A Thanksgiving Day Reflection On Temptation & Self-Control

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays of the year, and yet it’s also become a day for gluttony (albeit a delicious one).  A few weeks back, Vox.com ran a story on temptation that may be applicable for a day like today. Author  studied findings that successful people aren’t actually all that great at denying themselves temptations, contrary to what might seem intuitive.  Furthermore, rigorous self-denial can actually be destructive over time.

He presents the real secret to success:

“People who are good at self-control … seem to be structuring their lives in a way to avoid having to make a self-control decision in the first place,” Galla tells me. And structuring your life is a skill. People who do the same activity — like running or meditating — at the same time each day have an easier time accomplishing their goals, he says. Not because of their willpower, but because the routine makes it easier.

So routines are critical, but so is advance planning to ensure that you’re not constantly tempted: not buying fattening or sugary foods to have around the house, or maybe putting that addictive smartphone away in a drawer so it’s not in your pocket at all times.

This kind of self-aware planning is critical to personal and economic success.  Sadly, it may be the very thing that poverty discourages:

When Mischel’s marshmallow test [in which kids were told they could either eat one marshmallow sitting in front of them immediately or eat two later, with the ability to resist correlated with positive outcomes like higher SAT scores] is repeated on poorer kids, there’s a clear trend: They perform worse, and appear less able to resist the treat in front of them.

But there’s a good reason for this. As University of Oregon neuroscientist Elliot Berkman argues, people who grow up in poverty are more likely to focus on immediate rewards than long-term rewards. Because when you’re poor, the future is less certain.

So that uncertain future gives the child in poverty an incentive not to prepare for it, which also makes a positive, healthy future much less likely to occur.  A vicious, self-defeating cycle.

Hopefully everyone will have a happy Thanksgiving, be mindful of excess from temptation, and be empathetic to those who don’t have enough on this holiday.  I’ll be back posting next week.


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