Based on Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s wildly popular course “The Science of Willpower, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It is the first book to explain the new science of self-control and how it can be harnessed to improve our health, happiness, and productivity.
Economists call this delay discounting—the longer you have to wait for a reward, the less it is worth to you. Even small delays can dramatically lower the perceived value. Witht the delay of just two minutes, six M&M’s became worth less than two immediate M&M’s. The value of each M&M shrank as it became more distant.
Delay discounting explains not just why some college kids took two M&M’s instead of six, but why we choose immediate satisfaction at the cost of future happiness. It’s why we put off paying our taxes, choosing peace of mind today at the price of panic on April 14 or financial penalties on April 16. It’s why we use today’s fossil fuels without regard to tomorrow’s energy crisis, and load up our credit cards without giving a thought to the crushing interest rates. We take what we want when we want it (now), and we put off until tomorrow whatever we don’t want to face today.
[bluebox]Under the microscope: How are you discounting future rewards?
For your willpower challenge, ask yourself what future rewards do you put on sale each time you give in to temptation or procrastination. What is the immediate payoff for giving in? What is the long-term cost? Is this a fair trade? If the rational you says, ‘No, it’s a lousy deal!’ try to catch the moment you reverse your preferences. What are you thinking and feeling that lets you put the future on sale? [/bluebox]
The problem of bounded rationality–We’re rational until we aren’t
We will be perfectly rational when everything is in theory, but when the temptation is real, the brain shifts into reward-seeking mode to make sure we don’t miss out.
Influential behavioral economist George Ainslie has argued that this type of reversal is behind most failures of self-control, from alcoholism and addiction to weight gain and debt. Most people, deep down, want to resist temptation. We want to make the choice that will lead to long-term happiness. Not the drink, but sobriety. Not the deep-fried doughnut, but the tight derrière. Not the fancy new toy, but financial security. We only prefer the short-term, immediate reward when it is right there staring us in the face, and the want becomes overwhelming. This leads to bounded willpower–we have self-control until we need it.
A reason we’re so susceptible to immediate gratification is that our brain’s reward system did not evolve to respond to future rewards
When our modern selves contemplate immediate versus future rewards, the brain processes these two options very differently.
The immediate reward triggers the older, more primitive reward system and its dopamine-induced desire. Future rewards don’t interest this reward system so much. Their value is encoded by more recently evolved prefrontal cortex. To delay gratification, the prefrontal cortex has to cool off the promise of reward. It’s not an impossible feat–after all, that’s what the prefrontal cortex is there for. But it has to fight a feeling that’s been known to make rats run across electrified grids and men blow their life savings on a slot machine. In other words, it’s not easy.
The good news is, temptation has a narrow window of opportunity. To really overwhelm our prefrontal cortex, the reward must be available now, and–for maximum effect–you need to see it. As soon as there is any distance between you and the temptation, the power of balance shifts back to the brain’s system of self-control.
[bluebox] Willpower experiment: Wait ten minutes.
Ten minutes might not seem like much time to wait for something you want, but neuroscientists have discovered that it makes a big difference in how the brain processes a reward. When immediate gratification comes with a mandatory ten-minute delay, the brain treats it like a future reward. The promise of reward system is less activated, taking away the powerful biological impulse to choose immediate gratification. [/bluebox]