A study on self control may prove the struggle is as real as it feels

Food for thought the next time we’re staring into the fridge...

Food for thought the next time we’re staring into the fridge...

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We're faced with hundreds of choices every day; what you put in your mouth, how you spend your money and how you spend your time - whether it's getting off the couch and exercising or not doing your work because you're looking up GIFs of Tony Danza (don't judge me). Almost every action you perform is a choice between that action and a myriad of possibilities; often between ones that are "good" and productive versus ones we know are "bad" but are nevertheless compelled to do them. We either make these choices impulsively (that bag of chips is finished before you know it) or we're able to impose our self control. While it seems our choice may be instantaneous, new research suggests that, when we narrow in on that decision making process, the struggle is real.

A recent study from researchers at Cornell University and Ohio State University has held a magnifying glass to the simplest of choices, to make some very complex discoveries. The study involved a series of experiments, one of which involved 81 participants who were asked to choose as quickly as possible (from a series of 100 choices) the computer images of the foods that would best help them in their health and fitness goals. The participants would first click "Start" in the bottom centre of the screen, before two food choices appeared in the upper corners: a traditionally health food (like broccoli) and an unhealthy food (like a donut). The path of the participants' cursors would be analyzed until they made their choices. Before the experiment, participants were told they could have one of the foods they selected, but at the end, they were allowed to freely choose between an apple and a candy bar. The results found that the participants whose cursors came the closest to the unhealthy food images were the most likely to choose the real-life candy bar (and thereby exhibit a weaker sense of self control). Likewise, the participants who chose the apple displayed the cursor path of least resistance, showing that they had less trouble making the healthier choice.

To test the behaviour again, further experiments were conducted, only this time, participants had to choose between receiving $25 today, or $45 after waiting 180 days. Again, the results were similar; the people with less self control (more likely to choose the $25) exhibited noticeably different cursor patterns than participants with higher self control.

What's most interesting about the findings is that the typical cursor pattern of a struggling individual challenges beliefs about how we make decisions. It has been often thought that there is first an impulsive urge (really wanting the donut) that is then overridden by more self control (rationalizing that the broccoli is better for you) which, if true, would likely see the cursor go straight to the donut before turning back to the broccoli. But the cursor patterns in the study were more of a back and forth curve, suggesting that these two warring forces inside our minds begin to battle almost instantly after the choice is presented.

Understanding this process can go a long way in how we can control and manipulate the dynamics of dealing with temptation. We can easily see these dynamics on display in something like the Marshmallow Test (where children are told they can either have one marshmallow now or two later), which also suggests that the power of delayed gratification can train and improve one's self control (just ask your dog). This ability to self control is an increasingly important one, as we're faced with countless commercial temptations wherever we go, but even more so with how we deal with others in places like the office, where the pressure to control impulses is so high that it can actually affect the employees. Uncovering what's happening in our own minds can go a long way in fortifying our own behaviours and choices - self awareness can go a long way to influence how we act. So the next time you find yourself staring in temptation at your fridge...ah screw it, grab the donut.