Self-control is a difficult trait to achieve

Part 1 of a two-part series on self-control. Part 2 will run July 12.
I think we can all relate to the challenge of overcoming the lure of instant gratification. Whether it’s the magnetic pull of the glazed doughnut to the dieter, the couch to the procrastinator or the vice to the seduced, exercising self-control is one of the greatest — if not the greatest — challenges of life. And generally, we stink at it.
The findings coming out of the new and burgeoning field of behavioral economics help to explain this troublesome human paradigm. Humans, they argue, have present-biased preferences that make self-control difficult. Shahram Heshmat (Behavioral Economics of Self-Control Failure in Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, September 2015) explains the concept as follows:
“… behavioral economics shows that individuals discount (devalue) too strongly future rewards and overemphasize near-term pleasures. When we can hold all alternatives at a distance, our evaluations of them remain true to their values in our lives. But our subjective evaluation of a reward (our appetite for it) grows when we are closer to the reward than when we are far away, and unless we somehow commit ourselves to our previous preferences, we succumb.
“This inconsistency rests on an illusion that we all experience every day. For example, imagine you set your alarm clock at midnight to wake up at 6 a.m. the next morning. But when the alarm goes off, the choice that you made last night now seems absurd. The warmth and comfort of the bed makes you change your mind. What was chosen the night before is now rejected.”
In other words, when faced with the potential felicity of immediate gratification, our usually trusty decision-making skills and rational thinking go out the window. And in just a matter of seconds, we transition from rational actors to irrational actors. It’s no wonder humans struggle so mightily with the forces of procrastination, overeating and addiction.
To address this problem, researchers in the social sciences suggest meeting the allure of instant gratification with another immediate pleasure or pain that encourages self-control. My father, an avid student of behavioral economics, established a rule for himself prohibiting listening to his beloved podcasts except at the gym, while working out. Suddenly, relaxing on the couch didn’t look as appealing.
Behavioral investigator Vanessa Van Edwards detailed a pain-centric approach called Anti-Charity, in which you strengthen your resolutions and quiet the voices of mutiny in your head with a commitment to give a certain amount of money to a charity you abhor every time you break with your commitment. Will I smoke that cigarette if it costs me a $5 donation to the Ku Klux Klan? I didn’t think so. As crazy as it sounds, the immediate, painful realization that smoking one cigarette means supporting a horrible institution with a minimal donation resonates more in the mind than the long-term consideration that smoking will eventually kill you.
Speaking from personal experience, I can testify to the power of the Anti-Charity strategy. Although, it should be noted that because of the halachic issues involved in potentially donating to a damaging and sinful organization (like the KKK), my commitment involved the second-best thing – a donation to a particularly disdainful political figure (the donation itself not a sin, but it felt pretty bad nonetheless).
The religious life introduces loads of new arenas requiring self-control. what we eat, how we work, when we work, how we speak, what we look at, how we judge, how we react, what we wear and on and on and on. I was curious, in light of the findings that demonstrate humanity’s trouble with properly evaluating near-term pleasures, what the Torah’s advice for overcoming temptation might be and if it addresses the central issues described by behavioral economics.
What I found in my investigation was initially disappointing, yet ultimately spiritually edifying and everyday pragmatic. Make sure to look out for my next article, in the July 12 issue of the TJP, in which I will reveal my findings.

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