Our Social Ecology

An exploration of emotion and social behavior from the perspective of psychological science

The Cheetahs of Self Control

Humans are the cheetahs of self-control.

Human beings are the only animals in the world who can tell themselves "it's only a movie."

When we're at a scary film and the intensity of our fear starts to overwhelm us, telling ourselves "it's only a movie" is a way to control our own emotional feelings--to manage them, regulate them, control them. For that matter, we're the only animals who can create a scary film in the first place, and entertain ourselves with the emotion it evokes.

That's one of the reasons I think of humans as the cheetahs of self-control. Just as cheetahs can run faster than anything, no animal on earth can control its own emotional life the way a human can. And you could make a credible argument (many have) that this unparalleled human capability has enabled us to dominate just about every corner of the Earth.

That's because self-control enables us to behave more deliberately, with foresight and sustained attention to relatively abstract future rewards. It allows us to engage in creative problem solving, to reason through instead of merely react. With self-control, we give ourselves the space to plan. We can strategize and contemplate.

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In fact, research suggests that our self-control abilities early in life hold real consequences for our successes (or failures) later on. The better we are at controlling our impulses, the better we tend to do at school, at work, and in our relationships.

Humans are the cheetahs of self-control

These facts have inspired a lot of prominent researchers to promote enhanced self-control not only in childhood, but also as a lifestyle to be cultivated via things like meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Seems simple enough, right?

Well, I'm certainly not going to argue that we need less self-control. But there is something--a kind of worm at the core--that worries me about these prescriptions, and it gets me back to the cheetah metaphor, which is more apt even than it first appears.  Yes, humans are indeed the cheetahs of self-control, and just as cheetahs can only maintain their top speed for a little less than 500 yards before reaching exhaustion, humans can only exercise their self-control abilities for so long before they start to lose them.

Consider the following example: I present you with a list of color words--words like "yellow" and "green" and "blue" and so on.  But the thing is, the word "yellow" is actually printed in blue ink, the word "Green" is actually printed in red ink, the word "blue" is actually printed in yellow ink, and on and on like that.  Then I tell you that your task is to call out not what each word says, but what color each word is printed in. Easy!

Except it's actually not easy. This task--called a Stroop Task--requires a lot of sustained attention and self-control. Do it for long enough, and your ability to do it will steadily diminish until you can barely do it at all. Worse, do this Stroop Task for a long time and you'll find yourself less capable of doing all kinds of things--controlling how much you consume or spend, problem solving something carefully, or--yes--telling yourself it's only a movie.

OK, so, well, if this is all true, then how do we regulate our emotions most of the time? I mean, if sustained self-control is so exhausting and time-limited, why don't we spend most of our time out of control? Or exhausted? Or both? Or maybe the question is: what are our options once we have exhausted our self-control reserves?

I'll begin to address the answer to this in my next blog. In the meantime, cherish your ability to control your impulses, but beware of depending on that ability too much, or you may put it at risk.

Jim Coan is Assistant Professor of Psychology, member of the Neuroscience Graduate Program, and director of the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Virginia.

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