The Roots of Self-Control
At birth, infants are controlled almost completely by their internal state at each moment and by caregivers on whom they depend. In the infant’s first few months outside the womb, soothing, rocking, feeding, and cuddling become a major job for caregivers, night and day. How lovingly and caringly infants are nurtured, or how cruelly and coldly they are neglected or abused, is inscribed in their brains and changes who they become. It is critical to keep infants’ stress levels from becoming chronically activated and to promote the formation of close, warm attachments so the babies feel secure and safe.
The plasticity of the brain, especially in the first year of life, makes infants highly vulnerable to damage in their key neural systems if they have extremely adverse experiences, such as severe maltreatment or uncaring institutional rearing. Surprisingly, even much more moderate environmental stressors, such as exposure to persistent, albeit nonphysical, conflict between parents, may take a serious toll. In one study, while infants age 6 to 12 months were sleeping, their brains were scanned by fMRI. When they heard very angry-sounding speech while sleeping, the babies living with parents who had persistent conflicts, compared with those in less conflict-filled homes, had higher activation in the brain areas that regulate emotion and stress. Findings like these suggest that even relatively moderate stressors from the social environment during critical periods of development are registered in the hot system.
It is clear that as babies develop, their early emotional experiences are embedded into the architecture of their brains, and this can have huge consequences on how their lives unfold. Fortunately, interventions designed to enhance how babies regulate their emotions and develop cognitive, social, and emotional skills have the best chance to make a difference during those early years of life, when children are most vulnerable to damage. Within a few months of birth, caregivers can begin to switch their infants’ attention away from feelings of distress and toward activities that interest them, and in time this helps their babies learn to self-distract to calm themselves. At the neural level, babies begin to develop the midfrontal area of the brain as an attention-control system for cooling and regulating their negative emotions. If all goes well, they become less reflexive, more reflective, less hot, more cool, and able to express their own goals, feelings, and intentions appropriately.
The Engine of Success: “I Think I Can!”
The successes and mastery experiences children have early in life increase how willing and able they become to pursue goals with persistence, develop optimistic expectations for success, and cope with the frustrations, failures, and temptations that are inevitable as they grow up. Their developing sense of control and agency and optimistic expectations become key links—the active ingredients—in the story that connects the seconds of preschool waiting time for a couple of marshmallows to the diverse positive outcomes we see as their lives evolve. And their ability to inhibit impulsive responses that could jeopardize their building of relationships allows them to develop mutually supportive, caring friendships with people who respect and value them.
This chapter described a virtuous cycle of growth to hope for and nurture in our children. It contrasts with the vicious cycle faced by children who persistently lack basic self-control skills, feel out of control, are pessimistic about their own abilities, and struggle to maintain a sense of self-worth. Without adequate self-control skills, optimistic expectations, success experiences, and the help and support of others, children may remain largely controlled by their hot system, more likely to fail in their earliest efforts at mastery, and prone to develop feelings and mind-sets of helplessness rather than hopefulness, as their choices and options shrink.
Protecting the Hurt Self: Self-Distancing
OVERCOMING PAINFUL EMOTIONS LIKE heartbreak and resisting temptations like cigarettes, unprotected sex, and unethical financial schemes all require cooling the hot system and activating the cool system. Both actions depend on the same two mechanisms: psychological distancing and cognitive reappraisal. This prescription is easy to write but tough to fill.
In a 2010 experiment, Ethan and Ozlem studied a new sample of participants and found that those who spontaneously distanced themselves when they reflected on their painful experience, and reappraised it rather than recounted it, felt better and became less stressed—not just in the short term, but also when they returned to the lab seven weeks later and were asked to reflect on the same experience again. To go beyond self-reports, another laboratory study done by Ethan and Ozlem showed that self-distancing helped reduce one of the most pernicious side effects of rumination: elevated blood pressure. When people think about painful negative experiences, particularly those that arouse intense feelings of anger and betrayal, their blood pressure rises. This becomes risky when blood pressure levels stay up over time. Ethan and Ozlem demonstrated that self-distancing effectively mitigates this harmful effect. The more people self-distanced, the more quickly their blood pressure returned to their typically healthy baseline levels.
Do the benefits of self-distancing when dealing with hurt feelings make a difference outside the relatively artificial conditions of laboratory experiments? Does self-distancing also help people solve problems and cope better with everyday conflicts in close interpersonal relationships? To address those questions, Ozlem and Ethan went on to do a large twenty-one-day daily diary study. At the end of each day of the study, participants logged in to a secure website that asked them to indicate whether they had had an argument with their partner that day. If they had, they were asked to reflect on their deepest thoughts and feelings about the event. Finally, they rated the extent to which they spontaneously self-distanced (i.e., adopted the fly-on-the-wall perspective) as they tried to understand their feelings surrounding their conflict with their partner.
Overall, people who spontaneously self-distanced when thinking about negative experiences in their relationship also used more constructive problem-solving strategies to resolve conflicts than those who did not spontaneously self-distance. Most interesting was that the low-self-distance people coped adaptively in conflicts, as long as their partners did not become negative and hostile toward them. But if their partners did become hostile, they fully reciprocated, sharply escalating the hostility. The combination of low-self-distancing people with highly negative partners became a formula for escalating hostility that was potentially toxic for the relationship’s future. This pattern emerged whether conflict behavior was measured by self-report as it occurred during the diary study or by direct observation from independent raters when the partners discussed their conflicts in a laboratory setting.
Cooling Painful Emotions
THE MOST EXCITING FINDINGS from the marshmallow studies are not the unexpected long-term links between seconds of waiting on the Marshmallow Test and doing well later in life. More impressive is that if we have delay ability and use it, we are better protected from our personal vulnerabilities—such as a predisposition to gain unwanted weight, become angry, feel hurt and rejected, and so on—and can live with these predispositions more constructively. The research that shows how and why self-control has this positive effect has focused on a widespread and pernicious vulnerability called rejection sensitivity (RS).
High RS” people are extremely anxious about rejection in close relationships, anticipate abandonment, and often, through their own behavior, provoke the very rejection that they fear. If uncontrolled, the destructive effects of high RS can play out like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
High RS people become obsessed with whether or not they are “really” loved, and their own ruminations further trigger a cascade of hot-system anger and resentment as their fears of abandonment escalate. In response to their distress, as well as the unhappy reactions of their partners, they become more coercive and controlling—openly or with passive aggression. They blame what they do on their partner’s actions (“She made me throw my damn scrambled eggs at her”) and they validate their fears of abandonment with the rejections that they at first imagine and then help create when their own rage erupts.
High RS not only undermines long-term relationships and inflicts hurt on others; it also biologically damages the people who have this sensitivity. Each time a person has outbursts and becomes enraged and stressed, his risk increases for cardiovascular disease, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, a variety of cancers, and depression. Why?
Several experiments have assessed the immune system’s physiological response to social rejection and have also examined brain activity during the response to rejection. When we feel rejected, neural activity and sensitivity increase in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula. These regions are involved in the regulation of emotion, reward anticipation, and critical autonomic functions such as blood pressure and heart rate. In addition, when stress is experienced, the immune system produces inflammatory chemicals.
Are there limits to how much self-control and delay of gratification we can exert before will fatigue takes over? The concept of a fatigued will that becomes drained by its own excessive use is the basic idea underlying a current influential scientific theory on the nature of willpower and self-control. And it has important implications for how you think about your own ability to self-regulate.
Roy Baumeister and his colleagues see willpower as a vital but limited biological resource that can easily be depleted for temporary periods. Their “strength model of self-control” proposes that self-control depends on some internal capacity that relies on a limited amount of energy. This is much like the traditional concept of “the will” as a fixed entity or essence: some people have a lot of it, others very little. According to this model, self-control is like a muscle: when you actively exert volitional effort, “ego depletion” occurs, and the muscle soon becomes fatigued. Consequently, your willpower and ability to override impulsive behavior will temporarily diminish on a wide variety of tasks that demand self-control. This could affect everything from mental and physical endurance to rational thinking and problem solving, from response inhibition and emotion suppression to making good versus bad choices.
Suppose that you are famished and eager for a snack at the annual office reception. If you manage to forgo the tempting, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies in front of you, and instead make yourself stick to just the vegetable tray, the strength model suggests that immediately after this you will expend less effort on unrelated tasks that continue to require self-control. Evidence for this idea surfaced in a classic experiment that has become the prototype for studying ego depletion. College students taking introductory psychology at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio were required to participate in psychology experiments as part of their course, and those who went to Professor Baumeister’s laboratory for their course requirement were put into the Radish Experiment. The students arrived hungry because they had been told to fast before coming. Once in the lab, they were asked to force themselves to forgo the tempting chocolate chip cookies and candy and eat some radishes instead. Right after that they were asked to work on geometry problems that were actually impossible to solve. The study showed that they quit much sooner than the students who had been allowed to eat the cookies and candy.
Students did indeed reduce their subsequent efforts in many studies like these, but later research showed that the reduced efforts were probably not caused by the reasons the researchers had initially assumed. As the demands for effortful self-control and tedious work escalated, but the incentives did not, the students’ attention and motivation shifted. Rather than having their willpower “muscles” depleted, they probably became fed up, feeling that they had complied sufficiently with the experimenter’s demands to do boring tasks. In one task, for example, after spending five minutes crossing out every “e” in a typewritten text, students then had to not cross out an “e” if it was followed by a vowel. And when people are given strong incentives to persist even on tasks like that, they do continue longer. As motivation to exert self-control increases, effort continues. With no increase in motivation, it does not. In this interpretation, the reduction in self-control is not due to a loss of resources: it reflects, instead, changes in motivation and attention.