Self-control is the problem of considering what we want now versus what is good for us in the long-term. When our preferences in the moment are inconsistent with our ideals for the future, we are stuck battling the heat of the moment – which sadly has a much more pronounced influence over our decisions than our aspirations for the distant future. In other words, that half box of chocolate that we could receive now looks much more appealing than the whole box of chocolates that we could get if we waited a week.
If you think about the environment we live in, you will notice that it is essentially designed to challenge every grain of self-control that we possess. Businesses have the means and motivation to get us to do things NOW, not later. Krispy Kreme wants us to buy a dozen doughnuts now (while they are hot); Best Buy wants us to buy a television before we leave the store today. And as technologies (like iPhones) develop, they only become more tempting to use when we shouldn’t (for example, while driving). In a world of increasing distractions and temptations, the importance of overcoming self-control problems becomes even more apparent.
Several decades ago, Walter Mischel began 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. And the evidence for the importance of self-control is still building. A recent study by colleagues of mine at Duke demonstrates the role that self control plays – not only in better cognitive and social outcomes in adolescence, but in many other factors and into adulthood. In this study, the researchers found that individuals with lower self-control experienced negative outcomes, with greater rates of health issues like sexually transmitted infections, substance dependence, financial problems including poor credit and lack of savings, and even crime. These results show that self-control can have a deep influence on a wide range of activities. But there is also some good news: if we can find a way to improve self-control, it’s possible that we could improve wide spanning life outcomes such as these. To do this, we can create incentives and restrictions that motivate or force us to stick with our long-term goals rather than giving in to instant gratification.
So, how do we stick to our commitments? One helpful metaphor for overcoming self-control problems is found in the tale of Ulysses and the sirens. Ulysses knew that the sirens’ enchanting song could lead him to follow them to his demise, but he didn’t want to fall prey to their spell. At the same time, he didn’t want to deprive himself from hearing their song – so he asked his sailors to tie him to the mast so that he could hear the song of the sirens but resist their lure (essentially, having his cake but not eating it too). Was Ulysses able to resist temptation? It depends how you look at it. While he did get to hear the sirens’ song, he was able to come up with a strategy that prevented him from being able to act on his impulses. Ulysses’ ability to exert self-control is less connected to a natural zen-like quality in the face of temptation, and more linked to the ability to reconfigure the environment in a way that would help him avoid temptation from the get-go. We, too, can tie ourselves to the mast and create strategies that would prevent us from following our temptations.
For the Restraining Order art show at the Center for Advanced Hindsight, we attempted to impose this kind of a restriction on our participating artists. We set up self-control rules for the exhibition, embedding the concept of self-control into the artistic process itself. We not only asked our artists to ruminate on the topic of self-control, but had them give us their best shot at exhibiting it themselves by working on their projects a bit each week until the final deadline, and sending us weekly proof of their progress. As humans, we have the tendency to procrastinate until the last minute, not just on completing homework assignments or submitting expense reports, but even when doing something fulfilling like creating art. We decided to take control of this natural tendency, forcing the 26 artists to exert self-control, and observe how this would affect the process and the outcome of the art.
How did things turn out? With the imposition of weekly deadlines, fewer than half of the artists submitted something for each week. And only 20% of the artists submitted their photos on time. And yet, in my research I have found that externally imposed deadlines are effective in improving task performance. Of course, we don’t know how the artists would have behaved if they were left to their own devices, so we have no comparison – but I suspect that if we had not provided any deadlines, they (like most people) would have had an even tougher time battling procrastination.
Further evidence for this is seen in the fact that the artists, too, felt that the deadlines were a healthy, motivating force against procrastination. When we asked the artists whether the deadlines helped them stay on track, almost all of them agreed that having deadlines improved their process.
So, while the effects of deadlines on the artistic process seem to suggest that it was useful, what did we learn about the outcomes? From a purely subjective glimpse at the array of pieces that we received for this exhibit, it appears that there was an overall theme of structure and segmentation. The pieces are bound by rigidity, constrained by order. A few of the artists divided their work into panels that represented the time they had to complete the project, calendar-like creations that kept them on schedule.
Additionally, we found that the artists in this exhibit tended to set their prices much higher on average than those in previous shows. For Creative Dishonesty: Cheat Codes, the average listed price was $570, and for PoorQuality: Inequality, the average list price (excluding one exorbitantly priced outlier) was $695. For this Restraining Order exhibit, however, the average price jumped to $1,093. Consistent with our research on the IKEA effect, it may be that artists valued their work at a higher price because they invested more effort into the project and devoted more time and thought to the process. And if this is the case, maybe we should add deadlines to all of our shows!