Tag: self control

Restraining Order: The Art of Self-Control

Jan 25

Tomorrow night is the opening of my lab’s art show on self-control, and we interviewed a few of our artists to get their take on the project and self-control in general.

Restraining Order: The Art of Self-Control from Advanced Hindsight on Vimeo.

See more on the Artistically Irrational project here.

Call for Artists to Respond to Research on Self-control

Sep 07

Artists from around the world are invited to attend a discussion on self-control entitled “Restraining Order: The Art of Self-Control” as the next part of the “Artistically Irrational” exhibition series on Wednesday, September 26th at 7 PM EST. (Artists who do not live within driving distance of Durham, NC will be able to watch the forum streaming online.)

Interested artists should RSVP to the curator, Catherine Howard, at artisticallyirrational@gmail.com by Monday, September 24th by 9 PM.

After the forum, artists interested in creating artwork in response to the research will submit a 1-page proposal and 2-3 digital images of past work. To be considered, applications must be submitted by Friday, October 5th at 9 PM.

Artists will be notified if they are selected to participate by Monday, October 8th and will receive a $100 stipend to complete their piece. There is no limitation to the style or media of pieces created for “Restraining Order,” but the exhibit includes an exercise in self-control embedded in the artistic process. All selected artists will be required to work on their pieces for the entire period leading up to the due date and will send weekly photos to document the progression of the piece. All completed art works must be received by Friday, December 7th.

Artwork created for “Restraining Order” will be on display at the Center for Advanced Hindsight from December 14th, 2012 to February 22nd, 2013 with a reception on Saturday, January 26th, 2013 from 6-9 pm.

Artists will retain all rights to their piece. Works will be returned to artists after the exhibit by March 15th, 2013. If the piece is purchased, the $100 stipend will be deducted from the purchase price.

Important Deadlines

September 26, 7pm — Forum at the Center for Advanced Hindsight

October 5, 9pm — Deadline to submit artwork proposal

December 7, 9pm — Drop-off deadline

January 26, 6–9pm — Opening reception at the CAH

Spider-man & Overcommitment

May 25

The Irrationality of Organizational Escalation: The Danger of Spider-man & Overcommitment 

By Henry Han-yu Shen

Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark is an upcoming rock musical featuring music and lyrics from U2’s Bono and The Edge and originally directed by Julie Taymor, best known for the hit musical The Lion King.

This musical is also the most expensive Broadway production in history, with a record-setting initial project budget of $52 million. The show’s opening has been repeatedly delayed while the production cost continues to accrue, currently totaling a whopping 70 million dollars. The final estimated budget approaches 100 million dollars, with no guarantee of profit return and below-average reviews.

Spider-man’s situation exemplifies a classic case of organizational failure.  Marked by producers’ continuously irrational contributions of monetary support to a seemingly hopeless project. In many ways this case is similar to the failed Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant program as analyzed by Ross and Staw (1993). The Shoreham project also experienced an escalation of project cost – from an initial $75 million to the final cost of $5 billion – and it a classical example of how organizations become increasingly committed to losing courses of action over time.

We can draw several parallels by comparing the Spider-man Broadway production to organizational escalation. We can see that economic data alone cannot easily deter organizational leaders from withdrawing from a full-scale course of action, especially in cases involving something that is highly subjective in its value (such as a Broadway production). When we consider that the cost of production for Spider-man continues to rise, the initial psychological over-commitment of the producers can become even stronger. Such forces appear to have come into play, trapping the producers into a losing situation while they continue to throw money into the project.  It is important for future producers, or any organizational leaders, to keep in mind the existence and properties of these different types of escalating determinants in order to avoid clouded judgment and behavior when making decisions.

Wait For Another Cookie?

May 15

The scientific community is increasingly coming to realize how central self-control is to many important life outcomes. We have always known about the impact of socioeconomic status and IQ, but these are factors that are highly resistant to interventions. In contrast, self-control may be something that we can tap into to make sweeping improvements life outcomes.

If you think about the environment we live in, you will notice how it is essentially designed to challenge every grain of our self-control. Businesses have the means and motivation to get us to do things NOW, not later. Krispy Kreme wants us to buy a dozen doughnuts while they are hot; Best Buy wants us to buy a television before we leave the store today; even our physicians want us to hurry up and schedule our annual checkup.

There is not much place for waiting in today’s marketplace. In fact you can think about the whole capitalist system as being designed to get us to take actions and spend money now – and those businesses that are more successful in that do better and prosper (at least in the short term).  And this of course continuously tests our ability to resist temptation and for self-control.

It is in this very environment that it’s particularly important to understand what’s going on behind the mysterious force of self-control.

Several decades ago, Walter Mischel* started investigating the determinants of delayed gratification in children. He found that the degree of self-control independently exerted by preschoolers who were tempted with small rewards (but told they could receive larger rewards if they resisted) is predictive of grades and social competence in adolescence.

A recent study by colleagues of mine at Duke** demonstrates very convincingly the role that self control plays not only in better cognitive and social outcomes in adolescence, but also in many other factors and into adulthood. In this study, the researchers followed 1,000 children for 30 years, examining the effect of early self-control on health, wealth and public safety. Controlling for socioeconomic status and IQ, they show that individuals with lower self-control experienced negative outcomes in all three areas, with greater rates of health issues like sexually transmitted infections, substance dependence, financial problems including poor credit and lack of savings, single-parent child-rearing, and even crime. These results show that self-control can have a deep influence on a wide range of activities.  And there is some good news: if we can find a way to improve self-control, maybe we could do better.

Where does self–control come from?

So when we consider these individual differences in the ability to exert self-control, the real question is where they originate – are they differences in pure, unadulterated ability (i.e., one is simply born with greater self-control) or are these differences a result of sophistication (a greater ability to learn and create strategies that help overcome temptation)?

In other words, are the kids who are better at self control able to control, and actively reduce, how tempted they are by the immediate rewards in their environment (see picture on left), or are they just better at coming up with ways to distract themselves and this way avoid acting on their temptation (see picture on right)?

It may very well be the latter. A hint is found in the videos of the children who participated in Mischel’s experiments. It’s clear that all of the children had a difficult time resisting one immediate marshmallow to get more later. However, we also see that the children most successful at delaying rewards spontaneously created strategies to help them resist temptations. Some children sat on their hands, physically restraining themselves, while others tried to redirect their attention by singing, talking or looking away. Moreover, Mischel found that all children were better at delaying rewards when distracting thoughts were suggested to them. Here is a modern recreation of the original Mischel experiment:

A helpful metaphor is the tale of Ulysses and the sirens. Ulysses knew that the sirens’ enchanting song could lead him to follow them, but he didn’t want to do that.  At the same time he also did not want to deprive himself from hearing their song – so he asked his sailors to tie him to the mast and fill their ears with wax to block out the sound – and so he could hear the song of the sirens but resist their lure. Was Ulysses able to resist temptation (the first path)?  No, but he was able to come up with a very useful strategy that prevented him from acting on his impulses (the second path).  Now, Ulysses solution was particularly clever because he got to hear the song of the sirens but he was unable to act on it.  The kids in Mischel’s experiments did not need this extra complexity, and their strategies were mostly directed at distracting themselves (more like the sailors who put wax in their ears).

It seems that Ulysses and kids ability to exert self-control is less connected to a natural ability to be more zen-like in the face of temptations, and more linked to the ability to reconfigure our environment (tying ourselves to the mast) and modulate the intensity by which it tempts us (filling our ears with wax).

If this is indeed the case, this is good news because it is probably much easier to teach people tricks to deal with self-control issues than to train them with a zen-like ability to avoid experiencing temptation when it is very close to our faces.


* Mischel W, Shoda Y, Rodriguez MI (1989) Delay of gratification in children. Science. 244:933-938.

** Moffitt TE, Arseneault L, Belsky D, Dickson N, Hancox RJ, Harrington H, Houts R, Poulton R, Roberts B, Ross S, Sears MR, Thomson WM & Caspi A (2011) A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth and public safety. PNAS. 108:2693-2698.

The original PNAS piece is here

The Internet and Self-Control: An App To the Rescue

Feb 05

I have “a friend” who will head over to a coffee shop to get work done. Not because she’s unable to work at her desk or because she needs the presence of other people, but rather because it lets her get away from the Internet and all its distractions.

True, she could easily stay put by just keeping her browser closed. But that requires self-control, and as we all know, keeping ourselves in check is easier said than done. Whatever the resolution (start dieting, start saving, stop procrastinating, etc.) we routinely stick to it for a bit and then cave. We make the resolution in one state of mind – a cool, rational state – and then break it when temptation strikes.

That’s the reason for my friend’s coffeeshop strategy: precommitments allow us to commit upfront to our preferred course of action. In her cool, rational state, my friend can decide not to surf the web and make a point to leave the wireless behind; later, when temptation strikes, she’ll be out of luck. Access denied.

On the whole, I like my friend’s strategy. But there’s a potential problem: what if she needs the Internet to do her work? What then?

Not to worry – there’s an app to the rescue: SelfControl, a free Mac-only software program that blocks access to incoming/outgoing mail servers and websites and was thought up by artist Steve Lambert. (As the son of an ex-monk and an ex-nun, he’s well-versed in self-control.) The app only takes seconds to install and comes with all the flexibility that my friend’s coffeeshop strategy lacks.

Instead of taking leave of the Internet all-together, you can pick and choose what you can and can’t access, and for how long. If Facebook is your particular time-suck, then add its URL to SelfControl’s blacklist and the program will block Facebook and nothing else. If Twitter is another danger zone, then by all means, throw its URL into the mix. Next, figure out how long you want to block them for – anywhere from one minute to twelve hours – and move the slider accordingly. Then press start and you’re good to go.

But here’s the key part: once you click start, there’s no going back. (No wonder the app has a skull and crossbones symbol as its icon.) Switching browsers won’t help you, and neither will restarting your computer or even deleting the app. You won’t get those websites back until the timer runs out. As such, it’s as effective of a precommitment as seeking out a wireless-free zone.

Though temptation routinely deflects us from our long-term goals, our struggle with self-control isn’t a lost cause. Once we realize and admit our weakness, we can do something about it by taking on clever precommitments that save us from ourselves. In an ideal world we wouldn’t need the SelfControl app, but in this world it sure is useful.

Irrationally Yours,


P.S. For more on precommitments, check out this post on self-control and sex.

Sex, Shaving, and Bad Underwear

Nov 15

Sex, Shaving, and Bad Underwear
Or how to trick yourself into exerting self-control

Recently, I gave a lecture on the problem of self-control. You know the one: At time X you decide that you’re done acting a certain way (No more smoking! No more spending! No more unprotected sex!), but then when temptation strikes, you go back on your word.

As I mention in Predictably Irrational, this predicament has to do with our inherent Jekyll-Hyde nature: We just aren’t the same person all the time. In our cold, dispassionate state, we stick to our long-term goals (I will lose ten pounds); but when we become emotionally aroused, our short-term wants take the helm (Oh but I am hungry, so I’ll have that slice of cake). And what’s worse, we consistently fail to realize just how differently we’ll act and feel once aroused.

Fortunately, there’s a way around the problem: pre-commitments, or the preemptive actions we can take to keep ourselves in check. Worried you’ll spend too much money at the bar? No problem, bring just the cash you’re willing to part with. Afraid you’ll skip out on your next gym visit? All right, then make plans to meet a friend there. And so on. Pre-commitments can take many a form, and some get pretty creative.

For example, I surveyed my audience at the lecture hall for their pro-self-control tactics, and I received two noble suggestions. One woman reported that when she goes out on a date with someone she shouldn’t bed, she makes a point to wear her granniest pair of granny underwear. Similarly, another woman said that when faced with that kind of date, she just doesn’t shave.

Both are great ideas, I think, and are likely to work — well they’re certainly better than only relying on the strength of your self-control — but there is a risk. Let’s say the woman with the ugly underwear finds herself uncontrollably attracted to her date and decides that, you know what, ugly underwear be damned, there will be sex tonight! Chances are she will wake up in the morning wishing she had worn her silk lingerie after all.

Irrationally yours


p.s if you have any personal self control stories that you are willing to share — please send them my way

Tiny Irrationalities That Add Up: Texting While Driving

Nov 05

Sad story out in the New York Times describing growing concerns about texting while driving. In Britain, a woman was sentenced to a 21-month sentence after it was found that she had been texting while driving, which resulted in the death of a 24-year old design student. In many ways, texting while driving illustrates a case in which tiny, individual irrational decisions can accumulate and cause widespread suffering, not only for the individuals who are texting, but their unsuspecting victims. Unlike cases of drunk driving, in which the driver’s decision making abilities are impaired, drivers who text are at their full wits to wait until they’ve pulled over to check their texts, and yet in the process they routinely underestimate the risk they impose to themselves and others.

Aside from being another example of a common irrational behavior (and who among us did not text or checked their email while driving), this leads me to wonder, what is the best way to solve this problem? While presently the issue is being hotly debated here in the US on a state-by-state basis, England has taken a tough national stance on texting while driving, which includes hefty minimum point penalties on the offending party’s license, and fines upward of 60P. If you watch the video in the linked article, you’ll also find a very graphic video depicting the carnage of a texting accident–shocking and informative public service announcements are yet another option. Alternatively, we can hope that cell phone companies are continuing to explore voice activation technologies that can read text messages aloud and also transcribe them from voice — thereby by-passing the problem altogether.

We have lots of irrational problems to deal with, and the realization that tiny, seemingly innocent little ones, like 10-second text messages, can cause so much damage should make us look around for more such problems.  perhaps ones that are not as obvious (think health care), but are potentially just as damaging.

Irrationally yours


Dear Irrational (Does it Pay to Play Hard to Get?)

Aug 25

Dear Irrational,

I recently met a great guy – let’s call him George – and now I can’t stop thinking about him. Though we’ve only been on a couple dinner dates, he’s officially won me over.

Now here’s my problem: Smitten as I am, I’m ready to hop into bed with George this very minute, but I’m not sure that’s the best idea. After all, there must be some reason that all those books and magazines (not to mention my mother) champion the make-him-wait rule. But does it really work? I’ve never followed it in the past, but then, I can’t say I have the best dating track record either.

What do you think? Should I play hard to get, or no? Help!




Dear Unsure,

Your mother is right: making the guy sweat a little (no, not like that) is in your best interest if you want to maximize the chances f a long term relationship. The reason lies in cognitive dissonance, which refers to what we do when our beliefs and actions misalign: Can’t change the cold, hard facts? Then change your beliefs!

The classic experiment here comes from psychologists Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith, who had participants perform a boring task and then paid them either $20 or $1 to convince someone else that the task had been great fun. Everyone then rated the task, with the result that the $1 participants rated the task more positively than did the $20 crew. While the $20 group could explain away the dissonance between their action (“I told someone the task was riveting”) and their belief (“It actually bored me to tears”) via money (“I was paid to promote the task”), the $1 individuals could not because they could not justify misleading others for such a small amount of money– so they changed their initial belief (“I must really like the task, to have promoted it”) and they ended up rating the task more positively.

To give you an example that is closer to our social life, look at fraternities: loyalty to frats increases with the amount of hazing, since pledges tell themselves, “I did a lot of embarrassing stuff for my frat – it must really matter to me.”

So, going back to your dilemma, Unsure, cognitive dissonance suggests that if you really want a guy, you have to create a dissonance for him, so that he will say, “Wow, if I put in all this effort for the woman – I must love her.”

This means that instead of putting out early, you have George pursue you. Instead of splitting the check, you let him pick up the entire tab. Instead of calling him up and suggesting dates, you leave the calling and planning up to him. In other words, make him work, and he will rationalize it by deciding he loves you.

Good luck.

Irrationally yours,


p.s please don’t tell George about my advice, and who gave it to you

Procrastination and self control

Aug 24

Here is a video dedicated to the start of a new academic year.

Today we all have good intentions but what will come of these intentions in the future?

Happy semester

Buffett and his attempts at self-control

Mar 23

I am teaching today in class about self control problems, and approaches to regain self control.  Here is a story of Buffett and his attempts at self-control:

Even the most analytical thinkers are predictably irrational; the really smart ones acknowledge and address their irrationalities. We find a great example in Alice Schroeder’s “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life.”

Warren Buffett is a numbers-driven investor whose life choices and business decisions would make the vulcan Mr. Spock seem over-emotional. A teenage horse handicapper who grew up into a deep reader of Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s reports, Buffett is the archetypal quant: a data-processing, information-consuming, hard-thinking, analytical machine. His ability to outperform the market by basing his decisions on hard data and on an uncanny understanding of business fundamentals earned him the moniker “Oracle of Omaha.”

Buffett’s success as an investor required not only deep analysis of financial documents but also a large measure of self-control to avoid getting caught in market bubbles and panics. Buffett’s rule “buy when everyone else is selling, sell when everyone else is buying” requires enormous self-assurance to execute.

And yet, even the Oracle of Omaha is not immune to the allure of irrational behavior. He is what Behavioral Economists call a sophisticate: someone who understands his irrationality and builds systems to cope with it. (The other types of people are the “rational,” who never deviates from optimal behavior, and the “naif,” who is unaware of his irrationality and therefore doesn’t do anything to address it.)

Uncommon a person as he was, Buffett had a very common concern: he feared gaining too much weight. Rational agents don’t gain weight because they always consider all the possible consequences of all actions. Naifs plan to start their diet tomorrow.

But Buffett — who breakfasted on spoonfuls of Ovaltine — understood his predictable irrationality: people eat without consideration for the long-term effects; that’s why they gain unwanted weight. Being a pragmatic person, he decided to curtail overeating with a commitment device.

He gave unsigned checks for $10,000 to his children, promising to sign them if he was over target weight by a certain date. Many people use commitment devices to try to keep their weight down, but Buffett’s idea had a big flaw: his children, spotting a rare opportunity to get money from the notoriously frugal billionaire, resorted to sabotage. Doughnuts, pizza, and fried food mysteriously appeared whenever Buffett was home.

In the end the incentives worked: even with his children’s sabotage, the Oracle kept his weight down, and his checks went unsigned. But had he been purely rational, no commitment device would have been needed.