercised regularly showed significant improvement in self-regulatory capacity as measured by an enhanced performance in the visual tracking task following a thought suppression task. Participants also reported significant decreases in perceived stress, emotional distress, smoking, alcohol and caffeine consumption, and an increase in healthy eating, emotional control, maintenance of household tasks, following commitments, monitoring of money spending and marked improvement in study habits.

3. Calm the "Now"; Magnify the "Later": This technique is given by one of the most influential psychologists in the field of self-control, Mischel (2014) who noted that we humans have two hypothetical systems in our mind that he calls: hot and cool. As it can be generalized, any consumable stimulus has these two aspects. Hot aspect has a consuming, arousing, motivating quality: it makes you want to eat the marshmallow, and when you do it it's pleasurable. The cool aspect provides descriptive clues that give information about its non emotional, cognitive features like its shape, color, and its texture in addition to being eatable. The hot system is largely in favor of the present hence making it extremely difficult to curb a temptation. It wants to grab all immediate rewards but rejects rewards that are placed in near future. The brain's predisposition to overvalue immediate rewards and to greatly discount the value of delayed rewards points to what we need to do if we want to take control: we have to reverse the process by calming the present and magnifying the future. The young participants in Mischel's marshmallow test showed how to do it. They calmed their seemingly urgent fascination by physically keeping themselves away from it. They distanced it towards the extreme edge of the table, some of them changed their sitting position in their chairs to face the other direction, and found new ways to thoughtfully distance themselves, all while keeping their goal (two marshmallows) in mind. Likewise, we can deal successfully with "urgent" fascination by changing its features cognitively: seeing it as more abstract and mentally keeping it at a safe distance.

4. If-Then Plans: If we are well aware about all the situations and things that require self-control, we can make preparations in the desired direction. In if-then implementation plans you make a list of likely responses if the situation that needs to be dealt with arises. For instance, we say to ourselves: If such and such situation occur then I will respond like this so that I can effectively handle it. For example in one experiment Mischel (2014) used a wooden box with a brightly painted clown's face which they named Mr. Clown. Mr. Clown was a big talker and a powerful tempter. The researcher seated a child at a small table facing Mr. Clown Box. The researcher explained that she (Mischel's student) would have to leave the room for a while, and she showed the child, age four, his "job." He had to work the whole time, without interruption, on a particularly boring task. If he did that without interruption, then he could play with the fun toys and Mr. Clown Box when the researcher returned; otherwise, he would be able to play with only the broken toys. A minute after the researcher exited, Mr. Clown Box lit up, flashed his lights, and laughed: "Ho, ho, ho, ho! I love to have children play with me. Will you play with me? Just come over and push my nose and see what happens. Oh please, won't you push my nose?" For the next ten minutes he continued his tortures, mercilessly tempting the child. He resumed his seductive efforts every 11/2 minutes. The researchers assumed that to effectively resist a hot temptation, the inhibitory No! response had to replace the hot Go! Response - and it had to do this quickly and automatically, like a reflex (Mischel, 2014).

5. Cognitive Restructuring: In the present times, people suffer from many self-control related dilemmas. For example, people find it difficult to control behaviors like consuming tobacco, dieting, controlling one's temper, or saving one's income for retirement rather than spending it. One of the major characteristics of these problems is that the negative consequences that are attached with them are in the distant future and probabilistic, rather than immediately present and certain. They are (consequences) also not very clear as to their exact nature hence are likely to get postponed. Therefore, as suggested by Mischel (2014), we have to assess them and restructure them to make them concrete (like visualizing your lungs with cancer on an X-ray the doctor is showing you as he gives you the bad news) and imagine the future as if it were the present (Mischel, 2014).

6. Self Distancing: This technique focuses on distancing ourselves from the problem we are currently facing and seeing the phenomena from a third person's perspective. Usually, when we are suffering from any problem like marital discord, we experience many negative emotions like anger, sadness and anxiety. In such states we tend to justify and validate our mental states. Hence it becomes very difficult to get out of the negative mind. We get trapped in a vicious cycle of increased stress [right arrow] hot system activation [right arrow] negative emotions [right arrow] prolonged sadness [right arrow] increasing depression [right arrow] loss of control [right arrow] more stress [right arrow] grave psychological and biological consequences [right arrow] increased stress (Mischel, 2014). To get out of this trap it can be of help to get rid of the customary self-sufficient view we have of ourselves and the world. Instead, revisit the troublesome experience - not through your own eyes, but as if you were observing from a distance, like a fly on the wall, observing what happened to the a third party. Such a change in outlook changes how the experience is evaluated and thought about. The change from self-sufficiency to self-distancing greatly reduces mental and biological distress and allows us attain greater control of our thoughts and feelings (Mischel, 2014).


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Dnyaneshwar P. Pawar (*)

(*) Asst. Professor, Dept. of Psychology, Bhonsala Military College,Nashik- 422005, India

Received: January 03, 2018

Revised: February 11, 2018

Accepted: April 03, 2018
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Author:Pawar, Dnyaneshwar P.
Publication:Indian Journal of Community Psychology
Date:Sep 1, 2018
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