As sweet as immediate gratification can be, it's often good to practise some self-control.
As sweet as immediate gratification can be, it's often good to practise some self-control. iStock

Applying the brakes: when to make considered choices

As humans, we have the unique capacity to practise self-control. This allows us to accomplish things that may challenge us while suppressing our desire to do something more appealing. But being human, we don't always choose to apply self-control.

In the 70s, Walter Mischel undertook studies of five-year-olds where they were given the choice of having one marshmallow any time before a bell was rung (15 minutes later) or to wait and receive two marshmallows if they avoided the temptation and sat it out until the bell. They are seen struggling to avoid eating it and even though they knew that they would get the reward if they waited, some just couldn't help themselves. Know that feeling?

What was discovered subsequently is that those who were able to practise self-control at the age of five scored more points in standard intelligence tests when they were older, and vice versa.

Mathew Lieberman (a neuroscientist and professor at UCLA) describes various other forms of self-control, including motor, financial, emotional and perspective-taking.

By motor he means that we can override our body's desire to do something when we know we need to do something else - driving on the opposite side of the road in a foreign country, for example.

A study with adult individuals offered them $10 now or $15 in one month's time and, despite recognising the investment benefit of waiting, most favoured the smaller, sooner reward, thereby demonstrating a lack of financial self-control.

Emotional self-control (emotional regulation) has been well-researched and can be hard to put into practice at times, particularly if we are carrying a significant emotional load. But strategies such as distraction, detachment, re-framing and suppression can help.

As for perspective-taking self-control, a current example of this is if you were a NSW supporter in a room full of Queensland supporters during a State of Origin game. Your perspective is different to that of your colleagues, but you are doing your best to see their perspective; you can acknowledge that they would be happy if their team scored a try even though it is not what you want to happen. Being able to practise this type of self-control may reduce the risk of hasty judgements that might lead to conflict and heated interaction.

So, next time you demonstrate any type of self-control, remember to thank your brain; the part that puts the brakes on your desires to do something that may not be in your best interests and allows you to make a different, more considered choice instead.

We all recognise that we have limited self-control at times, it's part of being human, but we don't have to go completely off the rails if we learn how to apply our brain's braking system.

Rowena Hardy is a facilitator, performance coach and partner of Minds Aligned:

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