Lessons from Psychology in How to Stick to Your Goals

The ability to delay gratification is vital for a successful life, and research suggests it is a skill that can be cultivated.

In the late 1960s, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel conducted an experiment that was beautiful in its simplicity, but had profound implications. Mischel placed a child in a room and offered them a choice — take one marshmallow now, or wait a few minutes and have two. The experiment has been replicated and reconstructed on numerous occasions to great comic effect:


Mischel discovered that the children’s ability to delay gratification predicted their success academically as adolescents, as well as a variety of other abilities from planning and rational thinking to their ability to handle stress. Intriguingly, when the children who had participated in Mischel’s experiment were tracked down as adults in their 40s, those children who failed to wait for the second marshmallow still scored more poorly on a test of self-control three decades later.

The key finding from the marshmallow experiments was that those children that invented strategies to keep themselves from eating the marshmallow were better at delaying gratification (nibbling the marshmallow was not an effective strategy, just in case you were wondering).

Now (sadly) it is probably safe to assume that the techniques used by the children to avoid eating the marshmallow, such as distracting themselves with their feet and looking around the room, will probably not be that helpful to adults hoping to delay gratification in the real world...

At the start of each year, many of us try to exercise our willpower to start a New Year’s resolution, or as John Oliver so elegantly put it, walk “the exact middle ground between lying to yourself and lying to other people.” New Year's resolutions are famed for being unsuccessful; it’s not just a cliché that gyms see soaring numbers in January every year, only for attendance to drop off the precipice shortly after.

In reality, we often don’t behave all too differently from the impatient child sitting in front of the marshmallow. So what can psychology do to help? The reason our goals appear so much easier at the time we conceive of them than we find them in practice is due to a psychological phenomenon known as present-bias. If I ask you if you would like a chocolate bar or an apple right now, you’ll probably plump for the chocolate bar. If I ask you which you’d like in a week’s time, you’re far more likely to plump for the apple.

Now of course, you’re probably all too aware that this is hardly a revelation; the examples are all around us. Take, for example, your queue of films to be watched in Netflix, which if you’re like most people, is almost entirely full of “highbrow films gathering dust.” They sound irresistible when you’re deciding what to watch in future, but when it comes time to act on your decision, you suddenly feel inclined to binge-watch something a little more immediately rewarding.

One technique psychologists have tested for overcoming this bias is known as “temptation-bundling,” and involves coupling activities that you enjoy with ones you don’t. As Robert Montengro explained in a post, participants in an experiment who were only allowed to listen to an addictive audiobook (The Hunger Games) while they were at the gym increased their time spent at the gym by a stunning 51 percent.

The difficulty with a technique such as this is, of course, that it requires having the discipline to enforce rules such as this on yourself in the first place. Study participants who were simply asked to try to follow the rule only went to the gym 29 percent more frequently than a control group. This suggests having a buddy to make you stay true to your word is something worth considering; failing that, it’s worth exploring how technology could help. For example if your resolution is something like “not procrastinating online,” apps like StayFocusd allow you to limit the time you spend on certain websites, taking the decision out of your present-bias-influenced hands in the heat of the moment. That might sound silly and childish, but the evidence really does seem to suggest that these types of tools can help.

Another effective way to help ensure you will follow through with something is to simply tell people about what you intend to do. That’s according to a meta-analysis of studies investigating this technique, published this month. This creates an additional social pressure that drives you to keep your promise to yourself. By telling other people where, when, and how you will accomplish something, you make yourself considerably more likely to actually go through with it. So all those smug friends of yours that are posting their #goals in their Facebook timelines may actually be onto something!

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.


Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.

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