Self Control

Monday, January 28
Stephanie, Ross, Dylan, and Jed

As we see in the famous classical story of Ulysses and the Sirens, self control sometimes can be maintained successfully only when we’ve lashed ourselves to the mast, effectively forcing ourselves not to succumb to temptation.  This topic will focus on the  difficulties we have maintaining self control in the present even when we understand it is necessary in order to care for ourselves in the future (i.e. overeating, undersaving).  We will look at the tricks we play on ourselves to make ourselves think we are doing better than we are (ex: hundred calorie snacks).



Reading Response Instructions:

Your initial Reading Response Comment should answer these three questions for at least two of the five posted readings:

  1. What did you learn in this reading? or, After reading this text, what are you inspired to learn more about?
  2. What questions do you have about this reading?
  3. What is a well-formed question about or related to this reading that you would like us to ask Professors Dan and Cathy?

326 responses to “Self Control

  1. Artist Reception on Saturday, January 26th from 6 – 9 PM at
    The Center for Advanced Hindsight
    2024 W Main St, Bay C, Durham, NC 27705
    RESTRAINING ORDER: The Art of Self-Control
    December 14, 2012 – February 22, 2013
    Open to the Public: 10 AM – 3 PM, Monday – Friday
    Press Contact: Catherine Howard, Curator,

    Dan Ariely and The Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University are pleased to invite you to the
    Artist Reception on Saturday, January 26th from 6 – 9 PM at
    The Center for Advanced Hindsight
    2024 W Main St, Bay C, Durham, NC 27705

    As a magnanimous gesture of support for artistic ingenuity and creative perspectives, twenty-five artists were invited to create innovative and engaging artwork, ranging from painting to photography to short films to installation, after a stimulating discussion with Dan Ariely on his research into the techniques for developing self-control. An exercise in self-control was built into the creative process as artists also had to submit images of their weekly progress, which are displayed alongside their finished artwork.
    Allyson Seal, “If We Only Allow It”, Enamel, spray enamel, ink and frosted vellum on birch panel, 41″ x 41″
    For Allyson Seal, the deadline of this exhibition transformed her series “If We Only Allow It”. Instead of obsessing about the complications and intrigues of everyday life, she took refuge in thinking about what we talk about when we think about self-control:

    “When we search for ways to do the things we don’t want to do. And when we try to stop ourselves from doing the things want to. And when we try to fit in, or stand out, from the crowd. For each of us it is different. The cookie, the drink, the conversation, the day job, the brain that fires differently, the battle with your very nature.”

    Heather Gordon, “How to Fold My Heart in Quarters”, Latex and graphite on canvas, 48” x 48”
    Heather Gordon addressed the complexity of making choices while creating a personal narrative. Each quadrant of her painting is a visual interpretation of a set of data:

    “I combine theories of geometric folding patterns, geographic locations, and personal history to create a method for making crease diagrams fulfilling these objectives. By using the birthplaces and current residence locations for seven people who are most important in my life, I create a small set of spatially related data. Then using a program called TreeMaker, I create a “tree” using this data and allow the program to optimize a crease pattern. This tree can be manipulated while keeping the relational distances intact to create variations for the resulting shape.”

    Meet the artists at the opening reception on Saturday, January 26th from 6-9 PM!
    Join us for delicious food, wine, thoughtful artwork, and lively conversation at the Center for Advanced Hindsight, 2024 W Main St, Bay C, Durham, NC.

    The following artists are featured in “RESTRAINING ORDER: The Art of Self-Control”:

    Alexandr Skarlinski
    Allyson Seal
    Anastasya Koshkin
    Bureau of Change
    Catherine & Neil Palomba
    Clarke Barry
    Daniella Rubinovitz
    Gabriella Boros
    Geraud Staton
    Gracelee Lawrence
    Heather Gordon
    IlaSahai Prouty
    Jack Swinney
    Jeanne Taylor
    Kimberly Gormley
    Leila Holtsman
    Lekshmy Jayasree
    Leslie Salzillo
    Marisa Dipaola
    Mark Kinsey
    Spring Flowerchild
    Tanya Hart
    Victoria Martinez
    Xóchitl Cristina Gil-Higuchi

    About the Center for Advanced Hindsight

    The central goal of the Center for Advanced Hindsight is to develop great insights (in hindsight) about an extensive and diverse set of research projects. As a non-discriminating institution, its work examines published as well as unpublished work, and the work of researchers of all ranks. Of course, this involvement is restricted to work conducted by unaffiliated researchers, as this kind of intimate scientific inquiry by its members would be too dangerous. Needless to say, all aforementioned work is done retrospectively. One might even go as far as saying “in hindsight.” The sole responsibility of members is to critique the work of others and comment on the obvious intuitiveness and predictability of the results. In fact, there is no “ground-breaking” research that comes as a surprise to the brilliant minds of the Center. The initiation process to become an official member of the center requires an oath of commitment to apathy and absurdity.

    Learn more about the “Artistically Irrational” exhibition series at
    Learn more about Dan Ariely’s research at
    Copyright © 2013 Center for Advanced Hindsight, All rights reserved.
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  2. Ariely, D., Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment. Psychological Science, 13(3), 219-224.

    1) What did you learn in this reading? or, After reading this text, what are you inspired to learn more about?
    Dr. Ariely’s study on self-imposed deadlines offers much insight into the power of setting goals with time constraints. So true is it that we often feel commitment issues when we pre-establish time frames for our goals – these feelings of commitment, however, are rarely present or as pressing when we do not self-impose deadlines. I can speak from experience that self-imposed deadlines have not only expedited task completion, but furthermore, alleviated stress and increased performance. Thus, the questions Dr. Ariely’s study poses about human willingness to self-impose deadlines, and the efficacy of setting such deadlines, are close to home with me. The final question Dr. Ariely poses, however, regarding optimization of performance enhancement is more intriguing and one that I did not know too much about. After all, it is difficult to serve as an unbiased judge when evaluating your own performance, and the optimal strategies towards task completion. Unlike the former two points made in Ariely’s study, this latter one requires empirical evidence and experimentation to test. What is more, as Ariely demonstrates, setting self-imposed deadlines are not nearly as effective as externally set deadlines. Indeed, if my boss or professor tells me I have to complete a task, I am far more eager to do so, than if I tell myself.
    An extremely efficient person would be able to complete work consistently and quickly, and therefore not need to self-impose deadlines. This is a point Ariely makes clear at the end, and one that I did not at first consider. Self imposed deadlines, exist, therefore, because we are not entirely efficient or rational beings, and we therefore procrastinate, and are aware of this procrastination. Ultimately, the reading inspired me to consider my own procrastination and evaluate some of the self-imposed deadlines I have made, and whether or not they were optimal. Going forward, I will devote further scrutiny to the deadlines I set, and whether or not they are best for task completion.

    2) What questions do you have about this reading?
    The reading has clear implications and applications for management studies that deal with efficiency. After reflecting upon the point made about the superiority of external deadlines, over self-imposed ones, I was interested in examining strategies that employers, businesses and professors alike may use to improve the task completion of their employees and students. Because our procrastination is impulsive, it would make intuitive sense that we can limit it by setting “checkpoints” along the way. By “checkpoints” I mean periodic points in time where we establish progress reports and turn in incremental work, as opposed to the entirety of the project. Whether these checkpoints are self-imposed or externally imposed, I would further hypothesize that they would lead to more efficient task completion than simply establishing one deadline, further down the road. While elements of this were addressed in the Ariely study, the biggest question I have is whether or not this concept of “checkpoints” and task completion has been examined alongside self-imposed and externally imposed deadlines.

    3) What is a well-formed question about or related to this reading that you would like us to ask Professors Dan and Cathy?
    Given what you have studied and what you know about our irrational propensities and task completion, how do you deal with self-imposed deadlines and task completion? Or are you as susceptible to procrastination as the rest of us?

    Holmes, Jamie. “Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?” The New Republic. Chris Hughes, 6 June 2011. Web. 19 Jan. 2013.

    1) What did you learn in this reading? or, After reading this text, what are you inspired to learn more about?
    I had never before considered self-control as a limiting resource amongst the poor. While self-confidence, self-esteem and self-actualization may clearly not exist to the same extent in the severely poor as they do amongst the wealthier or financially comfortable, self-control doesn’t at first seem to be that different amongst the two. That is, until you consider the cost of a simple purchase and the very different analysis that is required amongst the two demographics. For the rich, a purchase of shampoo or sugar does not bear any significant cognitive weight. It is trivial, and the decision to buy such a product has no markedly negative repercussions. For the poor however, as is elucidated in the article, such a decision requires cost-benefit analysis and ultimately the giving up of something else. When every cent counts, the decision to make a purchase may require detailed and often stressful analysis of the repercussions of such a purchase. As purchasing decisions are motivated by the mechanism that is self-control, it becomes clear that will power presents a very different issue amongst the two demographics. What I learned from the reading was therefore that no purchasing decision, for the poor, is trivial when it comes to self-control. As a result, I was motivated to read the Banerjee article referenced in the Holme’s article. Banerjee further presents the argument that the environmental context of the poor is far more critical and punishing of bad decisions; and that this only serves to perpetuate the cycle. If a rich person gives in to temptation and spends a couple thousand dollars on a table in a nightclub, the repercussions are simply that he may have a hangover the next morning, and not be able to go on that trip to the South of France. If a poor person, however, gives in to temptation and spends several dollars on a couple beers, this may mean his children do not get to eat food for the next couple days, or have clean drinking water. Clearly, the latter environment is far more harsh to make a mistake in.

    2) What questions do you have about this reading?
    The reading offers several clear examples of successful programs that tackle self-control as a limiting factor for the poor. The reading further reveals that previous conceptions about poverty often do not account for self-control discrepancies amongst the rich and poor (after all, I too was previously unaware of this distinction). The questions that I have are therefore related to raising awareness of these distinctions in an effort to redirect charitable giving towards more efficient means. The salient takeaway from the reading is that giving to the poor is simply not enough, and self-control must be critically considered in order to prevent the cycle of poverty from continuing. Thus, I am wondering why more charities do not consider self-control, as they should, and why this issue has been largely overlooked in the charitable arena?

    3) What is a well-formed question about or related to this reading that you would like us to ask Professors Dan and Cathy?
    While an idealist may believe that teaching the poor that their purchasing decisions are far more significant in their daily lives than they are to the rich, such a belief would naively discount the human tendency to give into temptation. The question that arises is therefore, is such an approach plausible? Can we, in other words, get the poor to resist purchasing tendencies that are inefficient – or must we simply treat the consequences of their decisions?

    • Gordon, I think you bring up a really fascinating point when discussing self-esteem and self-confidence lacking amongst those who are impoverished. You state that while you often associate a self-esteem deficit with poverty, you don’t often think about the self-control deficit that creates a poverty trap. This comment prompted me to think about the potential relationship between self-control and self-esteem. Namely, does a lack of self-esteem perpetuate a lack of self-control? Are these two traits intertwined? Someone with a high level of self-esteem and confidence may be more willing to consider their future self when making decisions, and they may be more inclined to follow commitment devices. Whereas, someone with low self-esteem would be more likely to make rash decisions to gain temporary satisfaction while disregarding the long term benefits of patience. Those with low self-esteem also may not trust their ability to stick commitment devices, which ironically makes them far more likely to rationalize not following through on such a commitment device. It seems like lower levels of self-confidence resulting from poverty also perpetuates the self-control problem. These two concepts seem interrelated, and this really suggests a problem for policymakers seeking to address poverty. Can a policy actually increase self-esteem? And, this points to a meta-question that I think will remain relevant throughout the semester: do the advances in behavioral studies illuminate the shortcomings of policy or do they suggest a radically different set of ideas are necessary for our social, political, and economic institutions to adequately address various problems?

    • I was particularly intrigued by what you mentioned in regards to genetics. The biological aspect is incredibly relevant, particularly when we look at how parents can be involved in the development of their children’s self control. Is it possible that our self control is merely based upon chemical balances in the brain? Depression, for example, is often related to genetics, and there are medications to help some people to be on a more level playing field (disposition ally speaking). Could it be possible for us to medicate low levels of willpower? (Especially considering the fact that apathy is well connected to levels of serotonin in the brain?) If some people are born with a lower level of willpower, how can we level that playing field? Particularly, if we agree that we to have lower self-control is to be disadvantaged in our society?

  3. Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment.
    1.Professor Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch use two studies to show that people set self-imposed deadlines which help them, but are still sub-optimal. In the first study, students in a semester long course are separated into two sections. The students are assigned 3 papers; in the first section, students can self-impose deadlines for the paper, and are penalized if they violate their deadlines. In the second section, students are given evenly spaced deadlines. Students in the second section got better grades on average, but students in the first section who gave themselves evenly spaced deadlines did about as well as those in the second section, and much better than those who decided to turn all papers in on the last possible day. In the second study, volunteers were paid for editing texts per correction made. Evenly spaced deadlines, self-imposed deadlines, and no deadlines were used, with volunteers in the evenly-spaced category making the most, followed by the self-imposed group, and finally the no deadlines group. Personally, I set deadlines for myself, but I lack enforcement, so they don’t work very well. I was (shamefully) checking facebook at intervals while reading this study. I may try a reward system for meeting deadlines as a positive incentive rather than something negative like grade deductions.

    2.The first study was conducted on professionals participating in a course at MIT, the second involved volunteers from MIT’s student body. There is a chance that both these groups may be better at self-imposing deadlines/ self-impose deadlines more than the general population. While that doesn’t alter the general findings, it may modify the degree to which they are true, e.g. in the first study, very few people in the self-imposed group set their deadlines to the last possible day, this may not have been true if this was conducted on a different group of people.
    In the second study, volunteers were given a monetary incentive for detecting errors, and faced a small deduction if they submitted their edits late. Is it possible that the penalty for being late, and the incentive for searching for errors were too low to reflect the degree of self-control volunteers have in general?

    3.Is the knowledge that we don’t optimally set deadlines enough to make us self-impose optimal deadlines in the future, or does a self-control problem exist at the time we are setting deadlines as well, in which case, would it be more strategic for us to get another entity to set our deadlines for us? Also, is there a benefit to procrastination- does it help us overcome our attention blindness?

    A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety
    1. In the study, children were monitored till they reached the age of 32. Their self-control was measured, and their situation was periodically checked. The results show that self-control problems in childhood are strongly correlated with adult crime, health problems, and poverty. Self-control problems are also correlated to low socioeconomic status of parents, and lower intelligence, but even in cases when an individual with self-control problems is more intelligent or he grows up in a better socioeconomic condition, he still faces the same problems as adults. Furthermore, self-control issues lead to adolescent snares (teen pregnancy, dropping out of high school, etc.) but even in situations where snares did not occur, individuals with self-control issues still faced similar problems as adults. This study seems common-sense enough, however, the idea that teaching children self-control- outside of parenting- seems novel. The study suggests to me that intelligence and socioeconomic condition may be confounding variable in regards to problems later in life, and perhaps low self-control is the real cause.

    2.I’m curious as to the genetic component of self-control which the study mentions in passing; Michael Crichton’s novel Next suggested that if self-control issues are blamed on genetics- and subsequently classified as disorders- then they could be used as a legal defense for crimes in the future. I also want to know how they measured self-control in the survey. The famous Stanford marshmallow experiment, in which children must refrain from eating one marshmallow for a short time so they can get two, comes to mind.

    3.The study suggests that teaching children self-control may prevent adolescent snares and adult problems. This may be a very basic question, but I think it’s important: how do we teach children self-control? Parents do it to an extent, but how can they be more effective, and how can we do the same outside the home?

    • Hi Abu,
      You bring up an interesting and thought provoking question. I believe that there are genetic factors that play a role in how much self control children have but I also feel that environmental factors play a major role. I believe parents have the ability to be very important teachers when it comes to teaching children self-control, especially parents that implement authoritative parenting into their parenting styles. Authoritative parenting involves parents empowering children to make good decisions by parents listening to their input. However, parents intervene when they feel the child is making a wrong decision and they explain to the children why it is a bad decision and help their child see how it is a bad decision. Also, being sure to do the best to place children a safe environment outside of the house can also be a positive factor. This can mean living in a safe neighborhood with low crime, going to the best school that is feasible for your child, and keeping track on the type of friends they surround themselves with.

  4. Peer Response:
    Abu – I think your point about the composition of the sample group is an excellent one. Indeed, the vast majority of studies conduct research on college students, who are quite often not the best representation of the general population. MIT students in particular may self-impose deadlines to a greater degree than the outside population, and this should be considered. I agree with you in that I don’t think the results from MIT students are directionally different than those from the general population. Rather, I think they may be a little more skewed.
    Regarding the second article – about childhood self-control – I too was wondering why more wasn’t mentioned about the genetic component of self-control. Has this component been shown through correlation studies? I would be curious to know.

    1) Something that I was both surprised, and frankly troubled, to learn about was that we had a finite amount of willpower. Though it’s something I undoubtedly experience, each time I choose to spend hours on the Internet rather than doing my homework, I did not know that the effects were cumulative; for example, I would not have thought that because I only allowed myself to take a one hour nap, I would be more likely to reach for that Cookout milkshake that has been sitting in my fridge. When this decision is compounded and scaled up over the course of a day, we live our lives under the assumption that we can act rationally, and the expectations that we are supposed to meet very much follow that assumption. But are we simply creating a world in which we are consistently mentally fatigued without realizing it? And then, when we inevitably turn to procrastination, we do not recognize that we are willpower-drained, and instead wallow in guilt, until the cycle repeats itself?
    2) A question that I have is how their definition of willpower is changing, in this age of rapid technological progress. We have all seen the kids of the next generation– 3, 4 year olds not running and playing around, but rather staring intently into an Iphone screen, playing Angry Birds. The threshold for willpower, whether that be checking Facebook or playing a game on your phone, seems to be diminishing every day, as we increase our ease of access. Instead of resisting eating a marshmallow in front of them, little kids are expected to resist simply clicking a button, in order to do what they are supposed to do. What are the implications of this for our future productivity as a country?
    3) In what circumstances should our willpower be the strongest? In which areas of your life is your willpower the weakest? How do we increase our capacity for willpower in the long run?

    1) When I first started reading the article, I couldn’t figure out how it fit into the idea of self-control. But nonetheless, I found myself wrapped up in its prose, and as I reached the last sentence, I tied it all together. This piece is actually quite complementary to the previous article, with the idea of how lapses in willpower affects our lives. I would be interested to learn more about, in a vaguely shallow way, what happened to the original girl that broke up with him– while all the other characters in the story are fully fleshed out and alive, she only seemed to be icy and one-dimensional.
    2) I wonder whether the author was intending to include a moral for the audience to take away after reading it. Though it does generally express an anti-cheating agenda, one could argue that even that it isn’t entirely clear; after all, the process that he goes through after the incident of cheating is invaluable to his growth.
    3) Do relationships and love change willpower? What is it about romance that changes our definition of rationality?

    • Hey scoobydu, I found your point addressing today’s youth and the involvement of technology in their lives. How do we expect children to form a sense of self-control when the ones they look up to are always attached to their iPhone or Blackberry? It is common to see a family out to eat at a restaurant with every member sitting silently checking emails or texting without interacting with each other. I have caught my own family doing this too. Albert Einstein once said, “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.” Unfortunately, it appears that technology has almost done this already, and it is not strengthening self-control or even more generally the morality of today’s youth.

    • Hi, I am intrigued by the 3) question you raised. While many of us could definitely sympathize with the feeling of loss, disappointment and depression associated with the hero, I wonder to what extent our conception of love affects self-control. If one believes that love is merely a result of chemicals and neurons firing in the brain, will that belief make the person have better self-control and recover from the heartache more easily than those who don’t? On the other hand, when apply love to the context of marriage, does a life-long commitment to a partner (self-control) depend on being in the state of love or does it have more to do with rational and objective understanding of love as a contract and the necessity for mutual respect?
      The more general question, I think, is that: is love and rationality intrinsically paradoxical? Is there any way that love and rationality can be reconciled?

  6. PEER RESPONSE: Gordon Gekko (P.S. Your pseudonym and your speculations about the business world and procrastination are very apt together haha).

    In regards to the question you asked about “Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?,” I think there are a few different elements that are impeding poverty programs from addressing self-control. For one, human beings are not particularly good at determining cause and effect, especially when there is no tangible evidence to be seen. It is easy for charities to see a homeless person and simply offer them temporary lodging, as there is a direct and obvious correlation. However, saying that someone is homeless because they have a lack of self-control sounds absurd. Moreover, in the individualistic culture in which we live, we are big believers in the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality, and subsequently that we can control our fates. Addressing self-control, unless there was a specific addiction (ex: drugs or alcohol) would contradict this belief, and directly infringe on someone’s pride. I agree that temporary aid and welfare is not the answer to solving our country’s struggles with poverty, but I’m not sure how self-control programs could ever be feasibly adapted.

    • Hi, I agree very much with the question of causation v. correlation you raised. I would like to point out a further evidence of ambiguity from “A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety”. The author says

      Dundedin study children with greater self-control were more likely to have been brought up in socioeconomically advantaged families, raising the possibility that low self-control could be a proxy for low social class origins or low intelligence.

      The author seems to have assumed that self-control is the causation of low social class and low intelligence. However, it is not hard to imagine children from high social class with abundant material wealth have less self-control because there is less of a need for them to exercise their self-control muscles. Depending on which areas of self-control we talk about, it is also possible,—as we learned from The New Republic Article “Why Can’t People Escape Poverty”— that a child from low economic class has less free will power to exert over temptations, cheating because of the energy spent on contemplating over financial tradeoff decisions. Therefore, low social economic class could *result in* lack of self-control as opposed to the other way around.

  7. Junot Diaz, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” New Yorker and in This Is How You Lose Her.

    As an English major and Duke-Class-of-2013-er, I had to begin with the Junot Diaz short story. I’m compelled to because he spoke during my orientation week, and we were assigned his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. There is an obvious theme in this short story and his book: lack of self-control. Yunior (the protagonist in both) is specifically fated to a more “Ulysses and the Sirens” type of weakness, lust.
    So, in an attempt to recreate that freshman orientation week experience, I dug this up:
    The first eight minutes of the video consists of Diaz reading the beginning passage from “The Cheater’s Guide to Love.” There is an interesting duality seeing Diaz read his prose: his voice is controlled, but the words he is reading off the page speak of Yunior’s lack of self-control. The duality, of course, represents the human condition: we have a controlled self-control. What I mean by this: it is echoed in Ariely and Wertenbroch’s study. We’re aware of this self-control, and yet even this awareness does not prevent us from falling into it and from relapsing. So we try to control for it –but we cannot always determine the correct way to go about this. In Yunior’s case, his “setting deadlines” consists of physical activity and “dating honestly.” And, as we see, just like how self-imposed deadlines are easy to break, so does Yunior easily break his own attempts at self-control.
    During the video, at about twenty minutes in, Diaz says: “The nature of privilege is that you’re predatory.” The context is that he is talking about the privilege of the male characters in his stories. For example, Elvis, though married, continues to have extramarital affairs; his “son” Elvis Jr. is perceived for a while as the outcome of his lack of self-control (until we find out he’s not the biological father). I think this is the crux of Diaz’s short story: men, in the context of this story, can have self-control in regards to their “privilege.” But, maintaining self-control is a difficult feat for all people –including Yunior. Thus, Yunior’s lack of self-control morphs into this predatory thing, harming his ex-fiancé, ex-girlfriends, and ultimately himself.
    In regards to this reading, I’d be interested in following up on scoobydu’s comment that the cheating or ‘lack of self-control’ becomes an important part of Yunior’s growth as a character. Thus, I’d want to know if Diaz meant this as a possible exploration of the “good” in lack of self-control; because we see how Yunior profits from this mistake in the end, is Diaz making a comment about the necessity or benefit to not having self control? This would be interesting because the focus seems to be overwhelmingly on the costs of not having self-control.
    Also, taking that thought a step further, I’d want to ask Professors Dan and Cathy: have you considered situations where not having self control would be a positive rather than a negative –aside from the personal growth that can occur from it (like in Diaz’s short story)? The issues of procrastination and other forms of lack of self control seem to be a common characteristic of people, so is there a reason this may have developed – possibly relating to the aforementioned ‘positives’?

    Ariely, D., Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment. Psychological Science, 13(3), 219-224.

    Ariely and Wertenbroch highlight the effectiveness of externally imposed deadlines –which makes a case for having the type of time-crunches that people sometimes argue against. I have, after all, always heard that the right amount of stress is essential to getting work done, and deadlines are often the cause of such stress. I’m also, unfortunately, a testament to the hypothesis that self-imposed deadlines can be ineffective –as previous posters have corroborated with their own personal experience. But the most interesting part of the study to me involved the relation between procrastination and enjoyment: Ariely’s findings in the second study showed that the subjects that spent less time on their work also enjoyed it most. Now, it is important to note that the researchers preface this by saying that the task was boring and results may have been reversed if they’d included a different task. However, while I largely agree with this statement, I think there is also a bit of wiggle room, if you will. And this wiggle room may help account for the deep-rooted ‘procrastination nation’ we’re in today. I think that most tasks when performed for extended periods of time have the increased potential to bore the subject; thus, perhaps in a later study the people that performed for a ‘moderate amount of time’ will have enjoyed their time the most. Repetition, I think, lends to boredom, and procrastination is an answer.
    The experiments that Ariely and Wertenbroch conducted used both monetary rewards and grades as the incentives to have people meet the deadlines; both are essentially high stakes incentives. Thus, we’re seeing how people deal with deadlines to things that would be assumedly important to them. I’d be interested in seeing if the experiment would change based on higher or lower stakes involved. For example, if a much higher sum of money were involved, would that change the outcome of the experiment? On the other hand, if the incentive were only a free t-shirt, something we’re offered a lot as Dukies, would we perform similarly? The bigger question is: do we respond the same across the board? As in, is this a facet of human nature that applies to most or all situations or only specific ones?
    As a question for Professors Dan and Cathy: how do you think self-agency factors into self-control? In other words, have you found that you enjoy something more when you are able to control your own deadlines?

    • I was wondering the same thing about whether self-control can be a good thing. It seems that a lack of self-control is seen as a universal negative- think Adam, Eve and the tree of knowledge. But what about scenarios where overly contrived self-control has negative consequences? In the article on poverty, it mentioned that self-control now will make it more difficult to exhibit self-control on subsequent tasks. At the same time, the TED talk mentioned that self-control is like a muscle, the more its exercised, the stronger it is. Taken in combination, selective self-control seems beneficial, as exercise without tiring a person out.

      I know that I’d be willing to do a lot for a free shirt (though it technically wouldn’t be free then). Is the magnitude of the incentive the determinant for how much self-control we exhibit, or is it the perceived immediacy of benefit from the incentive that matters more? This probably takes questioning into an economic ‘current value’ direction.

    • Hi afivez! I really enjoyed your analysis of Junot Diaz’s “The Cheater’s Guide to Love.” You bring up several good points about the duality of self-control – I thought your point about Junot Diaz’s controlled voice while reading from his book was especially interesting, since his writing should be an outlet of expression for him. Perhaps because he gave up too much of himself in his writing, it is more difficult for him to do so when reading, and so he appears more detached. Because of the poverty article, we have been discussing the concept of self-control “depletion”, where exerting self-control at one time reduces your ability to exhibit self-control later. I think that several of your points, including the one about Diaz’s reading as well as Yunior’s control over himself physically might be forms of reverse self-control depletion, where we feel we need to exhibit more self-control in one area of our life because of our lack of self-control in a different area. Yunior focuses on physical activity because it makes him feel as if he is in control, contrary to the way he feels in his personal life. This is related to the psychology behind eating disorders as well and is the reason why bulemia and anorexia are linked to OCD in many cases, since victims want to feel as if they are in control over their weight, especially in instances where they feel they have little control over other aspects of their life. I think this might help answer your question about the positives of not having self-control, as well, because we can see that there always seems to be a duality, and allowing yourself to let go of control in some areas can create the right kind of balance that we all strive for.

  8. This is How you Lose Her
    When I first began reading Diaz’s short story, I was intrigued, because I was unsure as to how the reading connected to the objective. The interesting because in the reading is there no explicit statement about self-control. If anything, there is almost a visible avoidance of any sort of self-reflection, or question about regret. However, I got the most out of this reading, over any other reading. This was the most personal, and as a result, raised the most questions for me. The narrator, who was also the protagonist (or antagonist? Debatable, I’d think) was plainly honest. This level of honesty allows us to see the fact that our ideas of right and wrong, the limits to which we loosen the restraints of our self control, is interesting. This article also brings in this whole aspect of culture. In essence, our self-control is based upon norms, which are really determined by what we see other people doing and what we deem is acceptable .
    After reading this, I was inspired to learn more about the author and a about Dominican culture. From culture to culture, the way that men of various cultures view and treat women, what is acceptable in these cultures often varies. Diaz constantly makes culture a dominant feature in the story, particularly because of the various spanish words interspersed throughout. I was constantly making connections between Dominican and African culture, and it gave the topic of self-control a new layer.
    This book discusses the precariousness of the idea of “self-control”.
    There are a lot of things that we view as “acceptable” in American culture, actions which actually display a low level of self-control and a high level of acting based on our impulses or desires. For example, binge eating of fatty foods, excess spending on clothing, makeup and plastic surgery; all of these things, from an outside perspective, would be viewed as being indicative of low self control.

    Important Questions:
    What was the author’s main idea? What did she want to get across? If we weren’t looking at this short story through a lens of self control, what ideas would we get from it instead?
    Is self-control merely culture-control? Is self-control merely a result of our assimilation into our own culture?

    Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment && Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty
    This article defined self-control for me in a way that I had not previously considered. Through reading “This is How You Lose Her,” I had a less defined idea about what self-control was, and determined it as cultural. This reading helped to further my ideas on this. The article writes that the level of self control exercised by a person is not determined by issues of right and wrong, as I had previously thought. Rather, it is an issue based on preference. Regardless of whether or not society views a particular action as “moral,” self control is actually about whether or not a person is acting in accordance with their preferences. So , human beings have a set of preferences that they hold in one set of circumstances and may have a different set of preferences at some other point in time. The idea is whether or not the person’s actions contradict what their preference was before and after the action. If we look at it this way, self-control is much less subjective. If a murderer had a crisis of conscience when they were about to kill someone, even though before and after the opportunity presented itself, they wanted to kill them, would this be considered a display of no self control? The juxtaposition of this article with “Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?” was fascinating. We are shown three fundamental ideas about self-control as a concept.

    1) Self control is not based upon morality, but on an inconsistency of preferences across time or context.
    2) Self control is “controllable.” We are able to manipulate our actions in order to increase our own self control.
    3) Self-control is “depletable”: exercising self-control in one area can lead to a depletion of self-control in another area.

    The last two ideas are key. The idea that self-control is depletable is alarming when we look at the disadvantage that places impoverished communities. However, this article gives us hope. We are able to fabricate self-control, so-to-speak, and in doing so increase our ability to adhere to deadlines. Procrastination is a hindrance to productivity and reliability, particularly in business. This article describes how procrastination is directly related to self-control. By that thread, we can determine that people who are impoverished often have lower resources at their disposal with which to prevent procrastination and increase their productivity.

    Important Questions:
    What does these articles mean for the stereotype that “poor people are lazy?”
    How important is willpower for our everyday lives? It would be an interesting social experiment for us to count as individuals how often we feel we have to exercise self-control each day?
    How difficult is it to define our own preferences outside of our culture? How much are our preferences determined by other people?

    • I find your connection with culture interesting. In South Korea, where I have lived for the last eight years, self-control is valued and expected. Pressure to conform is high; group mentality spans the entire country. Koreans are encouraged to be self-controlled in studies, diet, the workplace, and social dynamics.

      But not exercise. Koreans don’t exercise as much or play as many sports as Americans do. Just from my experience I would say Americans are much more likely to go to the gym routinely.

      I agree with you. I would guess that culture allocates costs and rewards on certain behaviours. And American collegiate culture places a high value on staying fit and looking good.

    • Hi Zanele,

      Your question of whether this article may support the stereotype that “poor people are lazy” is one that I had considered. It seems to me that Holmes actually refutes the idea that lack of self-control causes poverty and demonstrates that on the contrary, poverty may cause a lack of self control.
      For instance, consider the comfort items and services like washing machines and dryers that we take for granted at Duke which saves valuable time. For those living in asset poverty, the activities done in place, going to the laundrymat or hand-washing, further depletes self-control.

    • Hi Zanele!

      I was very impressed by how you were able to synthesize the information presented in all the readings. In particular I like how you were able to provide three definitions of self-control taken from the readings.

      I, too, find it interesting that self-control is based on preferences instead of morality. With the discussion of preferences, though, comes a number of questions, some of which you raise: “How difficult is it to define our own preferences outside of our culture? How much are our preferences determined by other people?” These are some excellent questions, however I don’t understand what you mean by “our own preferences outside of our culture?” How does someone have preferences outside of their own culture? I am also concerned that people don’t always know their own preferences, let alone the preferences of others.

    • Zanele, I think your questions about the connection between culture and self-control is very interesting and applies to readings and situations beyond the Diaz piece. In my response to the Holmes article, I questioned whether the capacity for self-control varies from person to person; if the answer to this question is “yes”, it seems to me that culture is likely a major factor in this disparity. However, after reading your post and the peer replies, I now wonder whether the disparity in self-control between cultures is actually a difference in mental capacity for willpower or rather a difference in how each culture values and rewards self-control.

      I did a bit of searching, and found this very interesting article from the NY Times: Not surprisingly, the authors cite studies in which Asian children have been shown to have a greater capacity for self-control at a younger age than their American counterparts. It is an interesting read for those who want to learn more!

    • Hi, Zanele

      Thanks for making the connections between self-control, control and morality. However, I would like to raise some concerns about the validity of the 2) conclusion drawn about self-control, that is “Self control is ‘controllable.’ We are able to manipulate our actions in order to increase our own self control.” On first appearance, activists and scholars really seem to have solved the problem of “poor people’s self-control problems” by setting up either a date before which or a minimum savings amount below which they couldn’t access their own funds which increases by an incredible margin each individual’s amount of savings. Yet, on further investigation, I notice that those people’s free will are being taken away in exchange for their ability to accumulate wealth. By making default options that require no effortful self-control, they are stripped of the opportunity to exert their freedom or to strengthen their freewill muscles. The article did mention the need for empowering the individual freedom, it ends on a pessimistic note about its practicality—”While one line of research has found reason to think that drained willpower can be restored in the short term—by taking a walk in nature or watching a humorous video, for instance—studies on how to strengthen the willpower muscle in the long term are far less conclusive … While some of the strategies would be quite difficult in much of the developing world, many are not, or could be adapted.” I am worried that this new development claiming individual empowerment becomes another unsustainable effort at alleviating poverty in less developed countries.

  9. Moffit’s article pointed out a lot of interesting points from an economical, health, and ethical standpoint. It was interesting to read about the ways the public can be controlled or persuaded into making a wiser decision by almost using the lack of self-control as an advantage. By making the wiser choice the default selection, many people are more likely to choose that one because they do not have to do any extra thinking. It seems that most people who lack self-control also tend to be lazy. The article mentions the effect of others’ influences on our decision-making and ultimately our level of self-control, but I think peers, siblings, and family members have the greatest influence on our overall behavior so I would be interested in learning more about how others effect our choices and self-control. My question to Professors Dan and Cathy would be, “What is the most influential aspect of our lives that effects our level of self-control?”

    Ariely and Wertenbroch’s article was very relatable and I found it both intriguing and helpful. I am one of the people who pushes assignments off until the last minute and end up turning in something I know could have been much better had I spread out the time spent on it. Self-imposing earlier due dates on an assignment has been proven to produce higher scores than one who waits until the last minute to complete it. After reading this, one may be able to argue that self-control is controllable or at least treatable. Whether you are attempting to go on a diet or planning out an assignment there are ways to improve favorable results. I would be interested in seeing if there was a way to measure the quality of an assignment spread out with self-imposed dates as opposed to a last minute assignment. My question to Dan and Cathy would be, “Why are people more likely to comply to dates set by themselves rather than dates assigned by professors etc.?”

  10. I really enjoyed these readings. The articles told me about myself and human nature; their findings can be applied from daily life to big world issues such as poverty. The short story was delivered raw. It was a juicy insight into the mind of a cheater.

    “Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment” and “Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?”

    To summarize: Ariely and Wertenbroch find that spaced deadlines are better because we procrastinate, and externally imposed deadlines are best. Holmes reports that willpower is a scarce resource and saving willpower—that is, doing away with some decisions—means that you can control yourself better later.

    What does this mean for education? Professors should set spaced deadlines. Many already do. And taking away the choice of now versus later leaves only the option of now. The way to succeed in self-control is to have, or give yourself, no choice. Then self-control isn’t really self-control at all but self-forcing. That leaves willpower or decision-making reservoirs to use on other tasks.

    And yet we hate deadlines. They stress us. Ariely and Wertenbroch’s second study, the proofreading one, shows that those who performed best were the most unsatisfied. They had spaced, external deadlines.

    So we face a trade-off between performance and satisfaction when dealing with undesirable tasks. It makes sense that undesirable tasks are the ones we have the most self-control problems with. Take this a step further and it’s really a trade-off between performance and choice. The more choice we have the worse we do. The more choice we are the happier we are, perhaps because we do less of the unsatisfying task thus perform worse.

    But maybe knowing these results can help. So here’s my question:
    We struggle with work we don’t like. The more we work, the better we do, but the less happier we are. Does knowing that you perform better and earn more add some other satisfaction that offsets the dissatisfaction from doing work? Is that why we self-impose happiness reducing deadlines?

    “The Cheater’s Guide to Love”

    The narrator never explains why he did it. He didn’t know what he had until she was gone. Perhaps he undervalued how much she meant to him. If he didn’t, then he must’ve believed the risk of getting caught was very low.

    I want to know why he did it. Where was the guilt? Did it stop at two, or three, or four, or fourty? I think there does exist diminishing marginal guilt. That would be a cool study. The first or second time is always the worst.

    When he was cheating it might not have felt like a big deal. His friends do it. They talk about it, and then laugh about it. It becomes trivialized. They love their wives, and would maybe die for them too. In their minds cheating and their wives are independent and unrelated decisions. It’s just when the two spheres cross they become associated.

    It reminds me of Lance Armstrong. This is what he said in his interview.

    The former Tour de France icon said he did not think there was anything wrong with what he was doing at the time he did it — something he today finds “scary.” That he didn’t feel guilty was in retrospect “even scarier.”

    That he did not think it was cheating is the “scariest” part. “I viewed it as a level playing field,” he said, where most everybody doped.

    He didn’t feel guilty; it wasn’t a big deal. And there’s no point in talking about self-control when you tell yourself there’s nothing to control. It’s only when you understand the risk and cost that you admit, damn, I need to control myself.

    So my question is:
    What studies, if any, show the relationship between raising the cost or risk and the amount of self-control? Drug addicts face high risks and costs, yet they still can’t control themselves. At that severity, would there be any cost or risk high enough to make them stop?

    • Hey Batman!

      I’m not sure work is inherently happiness-reducing; after all, many people enjoy the work they do and don’t always need extra motivation (external or otherwise) to get it done. I think, though, that you’re right in pinpointing the undesirable aspects. People generally do things they like to do, or know is good for them in the long term, but come across some short-term difficulties that they have to overcome. NBA players love what they do, but none of those players would claim to never have needed to push himself on certain days. Sometimes, though, we do have to do things we inherently don’t enjoy for other reasons–taking a class you don’t actually like because it’s a requirement, working a tough, not-very-meaningful job because you need to support your family, etc.

      But all of it boils down to, I think, short-term dissatisfaction for long-term gain. (After all, if there were nothing to gain in the future, why would we ever subject ourselves to misery in the first place?) And what’s key is how to “trick” ourselves into overcoming the short-term obstacles for benefits down the road.


      To tangentially address your second question–and I think he would be better suited to talk about this, maybe you want to ask this in class–but Professor Ariely writes about how overcompensating CEOs with bonuses actually reduces their performance. This is slightly different than what you’re asking, since Ariely was talking about raising compensation and not costs, but I wonder if they share similarities in principle. It seems plausible that a high degree of anything at stake could cause somebody to “shut down,” but we’d probably have to explore this further.

    • Hi Batman

      Its interesting how you make the distinction between self-control and self-forcing with different sources of deadlines, internal and external, respectively. I tried to explain it in my writing as internal or external motivators, but I also agree with your definition. It was very interesting for me how we seem to depend on external sources to be able to execute self-control. So I wonder, how long can we go by just depending on external sources?

      I think you make a great point in your commentary about Diaz’s short story by saying that the narrator never explains his reasoning. Each time the narrator does something that he later regrets, he never really explains what goes on in his thought process that leads him to do it. Further, I found the idea of diminishing marginal guilt really interesting. The more we do something “bad” the less guilty it feels. We get lost in the feeling of satisfaction that we get from what we do and the idea of guilt dissolves in our minds, we forget why it was initially wrong to do it. Same goes for the case for Lance Armstrong as you explained.

  11. Daniel Goldstein: The battle between your present and future self

    1) I first learned about the aging technology like Daniel Goldstein’s “behavioral time machine” in the book “Drop Dead Healthy” by A.J. Jacobs. In this book, Jacobs writes about his journey trying to become the healthiest man alive. But being healthy, as it turns out, requires a lot of self-control, so Jacobs creates a commitment device, “Future AJ”, using aging software. Like the participants in Goldstein’s experiments, Jacobs took better care of himself when he looked at Future AJ.

    Having read Jacobs’ book, Goldstein’s talks repeated a lot of what I already knew; however, Goldstein mad me think about the downsides of pre-commitment, something I had never previously considered. But I don’t think that using commitment devices makes humans weak. As Goldstein says, we can usually weasel our way out of self-enforced commitment devices, so we must rely on self-discipline for these devices to work. Therefore, it is the combination of pre-commitment and discipline that allows commitment devices to work.

    Another fun example of a commitment device is this alarm clock ( which donates money to an organization you hate every time you hit the snooze button. In all the times that I’ve told people about this alarm clock, though, I’ve never heard of anyone wanting to buy it. As Goldstein recalled in creating his commitment device for writing every day, donating to the Neo-Nazis was too harsh a repercussion for not writing.

    Commitment devices work because we are adverse to potential loss. However, it seems that if that potential loss is extremely severe, we disregard its credibility of as a threat. I’m curious to learn about what types of commitment devices work and which ones don’t, and how severity of device affects a device’s salience.

    2) Questions about the reading: I’m interested to learn more about the software that David Goldstein has developed. What kind of company uses his software?

    3) So many industries rely on our inability to exercise self-control (i.e. weight loss, gambling, junk food industries). What would it mean for our economy if everyone had better self control? What would happen to our employment structure/national GDP? Certainly demand for some products would fall. What would result?

    Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?

    1) When I read about the SEED accounts and “commitment products” mentioned in this article, I was reminded of the weight-loss game I read about in “Art of Strategy” by Dixit and Nalebuff. Nalebuff writes about how he used game theory to make the behind-the-scenes staff of the Bridgeport Bluefish minor league baseball team lose weight (

    “Each volunteer from the Bluefish agreed to model a tiny bathing suit and have photographs taken. They signed an agreement that says if they do not lose 15 pounds in two months, the embarrassing photos will go up on a Jumbotron scoreboard during one of the team’s home games.”

    The game worked. (Read more about it here:

    Both the SEED accounts and Nalebuff’s weight loss game show how commitment products help individuals exercise self-control, same as the software in Daniel Goldstein’s TEDTalk.

    This article, however, opened my eyes to the fact that poverty requires much more self-control than affluence. This is something I had considered before, but had never thought much about in detail. In particular, I began to wonder how our economy exploits these individuals who have depleted their self-control? After being “good” all day – following a diet, going to work, etc. – turning down the dessert after dinner is incredibly difficult.

    2) If we know how to use Ulysses’ pre-commitment strategy to prevent undesirable behavior, why don’t more people use it? Why do self-control problems persist if we know how to solve them? What work is being done to match people with commitment products?

    3) What barriers are there to the development of commitment products/devices ? Why don’t we see them advertised more frequently?

  12. “Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty”

    1. I found this article to be interesting, albeit a bit disheartening. Holmes’ assertion that people living in poverty not only have fewer choices available, but also face more difficulties when making those choices, is a troubling finding. However, these conclusions can be used to develop new strategies for anti-poverty efforts that focus on decreasing willpower costs and helping poor people avoid mentally taxing tradeoff decisions. Though the article mentioned it briefly, I am curious to learn more about exercises that could strengthen will power in the long term, ultimately giving both poor and wealthy individuals alike more power over their decisions.
    2. The reading mentions “that drained willpower can be restored in the short term—by taking a walk in nature or watching a humorous video, for instance—.” Without these strategies, how long after a mentally taxing tradeoff decision is our willpower depleted? In other words, how long does it take for self-control to reset? Or, do we have a finite amount of willpower that is slowly chipped away by our daily tradeoff decisions, never to be restored?
    3. How would you go about trying to strengthen your own willpower muscle in the long term? Are these strategies adaptable to the developing world or is this line of research unrealistic as an anti-poverty effort?

    “The Cheater’s Guide to Love”

    1. First of all, let me echo previous comments in saying that I love Junot Diaz’s books, and This Is How You Lose Her is no exception. Though I had already read this story, reading it again while thinking about self-control gave me a whole new perspective on the piece. In “The Cheater’s Guide to Love”, the evolution of Yunior’s character can be seen as a struggle of self-control. As he transitions from a shamelessly cheating fiancée to a lonely workout buff, Yunior experiences the consequences of his lapse in willpower. What is surprising to me is that though Elvis sees Yunior’s resulting depression firsthand, he seems unconcerned that the same thing could happen to him, a cheating spouse as well.
    2. Along this line of thought, does Elvis believe he is immune to the self-control problems plaguing Yunior? Or, does he know that his cheating could eventually leave him depressed and alone, yet is unable to exert the willpower to stop it? As both Elvis and Yunior experience the loss of a child presumed to be their own, I am interested in the parallels between these two characters.
    3. More generally, how does witnessing the experiences of others influence our own tradeoff decisions? Are we more likely to exert willpower if we witness the consequences of a peer’s lack of self-control? If not, how are we able to ignore/rationalize such an obvious warning?

    • So, I like that you pointed out that Elvis reflects Yunior; in my own comment, I emphasize the similarities between them. However, I hadn’t considered the characters in this light: as sort of tragically fated to similar mistakes. It seems that Yunior, though he should serve as an example to Elvis, and his trials do not have an impact on Elvis’s considerations. Thus, we have scenes where Elvis brings along his ‘girlfriend’ despite having a wife –this is especially poignant because it occurs at one of Yunior’s low points (it’s sad that it’s ‘one’ of the low points, since he has had several). The irony makes the theme of self-control more affecting because it implies that we are not prescient enough to learn from the mistakes of others, even when we are faced with immediate examples of the consequences.
      Taking your question into account, I did a quick Google search and found this:
      The study states that we do learn from other’s mistakes. However, this is the only study I found on this, and one study does not fact make. It’s interesting to compare it to personal anecdote, specifically Diaz’s Yunior and Elvis. Maybe there is a difference in when we are able to learn from other’s mistakes, such as when we are in direct competition. It would make sense that we’d be sensitive to the mistakes of our opponents –in an effort to beat them. But in a Yunior-Elvis relationship, the competition isn’t quite there. Thus, there is a sense of detachment or delusion: “that’ll never happen to me.” And to some extent, it doesn’t quite happen to Elvis. Better self-control or better at faking it?

      • Thanks for the article! I like your point about direct competition, which forces us to apply others’ mistakes directly to our own actions. I wonder if we can somehow harness that in a Yunior-Elvis type relationship to improve our willpower and make better decisions.

  13. Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?
    Jamie Holmes

    1) It is interesting to consider self-control as a muscle, as opposed to a rule. Before reading the article, I would typically consider a person to either possess or not possess self-control, as an absolute scale. However, this article is pointing to the fact that it is like a muscle. We are constantly using it, and we become fatigued by it. The most draining form of self-control is financial self-control, something that is constantly utilized by individuals on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.

    One opinion I had on the studies is that they seem to deal with guilt more than self-control fatigue. In the “sweet vs. radishes” experiment, those who disobeyed the instructions and ate the sweets may be more tempted to make more of an effort to please the experimenters by trying harder on the test. Whereas those who successfully resisted the sweets may have already felt accomplished in their task, and therefore felt no incentive to continue to make an effort with the puzzle.

    The author insists that, much like money, self-control is a resource that must be more intelligently allocated in order to escape poverty. The solution seems to be “commitment products”. Products and services that force people to save, allowing them to alleviate their constant worry of financial restraints that force them to make sub-par decisions in other aspects of their lives.

    2) In Eldar Shafir implying that because the poor are constantly making financial trade off decisions, they lack the self-control in other aspects of their lives? How does this limit their ability to escape poverty if they are constantly in a financially responsible mindset? The opposite seems more intuitive to me.

    3) Do you think this “allocation” of self-control is more based on time, or across different facets of our life? For example, the studies make it seem like when we are presented with multiple choices in a short amount of time, we grow fatigued. However, do longer trends exist? For instance, those who exert lots of self-control and effort in their interpersonal relationships lack the same drive in their work and other areas?

    Self-Control by Precommitment
    Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch

    1) Self-control problems often arise because of time-inconsistent preferences. This is a topic I have studied briefly in economics, and fits in well with the topic at hand. We often set deadlines and restrictions for ourselves in the future, but that is only because we do not feel the punishment or negative effect of that restriction until the future. When it comes time to face the reality (not ordering a crème brulée), we often fail miserably at maintaining those restrictions. In reinforcing these restrictions that we know are beneficial for ourselves, it is essential to change our behaviors to set ourselves up for success.

    In the study conducted, it is very interesting to note the results. People want to set deadlines for themselves to avoid procrastination, even though these self-imposed deadlines come to the detriment of the quality of their work. This seems consistent with college life for me, as people are more often concerned with finishing an assignment than the success of that assignment. From my observations, the stress with having an assignment in the back of ones mind for weeks is worse than the disappointment of actually receiving a slightly lower grade on that assignment. It would be an interesting study to conduct, if in fact this was the cause of the inefficiency of these self-imposed deadlines.

    The fact that externally imposed deadlines improve work performance greater than self-imposed deadlines also does not surprise me. When other factors set the deadline for us, we typically think there is a good reason for it, and thus we believe we can do our best work under these circumstances. However, self-imposed deadlines are often very arbitrary, and we know this. Therefore, we have no basis for believing we can produce our best work in that moment, and thus produce less meaningful work.

    2) The article focuses on deadlines in a purely academic setting, however we set all different kinds of deadlines for ourselves. Would these conclusions change if tested in different settings?

    3) How can we more effectively set deadlines for ourselves, given that we are often inefficient in these practices?

    • I couldn’t help but think it would be interesting to analyze the content this week’s class blogs – examining differences for submissions where authors like me posted close to the deadline as compared with students who posted earlier in the week. The graph below shows my basic tally of the word count in this week’s student blog posts (the red circle indicates those who posted an hour before or after the deadline). Of course word count is not a substitute variable for the quality or worth of a blog post. It doesn’t look like early submissions have an indication of more or less writing.

      I appreciated James P. Duke’s comment: “we have no basis for believing we can produce our best work in that moment”. The comment got me thinking about how self-confidence is an important component of self-control. Perhaps if I had more confidence in the ideas I presented in the blog post I would have posted earlier and not have spend as much time reevaluating arguments.

  14. “A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety”

    1) I thought that this experiment was very interesting, and impressed that the experimenters could carry out the process so professionally. The question of whether self-control affects your health, wealth, and public safety later in life seems like a daunting inquisition to find a solution to. One of their findings was: “as adults, children with poor self-control were rated by their informants as having alcohol and drug problems.” I think that adults with self-control issues were more likely to become addicted is obvious; however, I think that it is very interesting that there is a correlation of 10 year olds with self-control issues and adults with alcoholism or tobacco addiction.

    2) Questions that I have about this reading are about prevention. Is there anything parents can do to prevent self-control issues? Can people modify their lifestyles in order to prevent self-control problems down the road? What is the point of this research if we cannot use it to prevent health, wealth, or criminal problems that individuals and our country face?

    3) Dan and Cathy, is there any way that we can prevent self-control issues of 10 year olds or pre-pubescent youths so that we can live in a world of less crime, less wealth inequality, and less health problems?

    Breaking Bad, Season 1, Episode 1 “Pilot”

    1) Breaking Bad is one of my favorite television series of all-time. The character development of Walt and Jesse throughout the five seasons keeps me interested and wanted more after every episode. Watching the pilot again brought me back to my dorm room sophomore year, where I first began the series. This episode had everything in it that I love: a meltdown by Walt, a drug best, near death experiences left and right, and more importantly self-control issues of Walt. Instead of asking for financial assistance from friends or family members, Walt decides to make the money for his chemo treatments from making meth with his former student Jesse. After watching this episode (and the first four and a half seasons), I am inspired to learn more about the ever-changing motives of Walt.

    2) Why does Walt “break bad”? Why does he constantly put his life in danger in order to provide for his family? He is obviously a very serious and intelligent man. Then why would he get himself in the meth business? I think that the issue of self-control in the pilot episode is actually not so much as the issue of pride. Walt does not want help from others. In turn, I guess that his pride become something that he loses control over—he cannot stop even when the thing that he is trying to provide for is taken away (his family). Family is typically at the forefront of Walt’s motives; however, when clearly his new profession becomes detrimental to his family, he loses sight of this focus and is fully consumed by cooking. There are crucial details that I do not wish to talk about in fear of ruining the twists and turns of this plot development over the course of the series. But I will say this much, there are other factors that prevent Walt from fully dropping his ill-fated profession.

    3) My question for Dan and Cathy: What do you think is the real motive behind Walter’s choice to becoming a cook? I think that it is predominantly pride, not lack of self-control. Can you bridge this gap between having one of the seven deadly sins and having no self-control?

    • Butter,

      I think your analysis of Breaking Bad is spot on and can lead to some interesting discussions. Yes, I think one of the part of the reasoning behind Walt’s rash decisions is pride, in the fact that he does not want to seek financial assistance from others. But, I think there is more to it than that. Like they say, “curiosity killed the cat”. Look at Walt’s situation, he is a middle-aged man whose life has no real excitement or uncertainty. Of course he is looking to spice things up by becoming a cook (no pun intended). I think the self-control aspect has more to do with his long-winded fall into chaos, and not his initial decision. He lacks self-control because he begins down a dangerous path and does not have the courage or strength to get out of it.

      As far as the morality aspect of it goes, I think danj brought up some good points. Can we accepts Walt’s initial inappropriate behavior by rationalizing that he was doing it to save himself. At first, it seems there are no other intentions, and Walt is simply looking to utilize his skills in the most utilitarian way possible. He has a unique skill set, and one that pays well. Walt is paid well for his services. I think choosing to pursue this path would not be an uncommon choice if phrased in this way. So, is Walt to blame for his choices in the first episode?


  15. Holmes – Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?

    1, 2. I had heard of theories of decision fatigue before, especially with regards to judges granting parole, but I never thought to apply such a theory to larger societal issues like poverty, especially one that suffers from so many systemic issues at its root. It makes sense that those with limited resources must use more mental energy in tradeoff calculations, but I admit I am skeptical of how effective addressing this particular issue will be in poverty alleviation efforts in general, and I don’t think Holmes produces any terribly innovative solutions.

    Holmes offers four suggestions. The first, to increase institutional support for reducing willpower costs (like financial “commitment products”), strikes me as fairly plausible. However, implementation requires broad support from both financial and governmental institutions, and it seems to me that obtaining this support is one of the major difficulties about alleviating poverty in the first place. But even if this were not a major obstacle, I like to think that long-term solutions tend to be bottom-up rather than top-down anyway (though of course, cooperation at both the grassroots and governmental levels is crucial).

    Holmes’ second suggestion struck me as somewhat obvious; increased efficiency leads to more time for other productive pursuits, which moves a society forward. My impression is that people are already working on cheap, time- and energy-efficient methods for daily household needs—think One Laptop Per Child , or the energy-efficient stoves Holmes mentioned. The problem, then, isn’t that we need to “rethink our approaches to poverty reduction,” as it were, but it’s that these solutions don’t appear to be widely implemented. So the real question is how we address that, another issue altogether that Holmes doesn’t really address.

    Holmes’ fourth suggestion seems the least likely to me. “Willpower development” programs seem like a luxury of the developed world at best, and near impossible to implement in places that struggle with much more tangible concerns. Holmes even admits that many of these would be difficult to implement (he says some could be implemented, but doesn’t specify), and that research has been fruitful only for children anyway. But I wonder if research on the effectiveness of such programs would be more fruitful if they were conducted here, or in third-world countries.

    Bottom line: I think this idea of decision fatigue and limited mental resources makes sense, but I remain skeptical about how effective this research could be to combat poverty.

    This is perhaps straying slightly off topic, but I would like to point out something interesting: some anthropologists, like Marshall Sahlins, posit a theory that actually indicates that hunter-gatherers (maybe people we might consider “poor”) were in fact the “original affluent society.” In order for members to survive and have their wants met, they actually had to work many fewer hours than what people in industrialized societies do today. The rest of their time would be devoted to leisure, and in fact, Sahlins suggests that as cultures evolve, leisure time decreases.

    3. It seems that the most effective ways that the theory of decision fatigue have been implemented thus far tend to be individual-centric—how to stop procrastinating, how to get work done more efficiently, etc. Other than Holmes’ suggestions for poverty alleviation, in what larger, macro-level, societal ways can this knowledge of our self-control deficiencies be implemented, if at all?

    Ariely – Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance

    1, 2. I think most students know, from experience, that having spaced out deadlines is better for productivity than having everything due at the last possible moment (or at least, I’ve certainly learned this). What I found interesting is how students would balance the conflicting forces of self-imposed deadlines and the rationality of choosing the last possible deadline. I think the results say something about what how people view themselves, actually. We recognize that we struggle with self-control, so we won’t choose the last possible deadline—but we also either think that we’re not so completely incapable of doing our work, or we think that we do this, that we don’t choose completely evenly spaced deadlines either.

    I’m curious about what the bottom line is. On the one hand, we want to maximize our GPA; on the other, we want to minimize the amount of work we have to do. The bottom line can’t possibly be to maximize GPA only; otherwise we’d work all the time, and deadlines would never be an issue. Do our decisions in self-imposing deadlines reflect something about how we balance effort minimization and result maximization?

    3. Do you think perfect self-control would rob us of our humanity? Why or why not?

  16. Jamie Holmes – “Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?”

    1) As a senior whose college career has really come to be defined by two years of research on the black homeless men of Los Angeles’ Skid Row, I have certainly learned a significant amount about constraints engendered by the social institutions and individual’s identity issues/constructions. I thought that by now, I would have the solution to the issue of homelessness or perhaps just understand these marginalized individuals better. In actuality, I’ve only emerged more confused and perhaps just a bit disillusioned by the issue; practically everyone that I met in the field got to the place that they were in due to the failure of or discrimination as a result of institutions and social constructions like the prison system, education system, family, etc. But on the other hand, their stories were wrought with personal ill-advised decisions that were surely contributing factors to their state of homelessness. To blame just the institutions or just the individual is unfair. I often would ask myself, as I interviewed them, “Why did you steal from that guy? Or why did you run away from home? Or why did you let yourself get into prison?” And the list goes on.

    This article, however, made me understand their situation through the lens of human willpower. While I often was quick to judge them for the times in which they stole or sold drugs, I now realize that perhaps their preoccupation with having to find food and shelter each moment of the day made them have poor self-control. Their free will was practically nonexistent due to their state of poverty and focus on the things that we take for granted on a daily basis.

    2) The article makes the point that the wealthy are able to “spend more time focusing on what’s important” due to comfort products that free up time and eliminate the sorts of calculations of opportunity costs that plague the minds of the poor. While the luxuries of having a washing machine and an overstocked refrigerator differentiate the well-off from the poor and cause the former to not have to worry about finding clean clothes or food, does this not mean that they in reality have more time to preoccupy themselves with things that might produce even greater stress for them? It’s not as if the wealthy or well-off do just spend their time focusing on what’s important. This free time causes those individuals to fill their lives with more commitments and opportunities for stress and decision-making that could ultimately impair their levels of self-control.

    3) What are your thoughts on having government attach conditions to their transfers of money – requiring school attendance, regular clinic visits, savings behavior, etc. – in order to improve the state of homelessness in the United States? Does government have the means to initiate and maintain such an infrastructure? Wouldn’t having strings attached to these transfers ultimately diminish their desirability in the eyes of the homeless, and consequently decrease overall social welfare in the US?

    Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch – “Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance”

    1) The two studies described in this article approach the three questions raised in a fascinating manner. Individuals are willing to self-impose meaningful deadlines in order to combat procrastination and such deadlines actually improve the task performance. We tend to give ourselves little credit when it comes to self-control. In actuality, this study illustrates that though we may not realize it all the time, many of the actions that we take are actually steeped in our commitment to control – of our desires, our time, our ideas, etc. As the study indicates, people are actually willing to forgo quantity discounts on goods that they could potentially be tempted to overconsume. This action reflects the action of paying a “self-control premium” that implements a “precommitment strategy” that curbs our consumption of such pleasures. There have been countless times when I’ve been in a grocery store and had to ignore a promotion for my favorite chocolate or ice cream. Instead of paying $6.99 for one pint of the already sinful Häagen-Dazs cookie dough chip, I could get two pints for just $9.99. The offer is always tempting, but I always rationalize my decision to not get two pints not because of the monetary cost but because of the cost to my health. I know myself well enough to foretell that I would eat both pints on my own over a short course of time. I consistently pay a heavy self-control premium in order to curb my enjoyment of these pleasures. The results of this study have thereby opened my eyes to the sorts of decisions that I make on a daily basis in which I actually do show more self-control than I assume to have.

    2) How might the results of Study 1 differed if the students in the course were not professionals and were MIT undergraduates? Perhaps the frequency distribution of the declared deadlines might have been different due to the fact that students would have determined deadlines based upon the rigor and deadlines of their other courses.

    3) Do you think that the nature of contract grading – that the student knows exactly what he/she must do in order to get a particular grade – is a sustainable method for students to “bind themselves” in order to overcome procrastination?

    • Hey jatlantis,

      First of all, your research sounds really interesting and I’d love to learn more about it at some point. As you said, Holmes’ article brings a new perspective to the issue of homelessness. Given your background with the topic, I’m curious to know if you think his argument is valid. Though it seems like a sound argument in theory and experiment, having actually spoken to the individuals in question would help you better evaluate his findings.

      I also found your comment about the wealthy to be very interesting. I agree with you that though they do not have to make the same daily life or death decisions, they must find other sources of stressful decision making. Do the high stress jobs that are often tied to wealth come into play? Or the pressure of maintaing said wealth and status? Since well off individuals are not accustomed to making stressful tradeoff decisions like the poor, could they actually be worse decision makers or have less self control?

  17. A Gradient of Public Childhood Self-Control Predicts Health, Wealth, and Public Safety
    1)What did you learn in this reading? or, After reading this text, what are you inspired to learn more about?
    This longitudinal study looked into how self-control factors into children’s lives up until they reach the age of 32. The study showed that children with greater self-control were more likely to have higher IQ’s and come from socioeconomically advantaged families. Children with poor self-control were at higher risks for substance dependence, more likely to have financial difficulties, and more likely to be convicted of a criminal offense. Children with poor self control were more likely to make mistakes as adolescents that would hamper them down the road. These snares that tended to cripple them down the road included smoking by the age of 15, leaving school early, and being an unplanned teen parent. The more of these snares that the adolescents encountered the more likely they were as adults to have poor health, less income and criminal conviction. If order to combat this Moffitt et al came up with the idea of using opt-out policies on people with low self-control. By making healthy eating and saving money default programs the people with less self-control are less likely to want to put in the effort to opt-out of the programs.

    After reading this article I became inspired to learn about how parenting techniques can influence children with high and low self-esteem.

    2)What questions do you have about this reading?
    Why not start early on and instill values that increase the self-control of children? How would we go about doing this? Instead of using intervention methods what child-rearing techniques can parents utilize on their children to help increase their self-control before they reach adolescence?

    3)What is a well-formed question about or related to this reading that you would like us to ask Professors Dan and Cathy?
    How much of an influence do you feel authoritative parenting can have on a child and to what extent can it increase their self-control if utilized early on and continually through adolescence? I hypothesize that authoritarian parenting may be one of the best ways to empower children to have high self-control.

    Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment
    1) What did you learn in this reading? or, After reading this text, what are you inspired to learn more about?
    This study performed by Ariely and Wertenbroch looked into self-control and time commitments in regard to deadlines. This was a two part study. The first study took place at MIT and involved 99 participants. There were two sections. Students in the free choice section were given instructions on how to set self-imposed deadlines on three papers that were due by the end of the semester. It was to the students benefit to assign the due dates of all three papers at the end of the semester because for each day that a paper is overdue the student gets 1% taken away from the grade on that paper. Students in the no-choice section were assigned due dates for the three papers over the semester. The three papers were due at third intervals of the semester.

    Interestingly enough most of the students in the free choice section did not self-impose deadlines for the end of the semester. They ended up choosing costlier deadlines in order to combat procrastination. Students in the no-choice section actually ended up scoring higher than students in the free-choice section. Students took the self-imposed deadlines less seriously than the no-choice deadlines. This is something that we frequently witness in society. We are much more likely to follow deadlines of authority figures (e.g. professors) than we will our own self-imposed deadlines (e.g. going to the gym each morning).

    The second study also took place at MIT involving 60 students. It asked for the students to proofread three texts and they were rewarded $0.10 for each mistake they found. However, for each day they were late in turning in the text they were penalized $1. There were three conditions. Students could either turn in one of the three texts every seven days, submit all three papers at the end of 21 days, or self-impose deadlines for each text. The evenly spaced deadlines ended up getting students the most optimal results. Students in the evenly spaced deadlines section ended up detecting the most errors, had the fewest delays in submission, and ended up earning the most compensation. The self-imposed deadlines ended up being more optimal than the end-of-semester deadlines but not quite as efficient as evenly spaced deadlines.

    2) What questions do you have about this reading?
    In the second study students were rewarded $0.10 for each error detected and penalized $1 for each day that the paper was turned in late. I wonder how the results would have changed if the design were different. If students were penalized more than $1 would students be more inclined to choose the end deadline or would it not matter because the penalty they receive from this task may not be as meaningful to them in the long run as the penalty they receive by not getting a ood grade in the first study? If the students were compensated more than $0.10 for each error detected would the self-imposed and end deadline students be more inclined to perform better because the stakes are higher?

    3) What is a well-formed question about or related to this reading that you would like us to ask Professors Dan and Cathy?
    Deadlines are powerful influencers. I am curious in hearing novel ways that you have implemented deadlines with companies or clients that you both have beenmworking with to help them become more efficient?

    • Hi bluedevil4life!

      When reading the article “A Gradient of Public Childhood Self-Control Predicts Health, Wealth, and Public Safety,” I too tried to think up solutions as to what’s the best way to instill self-control habits in children at an early age. If self-control issues lead to so many negative outcomes down the road, then society must make an effort to find a solution. I think that your question proposed for Dan and Cathy is interesting and thought provoking. Can authoritative parents be the solution that we are all looking for? I think that perhaps in some cases (or even a majority of cases) authoritative parents may lead their children to have better self-control. However, did you consider the fact that some children, especially teenagers, who have authoritative parents, choose to rebel against their strict parents? I have friends and acquaintances that have really strict parents–a fact which in turn leads to them wanting to rebel and choose paths filled with drug abuse or unhealthy lifestyle decisions. Moreover, one of my close friends had parents who were extremely hands off. He would often live in his house for days at a time without seeing either of his parents, but he remains one of the smartest, and self-controlled, people that I know.

      Perhaps the question then to socioeconomic status. Maybe the best way to achieve a larger population of people with self-control is to improve our public schooling system, or increase job growth, or decrease the wealth inequality gap. I know that these solutions are difficult to achieve to bring about, but I think that the connection of socioeconomic status and self-control is too striking to dismiss.

    • Hi bluedevil4 life,
      I wanted to try to answer your question of how going about increasing self-control of children, there is this study titled “Delay of Gratification in Children” by Mischel et. al. ( in which they studied self-control in children.
      They saw that the children that delayed gratification used different techniques to distract themselves and not think or look at the marshmallow. Then they suggested this type of distraction to kids and increased their ability to delay gratification. These sorts of techniques can be taught to children, so they could be used to increase self-control in children. The study is inconclusive on the results in long-term of these techniques; however, with my knowledge of cognitive psychology (relatively limited), I think if parents are devoted enough that they constantly encourage their children to practice these techniques it could be possible to reroute the cognitive processes they use when they are in situations that require self-control. Nevertheless, we would have to test if it actually has a long-term impact on health, wealth, and public safety.
      I guess that the most important issue to address is to increase parental awareness of the importance of self-control in children, the impacts that it can have for their child’s future, and give them guidance on how to reinforce self-control in their child.

  18. Jamie Holmes, “Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?”

    1) I found this article on the connection between willpower and poverty to be extremely interesting and eye-opening. As the author discusses, this “psychological driver” of poverty has crucial implications for poverty reduction strategies and policies. However, my greatest takeaway from the Holmes article is this concept of “depletable” self-control. Previously, I viewed self-control as an inherent quality or skill—something that could be honed or improved over time but was more or less dependent on the individual. For example, a successful dieter must have “strong willpower” while one who failed is “weaker”. The Holmes’ article opened my eyes to the fact that our ability to control urges and impulses is dependent upon the other tradeoffs and difficult decisions we make, and that some people are forced to make more of these tradeoffs than others. I immediately thought about the connection between poverty and obesity—which some studies have shown are linked ( However, while some people the link to the fact that highly nutritious fresh foods are too expensive for a poor household, I think they may be missing the fact that poorer households have so many more tradeoffs to make during the day, thus reducing their capacity to stick to a diet. In addition, wealthy individuals can “pay” for self-control mechanisms like Weight Watchers, while such options are unavailable to poorer individuals. It would be interesting to explore this connection between obesity, poverty, and self-control further.

    2) After reading this article, I had several questions about the mechanics of depletable self-control. First, can willpower be depleted due to other external factors (like grief), or can it only be depleted from prior exertion of willpower? Do certain activities require a greater exertion of self-control than others? Does the capacity for self-control and rate of depletion vary between individuals? If so, what characterizes a person who has a greater capacity for self-control?

    3) My question for Professors Ariely and Davidson is whether they believe that self-control is a “muscle” that can be trained and strengthened, and what evidence they have seen to support (or disprove) this idea.

    Junot Diaz, “A Cheater’s Guide to Love”

    1) I thought it was very interesting to look at self-control from the literary perspective in Diaz’s “A Cheater’s Guide to Love”. Although it was a fictional piece, I enjoyed reading about the topic from a more personal, first-person perspective. Like my peers, I did not immediately make the connection between Yunior’s story and this week’s topic. Yunior never explicitly discusses self-control. He doesn’t describe his thoughts or feelings while he cheated, or exactly what caused him to be overcome by impulse. However, after reflecting on the piece again, I believe that Diaz’s piece simply gives us a different perspective on self-control. The psychological studies answer the “whys” and the “hows”—why do we eat that chocolate cake when we’re on a diet? Why do we buy that new gadget when we need the money for essentials? How do the self-control mechanisms in our brain work? On the other hand, Yunior’s journey focuses on the “whats”: What happens when impulse overcomes willpower? What is the reaction of the individual and those around them? What impact does it have on the individual in his or her future actions and beliefs? Although this piece focuses on cheating, I think these personal questions can be considered in any scenario where self-control is important. Though Yunior’s downward spiral may be drastic, I imagine that such scenarios are not uncommon when a person is overcome by impulse and acts contrary to how they wish to.

    After reading this piece, I am inspired to learn more the social psychology of self-control and cheating. It seems that self-control (or lack thereof) is a frequented topic in the worlds of literature, music, television, and movies. In addition, cheating scandals in the news seem to captivate the world. Thus, I would be interested to learn more about the “mechanics” of cheating. Though we never fully learn why Yunior did what he did, I think it would be interesting to learn why people cheat, even though they know it will hurt themselves and others.

    2) After reading the piece, my questions focused more on the literature than the topic. To what extent is Yunior a reflection of the author? Is the story partially non-fiction? If not, what was the inspiration for the character? Finally, since this short story is part of a “This is How You Lose Her”, I’m curious what inspired Diaz to write an entire compilation of stories about love and cheating.

    3) Regarding a question for Professors Ariely and Davidson, I’d be curious to know what studies have been done on cheating and self-control in relationships and how those studies confirm or contradict the thoughts and actions of Diaz’s protagonist.

  19. “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” by Junot Diaz
    1) Love this throwback to freshman year! (Those of you who were too young to get to meet Junot Diaz missed out). I didn’t even realize at first that the character was the narrator from Oscar Wao…I read the name “Yunior” midway through and thought…wait a minute, that sounds familiar. I loved the contrast between the protagonist in Oscar Wao and the protagonist here, and how Diaz is able to make both jump off the page in completely different ways. Oscar was the lovable dork, who couldn’t get a girl as hard as he tried, and Yunior is the complete opposite – a badass womanizer and cheater, who somehow still comes off as a sympathetic character.
    This reading reminds me of a study involving cross-cultural cheating, where cheating was broken down into 3 main categories: 1) cheating to get ahead (in academics or at work); 2) cheating in love/personal life; 3) cheating the law. The question is: how are the different types of cheating perceived in different cultures? I might hypothesize that in individualistic societies such as the United States, cheating in the workplace is a much more serious offense than cheating at home, whereas in Communist societies like China, cheating in the home is a greater offense than cheating in school, which is actually highly prevalent and pretty much ignored, if not encouraged. Which leads me to….

    2) Diaz’s racially charged narrative makes me wonder to what degrees are the different types of cheating offensive in the Dominican culture? Yunior is obviously highly intelligent, a professor at Harvard, and seems to have been successful throughout life both in his career and with women (up until he loses his fiancee). Given this background, and switching gears from cheating to self-control, how is it that Yunior is able to exhibit so much self-control in his professional life (this isn’t expressed explicitly, but if we take into account the study that successful people tend to exhibit greater self-control, we can assume that he probably worked very hard to get to where he is), but could not exhibit an ounce of self-control when it came to being faithful to his fiancee? This also ties into the reading about poverty and self-control depletion: perhaps using up too much willpower in his professional life left him with too little in his personal life. Do we think that maybe the societal norms in his culture swayed him to forego one type of willpower for another?

    3) Race is a prevalent issue in all of Junot Diaz’s works. To what extent do you think race has influence over self-control in one’s professional life vs. personal life?

    “Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?
    1) I’ve heard of this study on “depletable” self-control before, but I had never seen it applied to poverty. The article argues that poor people have less energy to spend on making the right decisions or improving their lives because so much of their energy is depleted by having to make decisions like whether to pay the rent or buy dinner. While I understand these tradeoffs take a toll, I think it is debatable whether these decisions are relevant to the issue of self-control. The article lists several of these types of decisions: “Many of the tradeoff decisions that the poor have to make every day are onerous and depressing: whether to pay rent or buy food; to buy medicine or winter clothes; to pay for school materials or loan money to a relative. These choices are weighty, and just thinking about them seems to exact a mental cost.” However, in my mind, tradeoffs are not the same as self-control. The difference is that all of these decisions force you to give up something that is a necessity, or that are equally beneficial. The issue of self-control encompasses decisions that feature the “right” decision, the preference you would have when you are in a rational state of mind, and the “easy” decision…the tempting choice. It requires self-control to steer away from the tempting choice. But when you are deciding between two necessities, which one is the siren and which one is the rock? I’m not saying that these tradeoffs don’t require considerable energy, but I have doubts about how accurate it is to apply the concept of self-control to this particular situation.

    2) I’d like to know the demographic information for the participants in the SEED program. I think that is relevant to the point this article is trying to make.

    3) Do you think self-control is a bigger issue for the poor, as the article suggests, because poverty depletes self-control, or do you think low self-control contributes to poverty (as the childhood self-control studies show) – that is, that the poor inherently possess less self control?

  20. A Cheater’s Guide to Love

    (1) Unlike the empirical articles assigned this week, “A Cheater’s Guide to Love” by Junot Diaz doesn’t seek to prove anything about self control. It’s a piece of fiction—for all we know, Diaz could be making this caca up, couldn’t he? Nonetheless, I found the short story to be a vivid and highly compelling depiction of human failures at self control. In particular, Diaz portrays the ineffective and often comical ways we attempt to maintain control against temptation, and to regain control after we’ve lost it.

    One way that we struggle to keep control in our hands, even though we know it’s slipping through our fingers, is by making promises. “And of course, you swore you wouldn’t do it,” the narrator had promised his fiancé, “it” being cheat on her (61). “You swore you wouldn’t. You swore you wouldn’t,” he repeated. But of course, “you did,” and did so no less than fifty times! By repetitively asserting he wouldn’t do what he was so tempted to do, the narrator was reinforcing the constant and overwhelming urge he felt to cheat. His promises served only to remind him what he was resisting, ultimately heightening his fixation on his sucias. Instead, a more effective method of self control might have been distraction. If only the narrator had focused on how smart and attractive his fiancé was, he might not have gotten himself in such deep trouble with her.

    Diaz also demonstrates the wacky ways we try to reassert self control after we’ve lost it. When his fiancé finds out about his numerous lapses, the narrator scrambles to prove to her and to himself that he still has some semblance of self control. Logically, he terminates all contact with his sucias. Illogically, he stops drinking. He stops smoking. He even deactivates his Facebook account. It’s unclear how cleaning up his addictions (besides the sexual one) will win back his fiancé, but he does so anyway to keep from feeling that he has totally lost control over his life. Unfortunately, this behavior backfires, too. Baumeister et al. (1998) show that exerting self-control in one decision can wear down the willpower “muscle,” making it more difficult to exert self-control again in the future. It’s no wonder that after desperately exercising faithfulness and sobriety before his fiancé finally leaves him, the narrator inflates by forty-five pounds!

    (2) From the Baumeister et al. (1998) study that Holmes (2011) mentions in “Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty,” I learned about research depicting self control as a mental resource, informing my interpretation of the narrator’s attempt to regain control before his fiancé left him. I am curious whether there is also research to support my interpretation of the narrator’s practice of making promises to her. Has it been empirically demonstrated that promises fail to support our willpower? Additionally, does research point to ways that we can more successfully hold out against temptation?

    (3) “A Cheater’s Guide to Love” is a piece of fiction that illustrates several ways in which human willpower can fail. Are there some aspects of human behavior that we can better understand through fiction, and others through behavioral science?

    Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment

    (1) From two studies on self-imposed deadlines as a tool against procrastination, Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch obtain evidence that setting your own deadlines is better than nothing, but that it’s not as good as having deadlines set for you. The reason for this effect is not that we ignore deadlines we set for ourselves—all the participants in their experiments completed the assignments on time. Rather, we are poor at setting deadlines at the best possible times for enhancing our performance.

    In the pilot study, Ariely and Wertenbroch compared students who set their own deadlines to those who were assigned deadlines by their instructors in an MIT class on executive education. The results of this experiment showed that students who are free to impose their own deadlines tend to set them earlier than necessary. That is, these students were willing to pay a price in order to overcome procrastination. Ultimately, the early deadlines caused them to earn lower grades than the free choice group.

    In the second experiment, participants were again split between a group free to impose their own deadlines and a group assigned evenly spaced deadlines, this time for proofreading a collection of dull computer-generated essays. This experiment was more sensitive because the effect of deadlines on performance could be quantified by the number of errors that participants correctly detected. The results showed that participants who set their own deadlines did not catch as many errors, and that the later their deadlines were set, the fewer errors they caught. Intriguingly, those who set the deadlines as late as possible disliked the task the least. Ariely and Wertenbroch postulate that this is because they had to waste the least of their time on a boring task, and that if the task were enjoyable, this effect would have been reversed.

    Reflecting on my personal experiences writing poems on my own as well as for creative writing seminars, I believe the results of these studies personally apply. When I am writing a poem, I often promise myself to finish it that very night. Then, when I fail to meet that impossible deadline, I figure I’ll work on it over the weekend when I am less busy. Then, when the weekend comes, I am too busy working on the other tasks I put off to get back to the poem. My personal deadlines tend to come too soon or too late. In my poetry seminars, on the other hand, I am given the task of writing one poem a week. Knowing that I will be forced to turn in a poem every Wednesday, I work throughout the entire week to finish the assignment on time.

    (2) Deadlines are just one example of a precommitment device that you can use to bind yourself to completing an action in the future. What other precommitment devices exist, and which is the most generally effective?

    Additionally, I suspect that there may be individual variation in the efficacy of different precommitment devices. As a double major in English and neuroscience, I have observed firsthand that “humanities people” and “science people” tend to approach tasks differently. The artsy types resent being forced to rush the process. The advice I often get in writing classes is not to pick a deadline to wrap up a piece, but rather, to set aside a daily or weekly time for writing—and then to let the ideas come as they may, letting the piece go when it feels finished. By contrast, science-y types should prefer hard deadlines (though I have to admit, I can’t think of anyone I know who likes deadlines—they must be using another precommitment device). If individual variation exists beyond my anecdotal characterization of it, is there evidence for what type of person is best suited for deadlines, and what type for the other various precommitment devices?

    (3) Besides setting deadlines, what precommitment devices do each of you use to ramp up your productivity?

    • Cheater’s Guide to Love:

      I totally forgot that it could’ve been fiction. Thanks for pointing that out! I guess I’m used to all this academic readings/studies, that I just figured this was an actual factual summary of his events.
      I think that his actions of stopping his drinking, smoking, and facebook are all just signals (in economic terms) that he is really committed to this relationship now, that he realizes what he lost.

      Dan Ariely’s Study:

      I agree that the deadlines we impose on ourselves are hard to follow. I know I struggle with them too.

      I actually forgot to mention on an earlier post, but 2 things that I use to make sure I am bound to what I do are Macbook’s Self-Control app, that I downloaded, where I can block certain websites for however long I want (2 hours off facebook, youtube, tumblr, etc.) and on my phone, there is an app called GymPact, where I make a pact in the beginning of the week to go to the gym x amount of times and place a punishment on myself if I don’t ($5/per missed workout is the minimum). However, if I do meet my pact for the week, I make a little money off of those who lost that week (usually ~$.50/workout). It’s not much, but it definitely does push me to go, especially when I don’t want to.
      Here is the website:
      I think it’s pretty ingenious idea that fits right in with what his study was about.

      -In fact, in this assignment, we had deadlines, and most people posted right before the deadline. I thought that was interesting and maybe something you could comment on in the interview.

  21. Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance

    Summary:The research by Ariely and Wertenbroch takes a look at how MIT students self-manage procrastination by examining performance of students allowed to set their own assignment due dates compared with performance of students who are assigned deadlines by the professor. The study found that most students self-imposed early deadlines (otherwise known as commitment devices), presumably in an effort to avoid procrastination. However, these self-imposed deadlines were not always as effective as some external deadlines in boosting task performance because students in the self-imposed group actually scored lower on the assignment than students in the instructor assigned group. Thus, it appears that students were willing to self-impose early deadlines to overcome procrastination even when the consequences were costly. In a follow-up study the researchers paid three groups of participants to proofread meaningless text. They found that monetary earnings and performance were highest in the group where deadlines were evenly spaced, second best for the group with a self-imposed deadline, and lowest in the group submitting at the end of the deadline.

    What’s interesting:
    These findings are interesting to me because I would assume that self-awareness of one’s tendency towards procrastination combined with a compensatory strategy for overcoming procrastination would result in at least equivalent performance (when compared with an externally imposed/assigned deadline). But this wasn’t the case. So now I would like to know more about the students in the self-imposed deadline group. What prompted individual deadline decisions? It would be interesting to interview this group to examine the reasoning behind their self-imposed deadlines.

    I also noted that the assignments/tasks in these studies were likely quite boring for students to complete. What happens to the process and product when assignments are more interesting and interactive? For example, I am thinking about video gaming where participants are often completely absorbed in solving problems. Likewise, what about interactive/collaborative assignments? If there is less emphasis on independent assignment completion and more emphasis on responsibility to a larger team would individual students exhibit more self-control and less procrastination? How might the individual accountability that is required in group work impact the quality of assignments/products? Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown write in A New Culture of Learning: “Identity and agency within that space are both fluid, but they are defined by how the personal meshes with the collective” (58). If this idea has merit the structure of collective learning may support problems that accompany lack of willpower compared with more isolated and individualized forms of learning prevalent historically within higher education. Perhaps results would be different for these MIT students if the assignments were written collaboratively.

    Question:I’d like to ask Professors Ariely and Davidson: Given what we know about the new culture of learning please share your thoughts on how collaborative and interactive activities might impact our understanding of self-control and the tendency towards procrastination.

    Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?

    In “Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?” (2011) Jamie Holmes describes self-control or willpower as a resource that, much like durable goods, can be depleted. While more abstract than a consumable resource such as fossil fuels, self-control may have the potential to operate in a similar way. Holmes’ discussion of self-control provides an interesting contrast to my view of human capital as renewable. If Holmes is correct and internal processes such as self-control are not equitably distributed, but rather inequitably experienced amongst rich and poor the consequences are alarming.

    Holmes’s description of self-control may be analogous to a gallon of gas. A gallon remains the same price for rich or poor customers at the pump and yet that price of the gas consumes a larger proportion of the poor customer’s income. These same concepts of purchasing power in this article are applied to behavior influenced by willpower, including the ability to resist temptation. Holmes concludes that, “the same self-control problem is more consequential for the poor”. Yet, what would “the poor”, women, or any disempowered/marginalized group have to say about these ideas?

    Holmes discusses consequences when people are unable to exercise personal self-control. I am interested in how this plays out in “nanny states”, failed states, and every state in between. I think of the socially conservative international boarding school that a friend attended in another country. When anyone was caught drinking alcohol the consequence was immediate expulsion. The school maintains such strict rules because they argue that the reality of making mistakes (e.g. losing self-control) can be much more serious for impoverished students than for privileged North American’s (who have the luxury of commitment devices and standard incentives and security such as access to health insurance, bank accounts, etc…). In contrast, for students from impoverished backgrounds who make mistakes related to self-control the outcomes can be devastating, resulting in lost opportunities to attend university, long-term medical issues, and other negative consequences that may take a lifetime to overcome.

    Self-control is so consequential because there are cascading, accumulating outcomes. This was demonstrated by the fictional protagonist in Junot Días’s “The Cheater’s Guide to Love”. Much like we use phrases such as “the vicious cycle of poverty,” I imagine that the various ways we visualize poverty in looping and cyclical patterns actually helps us understand self-control. Self-control is an active part of a series of outcomes that potentially cycles to poverty (or in other stories leads to wealth, status, and success). Días writes,
    “Looks like you had a stenosis all down your spine, the doctor reports, impressed.
    Is it bad?
    It isn’t great. Did you use to do a lot of heavy manual labor?
    Besides delivering pool tables, you mean?
    That would do it” (Días, 68).
    Maybe the main character’s lack of traditional interest and discipline in school led to employment in manual labor involving lifting pool tables and ultimate physical destruction. In this piece of fiction I was reminded of Daniel Goldstein’s TED talk in which he explores the relationship between a present and future self. In Días’s story it is almost like the removed speaker is addressing “you” which I see as an earlier self. As Goldstein discusses perhaps the understanding between different points in our lives may be a solution to overcoming self-control issues.

    The pilot episode of Breaking Bad brings up the consequences of drug dealing for characters who are struggling to get out of poverty. In one scene the main character, Walter White, made the disciplined decision not to take the methamphetamine that he and his partner planned to sell. Surely members of all socio-economic groups experience issues with self-control. While watching Breaking Bad I flashed back to the MIT students in Ariely’s research. How are the struggles of the MIT students similar to and different from those of drug dealers in New Mexico? Holmes’s article made a distinction between the constructs of free will and willpower: which I equated as similar to external and internal factors respectively. This distinction may explain an underlying difference between MIT students and the characters in Breaking Bad. Holmes later continues to explain how public policy can create incentives through taxation, early childhood development to serve as a substitute for self-control aptitude.

    Question:One question for Professors Davidson and Ariely: How is self-control related to attention blindness (last week’s theme)? I wonder if self-regulation can lead people to be “too focused” as we discussed last week in class. Based on our class’s conversation on attention blindness I would imagine that at a certain point an individual could stop benefitting from self-control and lose out on opportunities to learn and profit from risk taking. Isn’t it just as important to learn how to lose self-control as it is to know how to acquire self-control?

  22. Breaking Bad (Episode 1):

    1) I had heard of this series before, but never watched before. I thought it was interesting that this was part of the assignments. After watching this, I wanted to know if it was really that easy to make meth if you knew the right chemistry, and if so, why criminals didn’t follow a more precise way of making it.

    This reminds me of a hypothetical question that my dad asked me once over dinner: If you had to steal medicine/injure/kill somebody to save somebody you loved, would you do it? And of course, when musing upon it, I probably would, but where is the line drawn? My economic utilitarian mind tries to rationalize if 1 stranger’s death is worth saving a family member, what about 5, 10, or 100.

    2) Some questions I had included: Why did Walt’s life spiral down to such mediocracy and simplicity? In the beginning of the episode, there is a scene with a plaque of his Nobel Prize in Chemistry, but someone with such a brilliant mind could have had a much better life style and job. I am curious as to what happened. Was this something due to self control as well possibly?

    3) Would you ever consider doing something this extreme if you were in the same situation? Or maybe something illegal in general?

    1) What did you learn in this reading? or, After reading this text, what are you inspired to learn more about? 2) What questions do you have about this reading? 3) What is a well-formed question about or related to this reading that you would like us to ask Professors Dan and Cathy?

    Junot Diaz, “Cheater’s Guide to Love”:

    1) I learned that I should never cheat, not that I was planning on earlier. haha
    It was interesting to see somebody be so open about their history, mistakes, and recovery, if one could call it that. I’m interested in seeing if there is anything psychologically different about somebody who cheats and somebody who doesn’t. I would like to see if there are any studies about that.

    It reminds me of the saying that you don’t know what you have til it’s gone. This seemed to be a very clear case of that.

    2) I never really knew that one person could cheat that much. Over 50 people? That is very extreme. I am curious as to why he did such a thing? Was it merely lack of self control whenever he saw another woman or was it more of a conscious decision.

    3) Have you heard of the saying, “Once a cheater, always a cheater?” If so, do you think this is true? Once somebody has done it once, it is probably easier to do again, especially if he/she got away with it.
    -Does saying no to temptations reinforce the self control, or does it wear a person down?

    I am currently reading Dr. Ariely’s study and Jamie Holme’s article and will probably watch the Goldstein video later and will respond soon!

    • Hi danj,

      The question that your dad asked you over dinner reminds me of a classic moral dilemma I learned about in a neuroethics class last year. Have you heard of the trolley problem? If not, here’s a video that summarizes it well (and with some panache!):

      You mention that you are using your “economic utilitarian mind” to work out how many strangers lives are equal to the life of a family member. As the trolley problem shows, when emotions are involved, these sorts of judgments become incredibly difficult to make based on the numbers alone. Although both versions of the trolley problem would result in the same numerical consequences, people jump at the chance to pull a lever but are repulsed by the idea of pushing a man off a bridge. What the lever offers is distance, making the negative emotions associated with killing the one man much less salient. I suspect that in your dilemma, you might come to different conclusions depending on the circumstances of the trade-off. For Walt, cooking meth did not seem so morally repulsive because he was removed by means of his dealer, Jesse, and Jesse’s dealers, from the people ruining their lives by taking the drug. Perhaps he refused to allow Jesse to taste of the first batch because this would have made the nefarious consequences of drug abuse feel more real to him.

      Moral dilemmas like Walt’s and the trolley problem bring emotions into our discussion of self control. Do emotions threaten self control, or do they represent the self better than reason does?

      What is troubling about the influence of emotions in decision making is how subtle it can be. Often, emotions override our logic without arousing our suspicion that they have taken over the wheel. Most people who choose to pull the lever but not to push the fat man have difficulty articulating why they would save the four men in the former case but not the latter. They may say that it is wrong to deliberately kill a person , invoking religious principles or Kant’s formula of human beings as ends in themselves. But this explanation is hypocritical — they had just agreed to kill a man by lever. Almost no one is willing to admit that their emotional aversion to pushing a man may be the fulcrum on which their decision turned.

      For certain types of decisions, however, unconscious emotional influences can be incredibly useful. When deciding on a car to buy — a complex decision based on about 15 competing factors like color, cup holders, price, etc. — people who consciously deliberate end up choosing cars that are inferior, and they are less happy with their decisions later. People who pick based on an emotional whim choose better and end up happier (see this study by Dijksterhuis et al., 2006, This may be because complex decisions overwhelm our logical brains, while our emotional brains are excellent at taking many factors into account and spitting out a simple yes or no in the form of a positive or negative emotion.

      So, when to listen to our heads, and when to listen to our hearts? The best way to keep in control is to identify and consider our emotions while keeping the end goal in mind. Walt’s decision was a very complicated one, but I suspect that his deadened emotions may have allowed him to start walking down a path that will not lead him in the way of the best interests of himself or his family.

  23. Daniel Goldstein: The battle between your present and future self

    I quickly connected this video to one of the current issues at the forefront of current political debate: debt and government spending. In America and throughout the world, there has been a growing recognition and consensus that spending patterns are unsustainable; towering debts are jeopardizing the prosperity of future generations – our generation. The debate that has emerged seems to be a higher stakes version of the one Goldstein discusses in his talk – a choice between the present and future wellbeing of our country. We can continue to spend now and sustain the level of government that America has come to expect and rely on. Or, we can drastically alter our fiscal system to assure debts do not undermine our ability to achieve long-term economic prosperity. America is in a ‘meta-struggle’ between the current self and the future self. The debate in Washington seems to be missing the point. Democrats want to maintain the social safety net that has been an integral part of society for the past decades. Republicans want to keep taxes low and defense spending high. There are only few politicians who are willing to concede that the solution will require an ‘all of the above’ approach. Goldstein describes decision-making failures that occur when we fail to anticipate the future; when we think about the ephemeral satisfaction of doing something now and neglect the long term rewards – and the necessity – of self-restraint. We have implemented a commitment device: the sequester. And, yet, it failed to achieve much of anything – we increased taxes marginally but kicked most of the problem a few months into the future after the latest fiscal cliff negotiations. It seems to me that the sequester embodies the two problems with commitment devices that Goldstein discusses – it erodes Congress’s belief in the need for self-discipline and it provided a way for Congress to “weasel its way out of” solving the problem and defer to confronting the issue at a later date. Goldstein posits that an alternative to flawed commitment devices is coming to a better understanding the future, and gaining a keener awareness of the potential ramifications of choosing to neglect the future self. He argues such awareness facilitates self-control. The consequences of sustained debt and spending have dominated political debate, but Congress has still showed a lack of discipline to address one of the nations most pressing challenges. Would Goldstein argue that Congress has truly not come to terms with the consequences of continued spending? Would he believe that Congress just does not believe that we will actually face these consequences? And, if so, how would he propose to show Congress the necessity of action?

    My curiosity in how Goldstein would respond to Congress’s handling of the deficit issue drives my questions for Professors Davidson and Ariely. Are Goldstein’s ideas to promote self-control limited to individuals and not applicable to institutions? And, how would you promote institutional discipline and self control? More specifically, given the failure of sequester as a commitment device, what methods do you believe Congress should employ to gain the self-control to break the partisan standstill and address the debt issue and other challenges?

    Jamie Holmes: Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?

    This article reminded me of Nick Kristof’s recent Op-Ed in the New York Times (link is above) that summarized President Obama’s second inaugural address as a call to make “equality a practice as well as a principle.” And, to do so, he argued the President must address the “most fundamental inequality” in America: poverty. According to Kristof, there have been sixteen trillion dollars spent on antipoverty programs since Johnson declared the “War on Poverty,” yet “the proportion of American living under the poverty line, 15 percent, is higher than in the late 1960s.” He calls on the President to “redeploy the resources… to undertake nation building at home” to address the cyclical problem of poverty. The New Republic article seems to suggest a cause for poverty, but it fails to suggest a tangible and convincing solution. It mentions “commitment products” as a means to alleviate the problem of freewill to encourage prudent financial planning. It also addresses conditional “government transfers of money” that have been successful, but it falls short of providing a convincing and cogent solution. I would be curious for more insight into what research suggests as a solution. I would ask this author two questions. Is there a way to mobilize policy as a more effective way to target this newfound explanation for poverty? How can the problem of willpower be addressed on a large scale way? Can it be?

    The article also addresses poverty’s ability to “alter the nature of freedom by reducing an individuals willpower.” This argument reminded me of Viktor Frankl’s assertion of the complementary nature of freedom and responsibility. With more freedom, he argues the individual gains more responsibility. But, my question to Professors Davidson and Ariely is whether this argument should be applied in the other way. If the impoverished have less freedom due to reduced willpower, does that mean they carry less responsibility? Because of the constrained freedom of the impoverished, does the rest of society have an increased responsibility to help alleviate poverty? This begs a final question about the broader issue of self-control: can other individuals or outside institutions effectively strengthen another individuals willpower and self-control? Or can improved self-control — and an increased sense of both freedom and responsibility — only come from individual introspection and improvement? If so, are issues like poverty cyclical and unavoidable problems?

    • Thanks for sharing the Kristof article, Cosmo. I do agree that Holmes’ article lacks tangible recommendations (besides attaching conditions to government transfers) for the alleviation of poverty in the US, but I think the real purpose was solely to rationalize and explain the cycle of poverty as the product of psychological factors. As Holmes points out, the real issue is the homeless individual’s deficient willpower. Perhaps if we begin tackling poverty and homelessness early on and really work on building more nurturing and productive environments for the youth coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, we can give them more confidence in themselves and empower them to take advantage of their education and to stray away from the bad influences in their communities. Providing such an environment could ultimately provide these youth with the opportunities and abilities to have the willpower in their decision-making that would prevent them from entering a life of marginalization.

  24. Self Control and Love and Junot Diaz—these are great and interesting comments. What I find fascinating is that Diaz creates a character who so desperately wants love in his life, who finds the great love of his life, and still cheats even though it means he will lose that love and spend a lot of his time feeling like “the half-life of love is forever” (I am not sure that is an exact quote, I’m writing away from the text). That is heartbreaking . . . but that’s how self-control works in the social science experiments, isn’t it? We know that piece of chocolate cake will make us gain weight when we desperately want to lose it . . . we eat the cake. And then feel terrible about not losing weight. Ah, to err is to be human . . .

  25. Breaking Bad

    1) The pilot of Breaking Bad illustrates that morality is a relatively fragile conception for most of us: Much of what we consider good and evil is a function of our ability to achieve our own basic needs of those of the people we love. 2) Does Walter White’s acceptance of his imminent demise liberate him from conceptions of morality that he never really accepted? 3) How might our own unexamined moral code cause us to betray the goals we set for ourselves? That is, does the subconscious manifest itself in procrastination, distraction, and failure in a helpful way to point out misaligned goals?


    1) A concrete formulation of the future self would be immediately helpful to me. While I think the natural preference for immediate gratification has a rational basis–there is at least some uncertainty that a distant future self will exist–the discount I place on short term benefits is out of proportion. Perhaps using the photo-aging software to make two posters of ‘me’ ten years older, with and without the effects of current bad habits, would allow me to feel each instance of failing my future self in a way sufficient to cause change.
    2) Under what conditions would a commitment strategy serve to enhance our sense of self-control? 3) Given that poor decisions are made largely impulsively, how do give ourselves enough pause to reflect on the consequences of the bad habit and change course?

  26. Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?

    I found this article very interesting in many different ways. It portrays a very disturbing image of the situation of lower-income populations by stating that apart form all of the predicted external obstacles in escaping poverty, there is also one caused by the state of being poor. The decline in the ability of performing self-control with poverty is also a reason preventing a person from escaping the state, leading to a vicious cycle.

    One thing that this article made me think was about the relationship between poverty and obesity or poverty and diabetes. It is true that in recent years an increase in the amount of people from higher-income and education groups have been observed, however lower-income and education groups have always been more vulnerable. In light of this knowledge and the explanation in the article, I started thinking about the role cognitive fatigue plays in performing self-control for purchasing decisions that later affects these individual’s later decisions in self-control, or the lack there of, in performing eating decisions.

    Another thing that struck me was the possibility of improving willpower functions. It seems natural to focus on prekindergarten and kindergarten children to work on conditioning the individual to perform optimally in later ages. However I could not help but question if it is even possible.

    I would also like to learn more about the role of motivation that the article states to have an important role in self-control. On the other hand, if our own motivations (such as self-imposed deadlines) do not end up providing us with an optimal performance enhancement, as Dr. Ariely’s Research Article that we read for this week seems to show, what is the purpose? What is the purpose of creating our own motivations if we already know that they will not give us optimal results? Why not just depend on external motivators?

    – Can we improve willpower functions? Is it a learned behavior that can be changed depending on external conditions?
    – Considering the fact that self-motivation is an important factor of self-control, but not strong enough to bring about optimal results, would you say that it is better to just depend on external motivators? Which one would you say is more sustainable? If the answer is external motivators, than when would be the time to give the work back to the person?

    The Cheater’s Guide to Love

    Just like afivez I was interested in reading this article because the author came to speak with us at Duke during my freshman orientation period. It was interesting how the entire story unfolds because of a single warning that Yunior received from his girlfriend in the beginning of their relationship about cheating. That was the single thing that the ex girlfriend said she would not forgive, and that was what Yunior ended up finding himself continuous do. This brings up an obvious question, why are things that we cannot do or have seem so tempting? What makes something that would not normally appear appealing to us change its form to become the only thing we crave for?

    Another interesting thing that I got out of this reading was our inability to change. It is true that some have an easier time than others, but we all struggle to a degree in adapting to change. All of the breaking points in Yunior’s life that caused him to move on to a phase of inability of performing self-control were moments of big changes in his life: having a girlfriend, breaking up from his girlfriend, having to stop running…etc. After each of these points that forced him to completely change his lifestyle and adapt to a new one, he started to become unable to undertake self-control.

    – Do you think restrictions help or prevent us in performing self-control?
    – What is the role of being forced by external factors to adapt to lifestyle changes in our ability to perform self-control?

  27. Goldstein
    We make choices that have either positive or negative consequences for Future Us every day. Daniel Goldstein makes tools that help us imagine ourselves over time (e.g. simulated aging), so that we make smarter decisions for Future Selves. Goldstein’s visualization techniques to bring delayed gratification a little closer were not in of itself revelations. Isn’t that just what weight loss magazines have been telling us all this time? What is innovative is his application of this product to help people achieve greater fiscal responsibility. What’s more powerful than seeing what your credit score could be if you delay paying that bill? It’s seeing an image of an old, fat, and unhappy you. I wonder if this is perhaps tied to the identifiable victim effect that we will discuss later in this course. We’re kinder to Future Us when we familiarize ourselves with them.
    Goldstein’s applications attempt to circumvent the use of commitment devices. These use some form of immediate negative reinforcement or external preventative mechanism under the assumption that we will eventually succumb to our cravings. Goldstein tells us that we will eventually not have to tie ourselves to the mast to avoid the songs of the siren but just prevent ourselves from being seduced by visualizing the outcome. Maybe this could work… a couple times, but I wonder if any amount of imagination is strong enough to Yet, I have to wonder if he believes if this trick is really strong enough to over come our desires.

    Q: Goldstein does not differentiate between negative and positive visualizations. Do you believe that humans are more likely to respond to one over the other or in what circumstances, would positive visualizations work better than negative visualizations and vice versa?

    Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?

    This article offers some insight into the mechanisms of self-control. We often hear that self-control is like a muscle which becomes stronger after more exercise. This may explain why we often operate in cyclical extremes as displayed by the experiments- excessive self-denial only postpones and intensifies hunger. That is, we can strengthen our muscles be we cannot keep flexing our muscles forever- eventually we do grow fatigued. But I am interested to learn more about the inconclusive research surrounding our ability to strengthen the willpower muscle. What about the people who were able to escape poverty? Did they use Goldstein’s visualization technique. Perhaps, the relationship between self-control and over-indulgence may not be diametrically opposed. At a certain point, self-control could completely eliminate the hunger. For instance , how do recovering alcoholics find a way to practice life-long self-denial and monks to practice life long abstinence?

    Q: What is the relationship between addiction patterns and self-control and denial?

  28. A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth and public safety

    1) This was a very interesting reading for me because I am currently in a class about Children and Contemporary Society and we are currently studying the environmental elements that have an effect in childhood development and how they contribute to risks for these children as adults, specially those that grow up in poverty. So, it is very interesting to see that innate traits, such as self-control, will have an effect in children’s future health, finances, and their involvement in criminal activities. This comes to show how important education policy is, or just any type of policy geared towards childhood development. It would be very interesting to do a longitudinal study in countries that have instituted policies to address this type of self-control issues and see its effect in the standard of living of these children.
    I also found fascinating the sibling-pair studies. One would assume that having a shared family background, as well as a sibling to compare oneself too and compete, would actually reduce the effect of self-control issues. It would be very interesting to find out if there is a difference if the older has more or less self-control than the younger, and if there has been any study done with twins regarding self-control.

    2) In the study it says that self-control can be disentangled from intelligence and social class; however, I really do not know to what extent this can be done given that those factors will determine the type and number of self-control situations the child would face. Intelligence is directly proportional with self-control (from what I understand) so wouldn’t it go hand in had with self-control?

    3) For the professors: is/are there any contingent studies on how to strengthen willpower? If so, are there any that could be tailored and implement through policy?

    Why can’t more poor people escape poverty?

    1) I liked that the article pointed out that for people living in poverty everyday decisions, which most people make without giving it a second though, need to deliberate because of their monetary implications. Just thinking of having to make a cost-benefit analysis of what to buy in the grocery store or which bill to pay on time is mentally exhausting. It is easy to adopt in the “money can’t buy happiness” mentality when you do not need to make so many will-power draining decisions and have time to actually sit down and think about it. Even though I agree that self-control factors in as a barrier for escaping poverty, I think that there are more pressing factors that need to be addressed before thinking of how to increase poor people’s will-power. Factors such as education for low-income families, not only of children but also for caregivers, since they are the main influence in childhood development, are more important to address.

    2) I wonder if there were other psychological studies considered to explain why more poor people can’t escape poverty? Have you considered looking at behavioral genetics for self-control issues in poverty?

    3) For the professors: do you think the depletion of self-control for people living in poverty is related, or the cause, of the high level of addiction in low income communities?

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