Back in 2009, The New Yorker published an interesting article on psychology and self-control. It describes an experiment in which children were challenged to delay gratification, and then considers what implication their success or failure at such tasks has for their lives. It also describes some of the mechanisms through which people are able to defer an immediate pleasure in favour of a larger one later:
At the time, psychologists assumed that childrenâ€™s ability to wait depended on how badly they wanted the marshmallow. But it soon became obvious that every child craved the extra treat. What, then, determined self-control? Mischelâ€™s conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the â€œstrategic allocation of attention.â€ Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallowâ€”the â€œhot stimulusâ€â€”the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from â€œSesame Street.â€ Their desire wasnâ€™t defeatedâ€”it was merely forgotten. â€œIf youâ€™re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then youâ€™re going to eat it,â€ Mischel says. â€œThe key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.â€
In adults, this skill is often referred to as metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and itâ€™s what allows people to outsmart their shortcomings. (When Odysseus had himself tied to the shipâ€™s mast, he was using some of the skills of metacognition: knowing he wouldnâ€™t be able to resist the Sirensâ€™ song, he made it impossible to give in.) Mischelâ€™s large data set from various studies allowed him to see that children with a more accurate understanding of the workings of self-control were better able to delay gratification. â€œWhatâ€™s interesting about four-year-olds is that theyâ€™re just figuring out the rules of thinking,â€ Mischel says. â€œThe kids who couldnâ€™t delay would often have the rules backwards. They would think that the best way to resist the marshmallow is to stare right at it, to keep a close eye on the goal. But thatâ€™s a terrible idea. If you do that, youâ€™re going to ring the bell before I leave the room.â€
Perhaps the most useful thing about psychology is the way in which is allows us to learn about the limitations of our own minds. Once we recognize the many flaws in human reasoning, it becomes easier to avoid falling prey to them and being able to manage well in the world.