Me want cookie . . . but me wait. For almost anyone who was or lived with
a child sometime in the past forty years, the first part of that
sentence calls up images of a blue, fuzzy, grammatically challenged,
adorably gluttonous Muppet: Cookie Monster. But the second part
caught me off guard when I first heard it. Cookie, as his name implies,
was traditionally an embodiment of immediate gratification.
Sure, once in a while he was tweaked to accommodate the concerns
of the time. When the healthiness of kids’ diets was in question,
Cookie’s penchant for sweets was changed to include fruit. When
the dangers of food allergies in schools became apparent, he made
sure his cookies were nut-free. Yet across the years, one trait remained
constant: impulsivity. When Cookie wanted something,
he wanted it now. But in 2013, during Sesame Street’s forty-fourth
season, that changed; but me wait became part of Cookie’s Muppet
mantra and, as a result, part of a new generation’s early education.
Self-Control, Success, and the Road Not Taken
This change is evidence of our society’s continuing obsession
with success. And when it comes to achieving that success, whether
it’s at the office, in managing finances, in bettering health, or even
in pursuing an unlikely dream, decades of research has revealed that
self-control is key. By that, I mean the ability to resist urges for immediate
gratification in order to obtain greater rewards in the future.
Best-selling books such as Willpower, How Children Succeed,
and Grit all promise insight into how perseverance and patience can
affect our lives for the better. Not to be outdone, magazines from
the Atlantic to People routinely feature articles on the benefits of
self-control and how to obtain it.
I don’t mean to criticize this emphasis on self-control and valuing
the future. To the contrary, I think we need it. And while the
idea of self-control’s benefits isn’t new — we can see it extolled in
moral tales and treatises going back for centuries — what is new is
that this idea has moved from philosophy and theology into empirical
proof. The benefits of self-control aren’t a matter of opinion
anymore; they’re quantifiable. And what can be quantified can,
in theory, be maximized. The million-dollar question, of course, is
How? How can self-control be enhanced?
It’s here that I fear we have gone astray. For almost fifty years
we’ve been developing science-based strategies meant to help us
reach our goals. Yet on average, we are no better at delaying immediate
gratification than we were in the 1960s. If anything, our impatience
and desire for immediate satisfaction are on the rise. As
individuals and as a society, we’re spending more on impulse buys
and conveniences rather than saving for a rainy day or retirement.
We’re diverting our attention to games or social media on our
smartphones rather than focusing it on learning and honing skills
we need. We’re satisfying our sweet tooth and, as a result, expanding
our waists simply to gain momentary pleasures at a great cost to our
future well-being. And at a more macro level, many of us are resist-
ing choices such as spending a bit more for clean or renewable energy
that, though somewhat costlier in the moment, will help avoid
greater problems down the road. In short, we’re planning less for
the future, not caring as much about what that future will bring.
And while it’s undoubtedly true that each of these examples of impatience
and shortsightedness stems from many factors, underlying
them all is a growing bias toward pleasure in the moment.
On any given day, most people fail to stick with their daily goals
about 20 percent of the time — a percentage that climbs quickly if
they’re busy, tired, or stressed. That means almost one out of every
five times we try to work harder, eat better, save more, or prepare for
a test or performance evaluation, we’re going to fail to do it in favor
of something else that’s more fun in the moment. And when decisions
involve important goals — the ones that truly matter to people
— the success rate is even worse. Only 8 percent of New Year’s resolutions
are kept throughout the year. While 25 percent fail in the
first week. The result is that most of us frequently end up feeling
powerless to stick to our goals and, even worse, upset with ourselves
for loafing, splurging, bingeing, or otherwise giving in to a desire
for some short-term pleasure that will ultimately cost us.
This raises an intriguing and troubling question: If delaying gratification
and valuing the future are so important, and if we’ve been
using science-backed strategies for decades to help us do it, why are
most of us still so bad at it? One would think that our minds would
come equipped with tools to meet the challenges posed by a lack of
impulse control. After all, that’s one hallmark of evolutionary development:
the mind and body retain features that help us to thrive.
So, either the development of the human mind has a gaping hole,
as the need for self-control has been around since our species’s beginning,
or we’re doing something wrong. And as a scientist who
for decades has studied how humans make decisions, I can confirm
that it’s the latter.
Our minds do come equipped with the necessary tools to succeed,
but we’re forsaking them. We still have serious problems
delaying gratification, developing dedication, and cultivating perseverance
because our notion of how self-control works is flawed.
Put simply, we’re seeing only half the picture. When we’re forced
to choose strategies for success, we tend to favor cognitive ones —
stoic approaches characterized by reason, deliberation, and force of
will. If you read those bestsellers I mentioned, page through popular
magazines, or even peruse scientific papers, you’ll find the same
underlying message: rationality trumps emotion. To stand firm
in the face of challenges and temptations, we’re told to use what
psychologists term executive function — that part of the mind that
manages and controls “subordinate” processes such as memory, attention,
and feelings. The term executive wasn’t picked by accident.
This aspect of the mind is, in essence, the boss; it gives the orders
that the rest of the mind is supposed to follow. Executive function
allows people to plan, to reason, and to use willpower to keep focused,
accept sacrifices, and ignore or suppress emotional responses
that might get in the way of reaching their long-term aspirations.
And cognitive strategies such as these ...