OUR ATTEMPTS AT SELF-CONTROL ARE AS OLD AS HISTORY – AS OUR LAPSES AND RELAPSES – WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM ODYSSEUS AND DR WILLIAM JAMES IN OUR ATTEMPTS TO GAIN MORE SELF-CONTROL?
HOW TO GAIN MORE SELF-CONTROL
Dr Raj Persaud Consultant Psychiatrist
William James – a famous US psychologist who wrote extensively at the beginning of the 20th century, pointed out that drunks will find any number of apparently new reasons to indulge in alcohol on any given day. Today’s excuse might be that this was a particularly stressful day, and tomorrow’s might be ‘the boss was unfair to me’, and so on.
People who lack self-control, this important psychological theory goes, will not cease this pattern, until they recognize that what they think are independent individual choices, in fact form a general pattern that renders them an “alcoholic”.
Each time it looks like a completely new justification as to why you should have a drink – and it’s the very ‘newness’ of each fresh excuse that allows the rationalizations to keep working.
This vital point is also made in some new important research on self control conducted by Kentaro Fujita and Joseph Roberts from the Department of Psychology at The Ohio State University, USA.
Their study focused on two very useful techniques to assist with self-control. Self control is absolutely crucial and indeed could be fundamental to any attempt to attain goals. If your goal is weight loss, for example, then exerting self-control in not doing certain things, and in contrast doing others, is vital. So, for example, self-control is needed to avoid indulging in fattening or unhealthy but tempting foods. Self-control is also needed to keep exercising regularly when it might be more appealing to avoid activity and instead ‘veg’ out on the sofa in front of the TV (with a box of chocolates).
The first technique Fujita and Roberts explored in their research they refer to as ‘bracketing’. Bracketing is where you learn to ‘bracket’ all the apparently different excuses that help to foil self-control, and instead lump them into the same category – all are basically excuses to help you not do what you should do. Learning to recognize and ‘bracket’ all the different things you say to yourself in order to assist in lowered self-discipline has been found to be a crucial step forward in gaining more self-control.
Another interesting technique they explored is what they referred to as ‘self-imposed punishment’. This approach is where you give yourself a sanction, like not allowing yourself a treat, or positively having to endure a sacrifice, whenever you demonstrate a lapse in self-control.
So, for example, if you do eat that chocolate bar in front of the TV instead of the healthy snack and being at the gym, you punish yourself with not allowing yourself to see that movie with friends you had promised yourself at the week-end.
The key to this technique is that you look forward to the punishments and make sure they are real and consequences you do definitely want to avoid. They should usually be things you’ve already planned and which will be disruptive and unpleasant to have removed from you.
Fujita and Roberts found that ‘bracketing’ and ‘self-imposed punishment’ were indeed useful in helping the subjects involved in their research to gain more self-control.
The authors of the study pointed out that these techniques are part of a wider spectrum of approaches referred to as ‘pre-commitment’ devices. ‘Pre-commitment’ refers to anticipating the fact you are likely to succumb to temptation and pre-planning to help avoid this. Perhaps the first ever case in human history of ‘pre-commitment’ was the story of Odysseus, who, on his mythic voyage home, is reported to have stuffed his crew’s ears with wax and bound himself to his ship’s mast, so that he could safely pass the Isle of the Sirens – female temptresses whose voices would lure sailors to shipwreck because they were entranced by their hypnotic voices.
Odysseus was anticipating the problem and instead of just hoping for the best or under-estimating his ability to avoid the Sirens, he planned for the temptation and came up with a pre-plan for how to survive the ordeal.
Pre-commitment is definitely at the heart of all self-control strategies. ‘Bracketing’ and ‘self-imposed’ punishment are useful mental techniques that are part of this approach. Its particularly useful when it comes to ‘self-imposed’ punishment if the consequence is intimately linked with the behavior you are trying to gain control over.
So, to take a personal example, I know I should go for a run on week-days early in the morning, but often find it difficult to get out of bed so near dawn, to canter around the park. So I cancelled my morning newspaper delivery, and this forced me to go to the newsagent every morning to get the newspaper. Since I might as well jog there, it helped me to make early morning running a regular part of my fitness regime.
This was a self-imposed punishment because if I didn’t go for the run then I wouldn’t get my morning newspaper which I enjoy reading over breakfast.
Promoting prospective self-control through abstraction Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 46, Issue 6, November 2010, Pages 1049-1054
Kentaro Fujita, Joseph C. Roberts