The illusion of self-control: think about it, you don't have everything under control

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Joe Dispenza
@joedispenza
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We are addicted to control. We cannot avoid it. Believing that we can control ourselves and control everything makes us feel safe. It gives us the feeling that the world is predictable. The uncertainty vanishes. It gives us power and reassures us.

The problem is, it's an illusion. And feeding it often has devastating effects.

The feeling of omnipotence leaves us at the mercy of adversity that we have not been able to foresee because we were too busy with complacency. And as the world collapses, we make impulsive decisions in panic, distress or fatigue.



In fact, most of the important decisions in life are made in uncertain scenarios and subjected to enormous psychological pressure, whether they are decisions about our health, relationship or work. In these situations, self-control can play tricks on us.

If you believe you can control yourself, you will expose yourself to more temptations

In 2009, Loran Nordgren decided to study an inner battle that nearly all of us have fought at some point in our lives. So he recruited a group of smokers and showed them the movie “Coffee and Cigarettes” with one goal: to refrain from smoking, for which they would receive a cash reward.

Participants could choose where to place the cigarette. If they had kept the unlit cigarette in their mouth throughout the film, they would have received a greater reward because they would have demonstrated excellent self-control. They could also hold the cigarette in their hand without lighting it, leave it on a nearby desk or in another room, in which case they would receive a lower reward because the temptation was less. However, they would only receive an award if they didn't smoke during the film's 95 minutes.


The "trick" was that some people were told before the screening that they had a high level of self-control, while others were told that they were unable to control their impulses. Smokers who believed they had strong self-control were exposed to significantly more temptation than others. But they couldn't resist. They lit their cigarettes three times more often than those who thought they had little self-control.


Nordgren concluded that "we have a tendency to overestimate our ability to control impulses," a phenomenon known as the "illusion of self-control" and which often leads us to make very bad decisions in life.

What is the illusion of self-control?

The illusion of self-control is the tendency to overestimate our ability to control impulsive behaviors. Also known as restriction bias, it is based on thoughts such as: "I can resist temptation", "I have everything under control" or "I can perfectly control myself".

The main problem with the illusion of self-control is that we end up exposing ourselves to the stimuli that trigger the behaviors we want to avoid because we think we can control ourselves. This explains why many people who have been addicted to addiction have a relapse after months or years. But ... why do we fall into this trap?

The hot-cold empathy gap

George Loewenstein found that we tend to underestimate the power of emotions and, in particular, visceral impulses. He believed that “affects have the ability to transform us, as human beings, profoundly […] The dramatic transformations forged by affects have important consequences in the decision-making process”. He called that bias "hot-cold empathy gap" or hot-cold empathic gap.


This gap occurs when we are in what he called a "cold state"; that is, when we are emotionally balanced and our basic needs are met. While we are in that state, we underestimate the influence of those factors in a "hot state". In practice, it is difficult for us to imagine the strength that visceral impulses can have and the power they have to break our willpower and self-control.

For example, when we feel full, we overestimate our ability to resist a chocolate cake. Similarly, when we enter a "hot state" due to the lack of something, such as hunger, it is difficult for us to understand how this visceral impulse determines our behavior and can put us, for example, in a bad mood and make us argue with someone. .


Loewenstein explains that we have a limited memory of visceral experience, which means that we can remember the drive, but we are unable to recreate the feeling of the impulsive state, which makes us make the same mistake over and over again, thus falling into the illusion of 'self control.

Not being able to anticipate how we might react to visceral impulses, thinking we can control them as if we were in a state of perfect emotional balance, produces psychological blindness. It also prevents us from preparing for future temptations and obstacles that will inevitably arise. And by not being able to avoid these distractions, we more easily fall into their nets.

How to escape the illusion of self-control?

To maintain good habits and successfully avoid obstacles, we need a strategy, preferably a strategy that predicts that we will not always be able to maintain self-control.


A good place to start begins with an exercise in introspection. It is about knowing ourselves better to identify those states that make us lose our temper and lead us to make bad decisions. The result may surprise us. There will be people who will make worse decisions out of anger, others out of sadness or frustration. Some will be more affected by hunger and others by lack of sleep.

Knowing our "hot states" is the first step that will allow us to activate our "internal alarm" when we find ourselves in this type of situation, in order to be aware that we are in greater danger of making impulsive decisions that we will later regret .

After all, attention has a lot to do with impulse control. The less attention we pay to something, the less control we have over what we are doing. Therefore, focusing attention on ourselves can improve our self-control.

The second step is to develop alternative behavioral plans. It is about giving credit to Murphy's famous law, "if something can go wrong, it will go wrong" or preparing for the worst in the best way, as the Stoic philosophers advised.


Therefore, we should look for alternative plans when obstacles arise, in order to have a balanced behavior. For example, you can try what you will say when someone offers you that piece of cake that shouldn't be part of your diet, and even take it one step further by thinking that you will have to turn it down twice if they insist.

Last but not least, we must avoid complacency. When you have made progress and your inner dialogue tells you that you have already developed enough self-control to expose yourself to temptation again, ignore it and don't let your guard down.

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