How Can We Cool Down the Heat of Temptations?

| June 30, 2012

We encounter a lot of temptations in our lives every day; however, the interesting point is that we succeed in delaying gratification for the sake of obtaining distant outcomes, despite our highly impulsive nature. One of the leading researchers in the field of future-oriented self-control is W. Mischel. Mischel, Shoda, & Rodriguez (1989) pointed out that individuals must voluntarily postpone immediate gratification and persist in goal-directed behavior to function effectively. In their study of preschool children, they found that a longer delay in gratification was associated with more cognitive and social competence, higher academic performance, and better coping with frustration and stress during adolescence. Moreover, delay of gratification has an important role in prevention of certain mental health problems such as conduct disorder, addictive behavior and antisocial characteristics. Researchers have proposed three factors that influence self-control. We can obtain better self-control by concentrating our interventions on these mechanisms.
As pointed out by Mischel (1974), one factor is the role of the cognitive processes that underlie the delay of gratification. Although attention to the later rewards is a good strategy to sustain self-control, cognitive representation of the immediate rewards is of substantial importance. For example, a focus on their arousing characteristics makes self-control very difficult, whereas concentrating on their more abstract, informative attributes has the opposite effect. In another study, Metcalfe and Mischel (1999) indicated that cognitive self-regulatory approaches aimed at stimulus control could be employed to mitigate the chances of giving-up to temptations. He noted that if children were instructed to cognitively focus on the non-consummatory qualities of a delayed reward (e.g., imagining marshmallows as white puffy clouds), waiting time was considerably increased (Mischel, 1974; Mischel & Baker, 1975). Mischel is among those who challenged a century-old Freudian notion that infants are characterized as being impulse-driven, pressed for tension reduction, unable to postpone gratification, oblivious to logic and reality, and proplelled entirely by desires for pleasure and immediate satisfaction (Freud, 1959).
The second pathway affecting self-control, as argued by Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990), is socialization pressure applied both by caregivers and institutions. In other words, the development of self-control can be influenced by familial and extra-familial factors. Family variables include attachment and supervision, family structure, parental education, mother’s age at child’s birth, mother’s age at first intercourse, parental stress, maternal drug use, and the level of parental self-control. Research has also highlighted the importance of extra-familial influences on self-control, such as collective socialization at school and community levels. As indicated by Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990), in the absence of positive socialization and parenting behaviors, such as monitoring and correcting inappropriate behavior, children are less likely to learn how to delay gratification, to be sensitive to others, and to plan for the future.
Finally, emerging research has emphasized the importance of biological and genetic influences on self-control. For example, damage to the pre-frontal cortex has been associated with the development of impulsivity.
In conclusion, it must be reiterated that the delay of gratification is essential both for better performance (e.g., high scholastic achievement) and protection against such psycho-pathologies as conduct disorder and addictive behavior. As indicated by a vast volume of research, paying special attention to cognitive processes, care-giving and parenting, extra-familial influences, and biological risk factors may contribute significantly to promoting goal-directed non-impulsive behavior.
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Gottfredson, M. R., & Hirschi, T. (1990). A general theory of crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Metcalfe, J., & Mischel, W. (1999). A hot/cool system analysis of delay of gratification: Dynamics of willpower. Psychological Review, 106, 3–19.
Mischel, W.,(1968). Personality and Assessment.Wiley: New York.
Mischel W (1974) Processes in delay of gratification. In Berkowitz L (ed.) Advances in experimental social psychology (pp 249–292). Academic Press, New York.
Mischel, W., & Baker, N. (1975). Cognitive appraisals and transformations in delay behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 254–261.
Mischel, W., Shoda, Y, & Rodriguez, M. I. (1989, May 26). Delay of gratif ication in children. Science, 244, 933-938.