Have you heard of the Marshmallow Test? It’s a study lead by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel: kids are given the choice between having one marshmallow (or their favorite gourmet treat of choice) right away or two marshmallows after fifteen minutes.
Those fifteen minutes are self-control.
This study goes back – to the 1960s and 1970s, which, given the pace of research nowadays, would be embarrassing on any bibliography unless of the study was of the seminal breed. As luck has it, this study is of the seminal genre. And also current: just recently the results of the second stage of the study were published. Turns out that those fifteen minutes make a difference. The kids who waited were on average more successful, healthier and happier than their impulsive treat-grabbing counterparts.
So, self-control is important.
But we already knew that. Or, at least, we are peppered with this Fundamental Truth daily. Our social reality oozes stay-strong self-control and discipline-above-all motivational mottos. We are living in a roman revival of the Spartan ideals. Exhibit A: twenty years ago, writing down “going to the gym” as a hobby was exclusive to Arnold Schwarzenegger and his groupies. Now, you’ll be hard pressed to find a college student who doesn’t frequent the gym; undergrad boys lift and drink their protein shakes like it’s a requirement of their identity. The ideological foundation of our society is premised on a morphed version of the American dream: we are the masters of our own destiny; who and what we are is entirely a result of the choices we make. Harsh, but the world is not a palace made of marzipan.
Spartan discipline is not a bad thing. Self-control usually entails self-respect. And without self-respect we cannot take responsibility over our actions and their consequences. Self-control is an essential ingredient to our emancipation to rational independent individuals.
There are therefore two slightly different ways to define self-control. The difference is crucial. The second type is the self-control that leads to self-respect and personal identity; the executive control to delay instant gratification. This self-control is the penny you tossed in the savings jar, the extra chapter of the Contracts Law textbook you read instead of going out dancing, the swim you sacrificed your Sunday morning sleep for. This self-control is about personhood.
The first type is dangerous. At best, it is an obsession with the self. An obsession that entails shaming others for their flaws; flaws are failures to try hard enough. This first type is not about developing identity: it is about assuming a pre-defined identity. Society decides what makes someone the best, the most successful, the most beautiful. Success is money, a penthouse with a view of Central Park and a yacht vacation in the Caribbean. Beautiful is photoshopped models on magazines, chiseled abs and neatly trimmed scruff, bodies of celebrities paid to work-out and look pretty. Perfect is an idea that we see on TV. Perfect is not your personhood. Revisit Exhibit A: those college boys are not drinking protein shakes and lifting because it’s their calling and they love it.
The underlying motif of self-control is, essentially, about the self. We have to be careful how we treat the self: how we treat the self very often reflects on how we treat all other selves. With the first species of self-control, all flaws in the self to achieve prescribed Perfect are failures to work hard enough, to exercise enough ‘discipline’. By corollary, this obsessive introspection leads to a lack of respect and responsibility towards other people. The second species of self-control is kinder. We are part of a society; we are individuals capable of making decisions precisely by virtue of having come together in social contract and asserting that we are responsible rational beings. Our self-control acknowledges diversity through tolerance: if we accept ourselves and our own eclectic choices then we can accept the peculiar choices of our neighbours,
En bref, eat your cookie and your cake. Or don’t. Maybe wait fifteen minutes and see. But self-control isn’t necessarily abstaining. Self-control is a choice, and the luxury of making it on your terms.
keywords: self-control, Stanford Marshmallow Study, personhood, perfection, self-respect, gym, excutive control, instant gratification