Taking the Reins

Self-control helps you meet small challenges, but to change your life significantly you'll need self-regulation instead
I Will Go Jogging

Our brains employ two forms of willful control. The first is volitional memory. It comes into play, for example, when Beverly, an architect, makes up her mind on Wednesday morning that at the upcoming Friday meeting, “I will voice my objection to the design of the new school's facade.” Her volitional memory has to keep her intentions intact for two days. That's not too hard, but not simple either; anyone who has ever said to herself, “This weekend I will go jogging,” knows how hard it can be to keep that intention afloat. Beverly's volitional memory has to inhibit her will to say something before Friday and to see that she waits until the right moment at the meeting to most effectively interject her ideas.

Self-control is enough to accomplish this kind of task because the goal is very concrete, relatively short range and not overly demanding. But for loftier goals, our volitional memory tends to run out of gas. Resolutions evaporate as soon as we are under stress or are distracted.

For these challenges, we must engage the second form of willful control: emotional experiential memory. This function stores all experiences and evaluates them from an emotional perspective. In contrast to volitional memory, it operates unconsciously. Rather than posting a verbal idea in our conscious minds (“I have to wait until the meeting on Friday”), experiential memory makes use of somatic markers, emotions or physical sensations that inform us about a situation based on past experiences or feelings. Somatic markers include the churning in our stomachs when we are anxious, a flushing of the cheeks when we are embarrassed, wide-open eyes when we hear an idea that excites us, or a relaxation of body muscles signaling the relief we feel when we get something off our chest.

Self-regulation will not work for externally set goals, such as “Beginning tomorrow I will go on a diet because the doctor told me that being overweight is unhealthy” or “I want to work harder because then my boss will pay more attention to me.” These impositions go directly to our volitional memory, putting us into a self-control mode that simply cannot sustain the effort required.

To use emotional experiential memory, such goals have to be reformulated into more general targets that will evoke strong positive emotions in us, such as “I would like to have an attractive, sexy figure” or “I would like to contribute more to this company project because I am excited about how it could turn out.”

Once such an internally generated, emotional goal is identified, experiential memory will provide the necessary motivation. It offers a tool kit of clever tricks. For example, it can influence the parts of the brain that are responsible for mood and general arousal.

We can fuel the fire by creating in our minds an intense representation of the desired goal that draws on as many of the senses as possible. A woman who wants an attractive figure could imagine how she would arrive at a boisterous party wearing a miniskirt, attracting admiring glances from the men there—and perhaps even a little praise (or envy) from the women.

A doctoral student who is working on her dissertation can resist, more than occasionally, the invitations from her roommates to go to the beach or to go out drinking, because those events will delay the work she must complete to finally attain her Ph.D. This example highlights the difference between self-control and self-regulation. When the young woman's intention to research her dissertation comes from her experiential memory, it will not harm her psychic health if she forgoes, even for a whole year, the pleasures her friends enjoy. Her feeling of satisfaction in creating what will be a fulfilling life as a Ph.D. will outweigh the disappointment of short-term sacrifices. If, on the other hand, completing her degree was based on nothing more than fulfilling the exhortations of her parents, she would have only self-control to drive her, and her emotional experiential memory would constantly rebel.

This article was originally published with the title "Think Better: Taking the Reins."

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