The psychology of self control and the virtue of temperance

I am a student of Stoicism, and therefore one of the four virtues I do try to practice is temperance, an aspect of which is self-control (others include knowing when things should be done, propriety of behavior, and a sense of honor; see Matthew Sharpe’s paper on Stoic virtue ethics, table 2.1). I am also a scientist, so I like to keep up with what modern science discovers about the world and see how it applies to Stoicism. Indeed, the Stoics themselves urged to study both “physics” (which included the natural sciences) and “logic” (which included every aspect of good reasoning), because they both inform our ethics (i.e., the way we live our lives).

A recent apparent challenge to the Stoic take on self-control comes from a number of studies in cognitive science (summarized here, in an article by Brian Resnick) that are being presented in the popular press as exploding the “myth” of self-control. Looking more carefully, it turns out that: i) there are some important caveats to the studies in question; ii) they actually mostly repackage commonsense rather than being ground-breaking; and iii) they do not appear to contradict the basic insights of Stoicism, though they do provide the prokoptousa (female of prokopton) with some useful tools for her practice.

The article linked to above begins with the observation that human beings are pretty bad at resisting temptation, from Eve on, if one follows the Christian tradition. Well, yes, but that’s neither a novel finding, nor is it especially relevant. Most people are also bad at math, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t work at it a bit more.

It goes on to say that we should accept that “brute willpower” doesn’t work. Granted, though much depends on what one means by “brute.” Just like Stoics don’t actually go through life with a stiff upper lip, the Stoic virtue of temperance isn’t going to make someone magically impervious to temptation. To use cognitive behavioral therapy-type language, the cognitive step (I want to practice the virtue of temperance, which includes self-control) has to be followed by (much) behavioral practice, or it won’t stick.

Resnick then presents cognitive science’s case “against” will power. That case is built on a series of papers that, while interesting, ought to be considered with caution (it is the scientist in me talking, now). For instance, a 2011 study was conducted in Germany, on 205 people, but it lasted only one week. Another one was done in Canada, again for a single week, and using only university students (that is, late teenagers and people in their early twenties) as subjects. Moreover, the first study apparently measured how good one is at resisting temptation simply by asking the subjects, rather than by using (more costly and time-consuming) independent measures.

These caveats notwithstanding (and also given the general proviso that a spectacular number of studies in experimental psychology have recently failed to replicate, including a classical one on self-control), there are a number of seemingly robust empirical findings that we need to discuss.

(As a side note, the kind of approach to cognitive science that I’m trying to follow here is the same one used by Larry Becker in his A New Stoicism: update one’s Stoic practice following scientific findings, but be weary of the most recent studies, because they often fail to replicate or turn out to be carried out under too restrictive conditions in order for their results to apply widely and robustly. Before changing your approach, wait for the dust to settle a bit.)

Finding n. 1: People who are better at self-control actually enjoy the activities some of us resist — like eating healthy, studying, or exercising.

Indeed, though this is one of those “I’m not at all surprised” kind of findings. In fact, I’m one of those individuals. But here is the crucial thing, as far as Stoic practice is concerned. While I now enjoy going to the gym, eating healthy meals, and so forth, that wasn’t the case until I gradually, and with much effort, changed my frame of mind about these things. While I’m sure there are people who naturally prefer to workout to being a couch potato, at the least in my case the change was a result of a cognitive reframing, followed by a lot of actual practice, until my mind and body got first used to, and then actively sought, the new regimen.

Finding n. 2: People who are good at self-control have learned better habits.

Again, one would want to point out that this sort of allegedly ground-breaking research sounds more like the elucidation of the obvious, but yes, true enough. It is all about restructuring your environment and implementing “mind tricks,” like the simple one of, say, not buying deserts when you are at the supermarket, because it is far easier to resist temptation once (at the supermarket) than on a minute-to-minute basis (when the dessert sits inside your refrigerator and you are constantly aware of it). So when psychologist Brian Galla is quoted saying that “people who are good at self-control … seem to be structuring their lives in a way to avoid having to make a self-control decision in the first place,” he is only half accurate. Those people have made a higher-level self-control decision, so that they don’t have to do it again and again.

Finding n. 3: Some people just experience fewer temptations.

Resnick attributes this to differences in character, which he immediately (and with little evidence) in turn traces back mostly to genetics. Gene-environment interactions are my specialty as a biologist, and I can tell you that it is exceedingly difficult, especially in humans, to distinguishing genetic from (especially early) environmental effects, assuming that the very idea of separating the two (which interact constantly and in a highly non-linear fashion) actually makes sense. Regardless, I don’t doubt that some of us have an easier time being virtuous than others. Good for them. No reason for the rest of us not to give it our best shot.

Finding n. 4: It’s easier to have self-control when you’re wealthy.

This one would seem to favor an Aristotelian view of things — where in order to live a eudaimonic life one has to have more than a bit of luck — than the more democratic Stoic approach, according to which everyone can be virtuous. The evidence is based on research about the so-called “marshmallow test”: the original paper showed that kids who were able to postpone immediate gratification when offered a marshmallow would go on to have better SAT scores, better BMIs, and all sorts of other good life outcomes. When the test is applied to poor kids, however, they tend to do consistently worse than their wealthier counterparts.

This is very interesting, but a couple of considerations apply. First off, as a New Yorker article reported in 2014, “Mischel [the author of the original series of papers in the ’60s and ’70s] has consistently found that the crucial factor in delaying gratification is the ability to change your perception of the object or action you want to resist.” So, again, it is about reframing, which I maintain is the real focus of Stoic virtue (as opposed to, though not necessarily to the exclusion of, the moment-to-moment focus). Second, as University of Oregon neuroscientist Elliot Berkman (cited in the article) argues, people who grow up in poverty are more likely to focus on immediate rewards than long-term rewards, because of the unpredictable environment in which they live. Which means that, once more, it is about one’s habit of mind, which presumably can be trained or re-trained (otherwise CBT and similar therapies wouldn’t work).

So, all of the above should certainly be considered (with caveats) by the practicing Stoic, and we should adjust our approaches to virtue accordingly. But this is yet another case (see here for a previous example) where fundamental Stoic insights into the human psyche are either being confirmed or refined, but not rejected, by modern cognitive science. This isn’t, of course, because the ancients knew it all, but rather because they were remarkably good at understanding human psychology, something that hasn’t changed much in the more than 2000 years that have elapsed since Zeno and his followers started to teach Stoicism.


6 thoughts on “The psychology of self control and the virtue of temperance

  1. Sterling Clarke

    It seems to me that all those published studies are merely inanimate statements, and blurry ones, on some occasion. But there is something missing between those facts and people’s lives. I have found Stoicism to be a convenient bridge between the two worlds, and your blog a mighty great tool for moulding my life according to Stoic vision.

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  2. Ron

    FYI: The link to the document on Stoic virtue ethics gave me the following hoo-haw:

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  3. Fred Lunjevich (@Floony7)

    Thanks for this Massimo. The issue of self control and temperance is to me is the most fascinating part of Stoicism and cognitive science. I struggle with this as much as anyone else but there is so much more nuance to self control than the philosophers first thought. In saying that, Seneca had some very insightful things to say about dealing with extreme passions such as anger. Seneca pointed out that merely monitoring one’s judgements wasn’t enough in many cases so he suggested meeting one strong passion with another, which is an approach used in modern cognitive psychology.

    Epictetus taught about the process of habituation and how one loses self control not in one war but in small battles fought and lost on a daily basis. [Dr Sadler’s YouTube video series on Epictetus is an excellent resource here].

    Personally, I’m drawn more and more to the idea of cognitive distancing and the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy approach to dealing with urges. The idea that one can just observe urges as they form and process them as purely objective occurrences inside the body has been tremendously beneficial to me.

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  4. walreis

    The absence of explicit scientific approach in Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca is perhaps a sign of – precisely – the Stoics’ commitment to re-framing and commitment, I mean, to mind’s basic capabilities of understanding and of acting as a resonance of the understood.

    As there’s little or no sense in separating gene and the environment it interacts with, to our current comprehension it seems equally senseless set body and mind apart, not to tell how insane it is to consider them both separately from society and environment, to which ultimately they respond. So thinking about behavior, through ethics, should be a sure way to entail the study of everything else, not the other way around, I mean, in which ethics would be like a set of distinct and perhaps mutually incompatible topic medicines to the wounds other inquiries produce. Roman later stoicism was perhaps trying to show that the ethical lead is safer and healthier for everything else, however at the cost of our current technological marvels, probably.

    But Seneca also did politics, Marcus Aurelius, war. No wonder that later Descartes felt free to use a handful of stoic virtues to feed his Method.

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