We are addicted to control. We cannot help it. Believing that we can control ourselves and everything around makes us feel safe. It gives us the feeling that the world is predictable. Uncertainty vanishes. It empowers and reassures us.
The problem is that it is an illusion. And feeding it has devastating effects.
That sense of omnipotence actually leaves us at the mercy of adversity and setbacks that we weren’t able to foresee because we were too busy with complacency. And as the world collapses by surprise, we make impulsive decisions in panic, anguish, or fatigue.
In fact, most of the important decisions in life are made in uncertain scenarios and subjected to great psychological pressure, whether they are decisions about our health, relationship or work. In such situations, self-control can play tricks on us.
If you believe that you control yourself, you will expose yourself to more temptations
In 2009, Loran Nordgren investigated an inner battle that almost all of us have fought at some point. He recruited a group of smokers to watch the movie “Coffee and Cigarettes” with one goal: to abstain from smoking, for which they would receive a cash reward.
Participants could choose where to place the cigarette. If they left the unlit cigarette in their mouth throughout the movie, they would receive the greatest reward because they would demonstrate great self-control. They could also hold the cigarette in hand without lighting it, leave it on a nearby desk or in another room, in which case they would receive the lowest reward because the temptation was minimal. However, they would only win the award if they did not smoke during the 95 minutes of the movie.
The “catch” was that some people had been told prior to the screening that they had a high level of self-control while others were told that they were unable to control their impulses. Smokers who believed they had great self-control were exposed to significantly more temptation than others. But they couldn’t resist it. They lit their cigarettes three times more often than those who thought they had little self-control.
Nordgren concluded that “we have a tendency to overestimate our ability to control impulses”, a phenomenon known as the “illusion of self-control” which often leads us to make very poor decisions in life.
What is the illusion of self-control?
The illusion of self-control is the tendency to overestimate our ability to control impulsive behaviors. Also known as restriction bias, it is based on thoughts such as: “I can resist temptation”, “I have everything under control” or “I can control myself perfectly”.
The main problem with the illusion of self-control is that we end up exposing ourselves to the stimuli that trigger the behaviors that we want to avoid, because we think we can control ourselves. That explains why many people who had an addiction relapse after months or years. But … why do we fall into this trap?
The hot-cold empathy gap
George Loewenstein found that we tend to underestimate the power that emotions and, in particular, gut urges have over us. He believed that “Affections have the capacity to transform us, as human beings, profoundly […] The dramatic transformations forged by affections have important consequences in decision-making”. He called that bias the “Cold-Hot Empathy Gap”.
This gap occurs when we are in what he called a “cold state”; that is, when we are emotionally balanced and our basic needs are satisfied. While we are in that state we underestimate the influence of those factors in a “hot state”. In practice, we find it difficult to imagine the force that visceral impulses and emotions can exert and the power they have to break our willpower and self-control.
For example, when we feel satiated we overestimate our ability to resist that chocolate cake. In the same way, when we go into a “hot state” of lack, such as hunger, it is difficult for us to understand how that visceral impulse determines our behavior and can make, for example, that we go into a bad mood and argue with someone.
Loewenstein explains that we have a restricted memory for the visceral experience, which means that we can remember the impulsive state, but we are not able to recreate the sensation of the impulsive state, which causes us to make the same mistake over and over again, thus falling into the illusion of self-control.
Not being able to anticipate how we can react to visceral impulses, thinking that we can control them as if we were in a state of perfect emotional balance, plunges us into a kind of mental blindness. It also prevents us from preparing for the future temptations and obstacles that will inevitably arise. And by not being able to avoid those distractions, we fall more easily into their networks.
How to escape the illusion of self-control?
To maintain good habits and avoid obstacles successfully, we need a strategy, preferably a strategy that foresees that we will not always be able to maintain self-control.
A good starting point begins with an exercise of introspection. It is about knowing ourselves better to detect those states that make us lose our calm and lead us to make bad decisions. The result might surprise us. There will be people who make worse decisions out of anger, others out of sadness or frustration. Some will be more affected by hunger and others by lack of sleep.
Knowing our “hot states” is the first step that will allow us to activate our “internal alarm” when we are in these types of situations, so we are aware that we are in greater danger of making impulsive decisions that we later regret.
After all, attention has a lot to do with impulse control. The less attention we pay to something, the less control we have over what we are doing. Therefore, focusing attention on oneself can improve our self-control.
The second step is to devise alternative behavior plans. It is about considering Murphy’s famous law, “If something can go wrong, it will go wrong” or preparing for the worst in the best way, as the Stoic philosophers advised.
Therefore, it is about looking for alternative plans when obstacles arise, so that we have a thoughtful behavior to which resort. For example, you can rehearse what you will say when someone offers you that piece of cake that should not be part of your diet and even go a step further thinking that you will have to reject it twice when they insist.
Last but not least, we must avoid complacency. When you’ve made progress and your self-talk tells you that you’ve developed enough self-control to expose yourself to temptation again, just ignore it and don’t let your guard down.
Nordgren, L. F. & Chou, E. Y. (2011) The Push and Pull of Temptation: The Bidirectional Influence of Temptation on Self-Control.Psychological Science; 22(11): 1386-1390.
Nordgren, L. F.; Harreveld, F. V. & Pligt, J.V.D. (2009) The Restraint Bias: How the Illusion of Self-Restraint Promotes Impulsive Behavior. Psychological Science; 20(12): 1523-1528.
Loewenstein, G. (2005). Hot-cold empathy gaps and medical decision-making. Health Psychology; 24(4): 49-56.
Gollwitzer, P.M. (1999) Implementation Intentions: Strong Effects of Simple Plans. American Psychologist; 54(7): 493–503.