The Psychology of Self-control

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The May 18, 2009, issue of The New Yorker features an article by Jonah Lehrer entitled “Don’t.” It is about the psychology of delayed gratification. For those of us who may have long questioned a society that encourages and even reveres instant pleasure, the article is of considerable interest. A cartoon some 40 pages later in the same issue closely relates to this very dilemma.

In the 1960s, a test was devised to measure children’s coping strategies. A plate of treats was left for them, with the promise that each child could have one now or, if he or she waited for the examiner to return, each could have two treats. The initial goal was to identify the mental processes that permit some people to delay gratification whereas others simply succumb. But there turned out to be much more. The doctor administering the test came to note a connection, in follow-ups and in later life, between those preschoolers that did well on the gratification test and SAT achievement.

For decades, psychologists have focused on raw intelligence, the IQ, as the most important variable to academic and life success. But “the treat test,” it was discovered, came to measure a lot more than intelligence and will power. It actually measured coping strategies as a form of intelligence.

The article goes on to discuss such concepts as interactionism and metacognition. Today, scientists concentrate both on the genetics of neurotransmission as well as the subject’s environment. The nature/nurture question is taken to even higher levels as these findings are applied then to such conditions as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention-deficit disorder (ADD).

Of most interest to scientists studying the fMRI data of follow-up individuals are those that “failed” the “treats test” as a four-year-old but, unpredictably, ended up as high-delaying and most successful adults. This raises additional issues. For example, does character matter for success? Various schools are presently taking part in experiments to this end, including the tony Riverdale Country School in the Bronx.

Mental health and gratification. Feeling good about oneself. Self-medicating. Triggering of the right chemicals in the brain. All of these are aspects of “the treat test” certainly. But much could be said about our society and gratification. Although it is pointed out that children from poorer backgrounds taking the test delayed gratification less often, such is due more to the fact that food and goods are not readily available to them. This population has an understandable get-it-while-you-can attitude. But what about the rest of us who have enough, maybe more than enough, to subsist? An interesting commentary on all of this coincidentally appears in the same issue of the magazine in the form of a cartoon (page 60), as noted above. A female analyst, smartly dressed in dark pants suit and strappy heals, takes notes and questions her (it appears female) patient on the couch: “Have you ever tried buying lots of stuff?”

Instant pleasure. Go for it. Success or failure. Brain development in preschoolers and teens. Is the future a time to look forward to? Do we put our trust in figures of authority? With our senses bombarded, how do we cope? Can we sort out the meaning of intelligence versus character? Does intelligence ultimately come down to character? Does the Road of Excess lead to the Palace of Wisdom? Or does the enlightened life require a different, more classically balanced worldview? Is the watchword truly moderation?

More germane to the interests and research efforts of AMHF, how can we bring out the best in our citizens, who must interact (and often compromise: “cope”) in their daily lives with family, friends, and strangers, while encouraging modalities of self-fulfillment, freedom, and happiness?

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