Avoiding Distractions

Willpower involves more than good intentions and positive thinking. To sustain interest and energy over a long period of time (which is necessary for most important projects) one must combat the tendency to be distracted. One must not give in to temptations that lead one astray. Metcalfe and Mischel (1999) describe self-control or willpower as involving two different motivational systems: a "hot" emotional system and a "cool" cognitive system. The hot system is the basis of fears and anxieties as well as attractions toward good things. It is quick-reacting and often based on instinctive factors. It is stimulus-bound, "controlled by releasing stimuli," like the motor programs of animals discussed in Chapter 8.

What two motivational systems do Metcalfe and Mischel identify? What is a key to effective willpower?

Metcalfe and Mischel argue that willpower involves the ability to inhibit impulsive responses that undo one's commitment, for example, to give up tobacco or alcohol or cocaine, or to remain faithful to one's spouse. These are both long-time goals that can be undermined by impulsive behavior. Metcalfe and Mischel point out that long-term self-control is (1) cognitive (rather than emotional), (2) develops later in life (unlike the urge for gratification which is present in babyhood), and (3) is weakened by stress. Effective self-control therefore relies heavily on executive control processes like planning and memory, which "allow the person to keep the goals in mind while pursuing them and monitoring progress along the route." Stress reduction techniques can help, too, if they help to prevent impulsive behavior.

What did researchers discover about LLRs and SERs?

Psychologists have studied the attractive power of so-called Large Late Rewards (LLRs) versus smaller but more immediate rewards, called Small Early Rewards (SERs). Kirby and Herrnstein (1995) reported that in all species, including humans, the relative attractiveness of a Small Early Reward (SER) is greater if the reinforcement is close in time. In other words, if reinforcement is close at hand, a small but immediate reward (SER) can divert behavior away from a larger but more distant reward (LLR).

How can SERs undermine willpower?

An immediate temptation activates the "hot" motivational system. That can overpower a large long-term goal desired by the "cool" motivational system. A person may know, intellectually, that a Large Late Reward (such as graduating) is more important than a Small Early Reward (such as watching TV), but if the TV is on all the time, a person may watch it anyway.

How does this line of research relate to Boysen's chimps?

This was the problem experienced by Boysen's chimps. They could not resist pointing at the plate that contained more gumdrops, even though it meant the other chimp got them. You might recall that Dr. Richard Byrne of the University of St. Andrews was enthusiastic about Dr. Boysen's experiment, because he thought it provided an important clue about what is special in human intelligence: the ability to use abstract thinking to suppress selfish appetitive behavior. This is exactly what Mischel and Metcalfe were investigating (SERs and LLRs). It is also what Kirby and Herrnstein referred to as hot and cool motivational systems. You might say Boysen's chimps lacked the ability to use a cool abstract system to regulate their hot impulses of lust for the gumdrops.

How did Boysen give her chimps a symbol system?

Boysen carried out an additional step: she taught her chimps to use plastic symbols that stood for numbers. When plastic symbols represented the number of gumdrops, the chimps did not have any problem with the task. They pointed at the plate containing the lower number of chips, and that meant they got more gumdrops than their competitor. The striking thing is that they could not learn to do this when pointing at real gumdrops on a plate. They could not inhibit their "hot" motivational system, set off by the sight of food.

How does this relate to lobotomies, Neanderthals, and computers?

Humans can provide themselves with language to regulate impulsive behavior, if they have intact frontal lobes. If you read about lobotomies in Chapter 2, you might remember how post-lobotomy patients were stimulus-bound and easily distracted from long-term goals. They lacked the comprehensive forward planning ability cited by Posner as crucial to humans but absent in Neanderthals. This executive power, seated in the frontal lobes, is the "cool" motivational system that permits us to resist immediate temptations and carry out long-term goals.

How does one avoid being diverted by SERs?

The pattern Kirby and Herrnstein studied is an important one. It is relevant to all sorts of situations requiring long-term planning, willpower, and discipline. That includes dieting, maintaining an exercise program, or accomplishing professional goals. There is always the danger of short-term diversions from a long-term goal. If short-term temptations are immediate, they will tend to predominate over long-term plans. The only solution is to insulate oneself from short-term distractions...not turn on the TV, for example, or not buy the snacks. Then they will not be close at hand during a moment of weakness. In essence, one must use the cool system identified by Metcalfe and Mischel (1999) to plan ahead and arrange the environment so there are not excessive temptations and distractions affecting the hot system.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey