What’s the ONE Big Secret to Self-Control?

The simplest way to stop over-(eating, drinking, smoking…)

Posted May 18, 2012

I have always had a problem controlling my impulses.  If there is a tray of brownies on the table, most healthy adults might take one, I will surely gobble down several.  Before going out to dinner with friends or colleagues, I’ll often admonish myself: “Stop at just one drink, Doug!”  But if someone orders a tasty bottle of wine, or if the restaurant serves up an especially tasty IPA, I may have 2, 3, or 4.  This is an improvement on my younger self, who may have ended up drinking enough to over-qualify for a DUI, or at very least high enough to get overly loud and overly entertaining. 

The overly loud, overly entertaining, part harkens back to my childhood when, as a student in St. Joseph's Catholic school, I could not control the impulse to shout out wise-cracks designed to get a chuckle out of my classmates.  This impulsive clownishness often produced an unintended side-effect of a trip down to the principal’s office. 

As a good Hail Mary-ing Name of the Father-ing Saint-praising little Catholic lad, I was constantly reminded of the importance of “resisting temptation.”  But all those years of training in resisting temptation didn’t amount to much, a point that became especially clear when I reached puberty, and the Great Source of Temptation was not the desire to joke in class, but to gander at the alluring covers of the girlie magazines lined up at the local newsstand.  “Don’t look!” I would tell myself, “It’s a mortal sin! You’ll go to Hell!”  But my eyes would not follow direct commands from the cortical control centers, and were magnetically drawn to the beautiful semi-clad cover girls.

I did manage to remember one very helpful thing from the Catholic Schoolboy’s Handbook of Temptation Resistance.  And it was this: “Avoid the Near Occasion of Sin!” 

What does it mean to avoid the near occasion of sin?  It means to stay out of situations where temptation is likely to arise – to walk down the next street instead of passing right by the nudie newsstand.

Many years later, I made the pilgrimage to study clinical psychology at Arizona State University, then known as “Fort Skinner in the Desert.”  Although I have fallen from the folds of both Clinical Psychology and Behaviorism, there was at least one very valuable lesson I learned from the Skinnerian behavior modifiers.  It is the power of what they call “Stimulus Control.”  For example, a rat may learn that it will get rewarded only when a green light turns on, hence the rat’s bar pressing will come to be controlled by the onset of the green light.  If the light doesn’t come on, it doesn’t press the bar. 

In my case, excess brownie-munching is strongly controlled by the stimulus of a plate of brownies on the table.  Excess wine consumption is strongly controlled by the presence of several friends, an empty glass, and a full bottle of wine in my visual field. 

Cornell's Brian Wansink with his tempting experimental materials.

A great object lesson about the power of stimulus control comes from a lovely study by Cornell’s Brian Wansink and Junong Kim, who gave theater-goers a free bucket of popcorn when they arrived to watch a movie.  The bucket was either medium or large, and its contents were either fresh, or two weeks old (munchers described it as “stale” and “terrible”).  But despite the poor quality of the popcorn, moviegoers gobbled it down, and they gobbled down significantly more if they were given the large bucket.  When surveyed later, the majority of subjects denied that bucket size had any influence on their behavior.  But their denial was, well, just Denial (nothing psychoanalytic, though, most of us are simply unaware of the powerful control of context on our choices).

One way to handle it when your behavior is under the powerful control of contextual cues is to train yourself to resist temptation.  Show you’ve got the right stuff!  Tough it out!  Maybe even say a few Hail Marys to strengthen your resolve.  

But there’s a much simpler way to stop over-eating or over-drinking or over-whatever it is you want to stop.  Capitalize on the immense power of stimulus control.  Don’t fill your larder with delicious brownies and wines in the first place.  Don’t keep an open plate of chocolate candies out on your table or desk where your resolve will be continuously tested.  Don’t walk into Big Bertha's Steak & Fries joint (with Free Upgrades to Jumbo Today!), but direct your feet over to the Little Lillie Li's Healthy Asian place instead.  And on your way, don’t walk by that newsstand! 

Douglas Kenrick is author of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity, are revolutionizing our view of human nature