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Marshmallows and self-control in the Western Australian desert.

March 21, 2012

My daughter has just returned from the Pilbara….that’s about 900 kilometres north of Perth in the Western Australian desert. She has had Type 1 diabetes for 40 years, contracting it as an adolescent following a flu virus. It has been a life of constant daily injections, decisions and self contol. She now uses an insulin pump which has cut down the number of injections from about 28 per week to about 3.

Failure of the insulin Pump

However, last week she was involved in an archaeological dig up north. Three archaeologists  (in a 4wheel drive) traveled 200 kilometres into the western desert well away from civilisation.  In 40+ degree heat, and the middle of nowhere her insulin pump decided to pack up. They were out of range of mobile phone contact. This had never happened before…..at home, at work…. anywhere. But it just had to happen in this place.

Listening to her story, (among other things!) I reflected on what might have happened in her brain in that moment and in that context. Above all what she needed was self-control to get herself out of a tight spot. Making good decisions was essential.  As they drove along the pump gave out warning bells. She was still getting the standard insulin bolus delivered subcutaneously but no longer had control of the remainder.  In the back of the 4wheel drive she tested the pump again and again. In the end it turned out to be a button failure but she did not know that at the time.

Self Control : the “Marshmallow Experiment “

Walter Mischel’s “Marshmallow Experiment ” kicked off the self-control movement in the 60’s. In his study 4 year old children were left in a room with one marshmallow on a plate and told that if they didn’t eat the marshmallow till the lady came back they could have two marshmallows. (You can imagine the torment for a 4 year old!). What they found in follow up studies was that children who were able to control their urge to consume the marshmallow….who could curb their desire to eat the one in order to have two (delayed gratification) did better in school, in life, resisting drug abuse etc. Mischel recently followed up subjects who are now 40 years old.

Decision Fatigue

According to Roy Baumeister self-control and willpower are closely related. Interestingly he sees them acting  like a muscle that can get depleted. Self-regulation, initiative and choosing draw on the same psychological resource and can result in decision fatigue. The same energy source is used in resisting temptations (exerting willpower and deciding NOT to) as when deciding what to have for lunch etc.  Like a muscle the source can get depleted after a while and you have less self-control.

How many times my daughter has said to me “I’m not making any more decisions”.       Or like Scarlet O’Hara, ” I’ll think about that tomorrow!” Because of her diabetes she must always take account of the future: making decisions off and on all day about how to keep her body functioning as well as about driving, working, family and life in general. Constant choice can be fatiguing: but Baumeister thinks it can be worked around….

Self-control can be worked around

Baumeister’s work demonstrates that willpower consists of circuitry in the brain that runs on glucose, has a limited capacity and operates by rules that scientists can reverse-engineer — and, crucially, that we can find work-arounds for its own shortcomings. John Tierney who wrote the book with Baumeister –Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength suggests we can build up its strength with small but regular exercises, like tidiness and good posture. One very simple strategy: work-around your depleted energy by having a sugary pick me up or breaking down a task into very small steps……sounds almost simplistic…….

In his review Stephen Pinker points out some of the problems with the theory but writes “Nonetheless, “Willpower” is an immensely rewarding book, filled with ingenious research, wise advice and insightful reflections on the human condition.

Worth reading. And a clear step-up from the usual self help books!

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