Effective Self-Control Strategies Involve Much More Than Willpower, Research Shows

It’s mid-February, around the time that most people waver in their commitment to the resolutions they’ve made for the new year. Many of these resolutions – whether it’s to spend less time looking at screens, eat more vegetables, or save money for retirement – require us to forego a behavior we want to engage in for the one we think we should engage in. In a new report, leading researchers in behavioral science propose a new framework that outlines different types of self-control strategies and emphasizes that self-control entails more than sheer willpower to be effective.

The report comes at a time when environmental pressures and societal problems are making strategies for boosting self-control more important than ever, says Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychology professor and one of report’s authors.

“Temptations are arguably more readily available, more creatively engineered, and cheaper than any time in history,” Duckworth says. “Junk food gets tastier and cheaper every year. And then there’s video games, social media, the list goes on. In parallel, there are public policy issues such as obesity, educational underachievement, and undersaving that result, in part, from failures of self-control.”

Duckworth’s coauthors on the report– published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science–are Katherine L. Milkman (The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania) and David Laibson (Harvard University). George Loewenstein (Carnegie Mellon University), a leading researcher in the science of decision making, is an author of an accompanying commentary.

Based on their comprehensive review of available research, Duckworth, Milkman, and Laibson propose a framework that organizes evidence-based self-control strategies along two dimensions based on how the strategies are implemented and who is initiating them.

They observe that in some cases the best self-control strategy involves us changing the situation to create incentives or obstacles that help us exercise self-control, such as using apps that restrict our phone usage or keeping junk food out of the house. In other cases, it’s more effective to change how we think about the situation — for example, by making an if­-then plan to anticipate how we’ll deal with treats in the office — so that exercising self-control becomes more appealing or easier to accomplish.

Other strategies work better when someone else implements them for us. For example, our electricity company might use social norms to prompt a change in our thinking, showing us how our energy usage compares with that of our neighbors. And policymakers often use situational constraints to prompt behavior focused on the long-term. Examples range from incentives (e.g., tax rebates for eco-friendly building materials) to penalties (e.g., raising taxes on cigarettes and alcohol). Employers are increasingly using another type of situational constraint, defaults, to encourage employees to save for retirement; many are requiring people to opt out of an employer-provided retirement plan if they don’t want to participate.

The strategies, drawing from insights in psychological science and economics, can inform the efforts of policymakers, employers, healthcare professionals, educators, and other practitioners to address pressing issues that stem, at least in part, from failures in self-control, the authors write.

Identifying four types of self-control strategies that go beyond willpower sends an important message, Loewenstein writes in his commentary, given that people often believe willpower is sufficient despite its high failure rate. One of the reasons people tend to fail in their New Year’s resolutions is “naivety about the limitations of the brute-force approach and ignorance of the far more effective strategies enumerated in the review,” he writes.

But Loewenstein notes some important caveats to keep in mind when interpreting the research, which the researchers also acknowledge in the report. Many studies have examined self-control strategies in small groups of participants over brief periods of time, which raises questions about whether they will remain effective if implemented at a broader scale and how long the effects will last.

Duckworth, Milkman, and Laibson hope that their review helps to integrate existing research on self-control from several disciplines into a comprehensive whole.

“There is an urgent need for a cumulative and applied science of self-control–one that incorporates insights from theoretical traditions in both psychological science and economics,” the researchers write. “We hope this review is a step in that direction.

The full report and commentary are available online.

Report: Beyond Willpower: Strategies for Reducing Failures of Self-Control https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1529100618821893

Technology and Children: A Parent’s Survival Guide

Technology has changed the way children develop and interact with others, and while it seems to change every day, many parents are forced to keep up or get left behind.

Jessica Mirman, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the University of Alabama at Birmingham College of Arts and Sciences, says that, even though much of technology can receive a bad representation, it is not inherently bad.

“Parents can be pretty sophisticated with technology when it comes to helping their children develop,” she said. “There are a variety of apps that can help with literacy skills. Especially for children with developmental disabilities, technology can be very helpful at home and in the classroom.”

Play it safe

Mirman says technology can be a distraction and a safety hazard across developmental periods.

“Parents need to be aware of what kinds of devices are in their homes and vehicles,” she said.

Whether it is about accidentally swallowing button batteries, the tiny batteries often found in musical greeting cards, games, Christmas ornaments and cameras, or the risks of texting and driving, Mirman suggested that parental vigilance can save lives.

“For example, button batteries are small, shiny, and very appealing to infants and toddlers who may try to ingest them,” she said. “Parents need to keep these and other batteries out of reach and keep devices secure with openings kept shut.”

The types of technology risks can change with age. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, in 2015 alone, 3,477 people were killed, and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. During daylight hours, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cellphones while driving. That creates enormous potential for deaths and injuries on U.S. roads.

“We always worry about when teens, and parents too, are glued to their phones while driving,” Mirman said. “There is also teen driver safety research that says when parents are calling, teens feel that they are expected to answer, even while driving. Parents need to remember to practice what they preach and model healthy technology habits at home and in the vehicle.”

What’s trending?

Social media is another way technology changes how people develop, according to Mirman. She says social media is a good tool to keep people connected; but there are guidelines and boundaries parents need to set, starting again, with practicing what they preach.

“Parents should practice moderation and respect for others on social media,” Mirman said. “Kids are very observant, and they will pick up on what parents do and often mimic those behaviors.”

She says children and teenagers are quick to point out any hypocrisy in parents.

Widespread and improved mobile technology means teens can access social media more easily. According to a Pew survey conducted during 2014 and 2015, 94 percent of teens who go online using a mobile device do so daily.

Mirman says parents who monitor their children’s social media usage need to start early to develop a foundation of trust with their teens. Parents cannot be around all the time, and teenagers will need to understand why they need to follow the rules, even when Mom and Dad are not watching.

“If an older child or teen really wants to get their hands on something online, they will likely find a way to do it,” Mirman said. “That is why parents need to be clear about their reasoning for why the rules are in place and not just be an enforcer of the rules.”

Screen time

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children younger than 18 months should avoid the use of screen media. Between ages 18 months and 24 months, some screen-time can be introduced, with parental supervision. Between the ages of 2 and 5 years, a maximum of one hour a day is recommended. For children above the age of 6, consistent time limits should be established.

Marcela Frazier, O.D., an associate professor in the UAB Department of Ophthalmology, says the amount of screen time a child has can have a negative impact on their eyesight.

“The more time children spend on devices, the less time they spend outdoors, and spending time outdoors could slow down the progression of nearsightedness, which is becoming more and more prevalent in children,” Frazier said. “Prolonged exposure to the screens of devices can cause eye fatigue, eye irritation and headaches due to the increased demand on the visual system and the tendency to not blink while using them.”

Frazier says adults usually report symptoms like eyestrain, dryness, headaches and eye irritation after prolonged use of near devices; however, children may experience these issues and not be able to communicate them accurately. Parents may notice some signs of eye irritation and fatigue related to screen-time in children manifested as excessive blinking, squinting, watery eyes, red eyes and some eye-rubbing.

The flip side

Mirman says much research has been done involving children and technology, but what happens when the parents are addicted to tech?

“If parents are distracted, they can’t pay attention to their children,” Mirman said. “Kids notice this quickly.”

She says, by being distracted with technology, parents can make their children feel rejected or unimportant. A more fluid boundary between home and work can add to that distraction.

Finding a remedy

Mirman says technology can be good, if used in moderation. Many kids can use age-appropriate video games as positive stimulants, and can use them as a way of positive social interaction with online multiplayer games. This can be especially helpful for socially marginalized children and teens.

“A lot of kids can make positive connections with others through multiplayer games or social media that they may not necessarily make in person,” she said.

She says it is important for families to create a positive culture around the phones and devices, and practice what she calls “phone hygiene.”

“Developing healthy habits is important not just for you but for the well-being of the entire family,” she said.

Pet Dogs Help Kids Feel Less Stressed, Study Finds

Pet dogs provide valuable social support for kids when they’re stressed, according to a study by researchers from the University of Florida, who were among the first to document stress-buffering effects of pets for children.

Darlene Kertes and colleagues tested the commonly held belief that pet dogs provide social support for kids using a randomized controlled study – the gold standard in research.

“Many people think pet dogs are great for kids but scientists aren’t sure if that’s true or how it happens,” Kertes said. Kertes reasoned that one way this might occur is by helping children cope with stress. “How we learn to deal with stress as children has lifelong consequences for how we cope with stress as adults.”

For their study, recently published in the journal Social Development, the researchers recruited approximately 100 pet-owning families, who came to their university laboratory with their dogs. To tap children’s stress, the children completed a public speaking task and mental arithmetic task, which are known to evoke feelings of stress and raise the stress hormone cortisol, and simulates real-life stress in children’s lives. The children were randomly assigned to experience the stressor with their dog present for social support, with their parent present, or with no social support.

“Our research shows that having a pet dog present when a child is undergoing a stressful experience lowers how much children feel stressed out,” Kertes said . “Children who had their pet dog with them reported feeling less stressed compared to having a parent for social support or having no social support.”

Samples of saliva was also collected before and after the stressor to check children’s cortisol levels, a biological marker of the body’s stress response. Results showed that for kids who underwent the stressful experience with their pet dogs, children’s cortisol level varied depending on the nature of the interaction of children and their pets.

“Children who actively solicited their dogs to come and be pet or stroked had lower cortisol levels compared to children who engaged their dogs less,” said Kertes, an assistant professor in the psychology department of UF’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “When dogs hovered around or approached children on their own, however, children’s cortisol tended to be higher.”

The children in the study were between 7 to 12 years old.

“Middle childhood is a time when children’s social support figures are expanding beyond their parents, but their emotional and biological capacities to deal with stress are still maturing,” Kertes explained. “Because we know that learning to deal with stress in childhood has lifelong consequences for emotional health and well-being, we need to better understand what works to buffer those stress responses early in life.”

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