The Skill of Self-ControlIn the May 18 issue of The New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer has an article that provides a helpful review of what researchers have learned concerning people's ability to exercise self-control. Specifically, Lehrer discusses what we are coming to know about why some people are able to delay gratification and to control their temper to a greater degree than other people.
The protagonist of Lehrer's story is Walter Mischel, a professor of psychology at Columbia University. Contrary to those who view personality as an essentially fixed set of traits for any given individual, Mischel takes the view that a person's personality is expressed differently depending on the situation with which he/she is dealing. In other words, Mischel argues that "personality can't be separated from context."
Mischel's view reflects an interactionism model of personality. Lehrer quotes Mischel:
“I’ve always believed there are consistencies in a person that can be looked at,” he says. “We just have to look in the right way.” One of Mischel’s classic studies documented the aggressive behavior of children in a variety of situations at a summer camp in New Hampshire. Most psychologists assumed that aggression was a stable trait, but Mischel found that children’s responses depended on the details of the interaction. The same child might consistently lash out when teased by a peer, but readily submit to adult punishment. Another might react badly to a warning from a counsellor, but play well with his bunkmates. Aggression was best assessed in terms of what Mischel called “if-then patterns.” If a certain child was teased by a peer, then he would be aggressive.Mischel looked particularly at what determines a person's ability to exercise self-control. He concluded that the person needed to develop a skill which he called "strategic allocation of attention." I.e., instead of obsessing about something you want, that you really should avoid, or at least wait to get, you consciously decide to direct your attention elsewhere, preferably in a productive direction.
Mischel argues that this ability to constructively distract oneself, like any skill, is something you can improve through practice. The goal is to develop good self-control strategies that become second nature. As Mischel puts it, "Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it." And you can get closer and closer to ensuring that your decisions are based on valid thinking, rather than impulsive inclinations.
For a more technical discussion of Mischel's views, you can look at a 2002 article (pdf) he co-authored with Ozlem Ayduk, a psychology professor at the University of California Berkeley.1 Note that Mischel and Ayduk point out that an individual must not only have self-regulatory competencies, but also the motivation to exercise them. Such regulatory motivation "is the outcome of how the individual construes/encodes the situation as well as the values, beliefs, standards, goals, and emotional states that become activated by it."
Mischel and Ayduk also point out that an "excess of will can certainly be as self-defeating as its absence. Postponing gratification can be an unwise and even stifling joyless choice, but unless people develop the competencies to sustain delay and continue to exercise their will when they want and need to do so, the choice itself is lost."
1 "Self-Regulation in a Cognitive-Affective Personality System [CAPS]: Attentional Control in the Service of the Self," by Walter Mischel and Ozlem Ayduk, Self and Identity, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2002), pp. 113-120. ("In the CAPS model, personality is a dynamic system an organized network of interconnected cognitions and affects that are activated in response to particular situations in stable patterns that characterize the individual.")