Does Slowing Down Enhance Self Control?

If you want to be less impulsive, you need to do more than just delay.

Posted Jan 07, 2016

Jennifer via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Jennifer via Wikimedia Commons

People do a lot of impulsive things.  Standing at a party, people might reach out to a bowl of nuts or candy without thinking and eat more than they should.  Shoppers hurrying through the supermarket may pick up products they did not really need, just because they looked appealing on the shelf.  Drivers may react with angry honks and gestures to drivers who cut them off on the road.

Often, people are given advice to slow down in order to avoid impulsive behavior.  There is an implicit assumption in this advice that impulse creates energy to perform an action and that by slowing down you allow that energy to dissipate, leading to more controlled behavior.

Is that what is happening?

This question was explored with children in an interesting study by Jane Barker and Yuko Munakata in the December, 2015 issue of Psychological Science

Previous studies have looked at children’s ability to stop themselves from opening boxes that might contain stickers.  Kids around the age of three love stickers, and so stickers are often used as rewards.  If children know that there might be a sticker in a box, they will have a hard time avoiding opening it.

In this study, boxes had a cue on top of them that signaled whether they contained a sticker.  A blue circle meant there was a sticker inside.  A red triangle meant there was not.  Children were supposed to reach out and open the boxes with blue stickers on them, but not to open boxes with red triangles on them. 

As a demonstration of how hard this was for children, some children were shown a box with a sticker on it and were immediately allowed to reach for it if they wanted.  Children in this “No Delay” condition mistakenly reached for boxes with red triangles on them 37% of the time. 

A second group of children was just given a delay.  This group saw the box without a sticker on it.  Then, the cover of the box was hidden behind a screen while the experimenter put a sticker on it.  After 2.5 seconds, the screen was removed, and the child was given an opportunity to reach for the box. 

If children impulsively want to open every box, then this 2.5 second delay should allow the energy of the goal to open the box to dissipate, and they should correctly focus on whether the box has a blue circle or a red triangle on it.  As it turns out, the delay did not have much of an impact on children.  They still mistakenly reached for the box 32% of the time. 

What did matter was whether the children were reminded of the task instructions.  In one condition, children saw the box without a sticker.  Then, a screen was put in front of the box top (as in the condition I just described), and a sticker was put on during a 2.5 second delay.  As the experimenter was putting the sticker on the box, she reminded the child to look at the sticker to decide whether to look in the box.  In this condition, children mistakenly reached for box when it had a red triangle on it only 20% of the time. 

And the delay did not really matter.  In a final group, the experimenter put the sticker on the box right away and reminded the child use the sticker to decide whether to look in the box.  In this case, children mistakenly reached for the box only 19% of the time.

This pattern suggests that for children to overcome the impulsive response,  they don’t need a delay for the energy to dissipate.  Instead, they need a clear alternative goal—in this case to focus on the sticker.

This research also has implications for adults.  The best way to overcome temptation is not just to slow down and to wait it out.  Instead, it is valuable to ramp up the energy for an alternative goal.  If you want to stop biting your nails, don’t just delay biting them when you have the urge, do something incompatible with nail-biting like playing with a toy.  If you want to avoid checking your email, don’t just wait for the urge to subside, engage in another activity instead.

The human motivational system wants to engage in activity.  If you don’t like the activity that your motivational system is driving you to do, then focus yourself on another one.

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