Throughout this pandemic, I still do our family grocery store runs. This has me out in public about once a week, and I find myself trying hard to obey COVID-19 etiquette—those ever changing rules about how we are to behave in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
One of the early instructions was don’t touch your face (or anyone else’s for that matter). Of course, once aware of this instruction, I inevitably found that while driving to or from the grocery store, there was an itch or a twitch on my cheek, nose, or lips. But I resisted the temptation and kept my hands on the steering wheel and did not touch above my shoulders until I could do a 20-second hand washing.
In these instances, I was exercising self-control, a fruit of the spirit (Gal 5:22) that we mentioned last week as part of our discussion of habits. Like habit formation, self-control is another evergreen topic for the church. It can inform how we resist temptation and live more Christ-like lives. It also is accompanied by a great deal of relevant scientific research. But it’s a difficult topic because that science continues to change.
It Began With One Marshmallow
Circa 1972, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel led that famous marshmallow experiment. You know the one where kids had to spend 10 minute alone with a marshmallow, and if they delayed their gratification, resisting the temptation to eat the one in front of them, they were rewarded with a second. It was a groundbreaking study on self-control and those preschoolers who were rewarded with a second marshmallow were found as adolescents to perform better academically and to manage both frustration and stress better than peers who did not earn a second one. Following up 30 years later, these stars of self-control were also found to have happier relationships and better health.
If we jump forward in time to around 2010, the research trends had shifted towards the concept of willpower, a “behavioral muscle” that helps us exercise good judgement and self-control. Willpower could increase with exercise, we were told, but it could also be depleted if overused. Rest therefore became important—taking a break from difficult decisions or constant temptations in order to recharge our willpower. Like those kids that got a second marshmallow, there was a correlation between folks with higher levels of willpower associated with numerous measures of success and flourishing.
Now in 2020, the scientific literature is questioning some of the early research on self-control and willpower. The trajectory is changing and it is unclear exactly where it will land. Why is it changing? One reason may be definitional hygiene. We now recognize that this research involves several related concepts—self-control, self-regulation, will power, ego depletion—but it is not clear that every experiment is studying the same concept even though they are using the same terms. Or perhaps some of us just are different. Rather than being self-control exemplars, some folks may simply prefer exercise and green vegetables. Not everyone is tempted by marshmallows (have mine if you need a second) or fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies (why stop at two?). So maybe it is less a question of willpower, and more about how we differ.
The self-control researchers are doing precisely what good scientists do—revisiting old studies, clarifying concepts, designing new experiments, and pushing the research forward incrementally. They may still be several years from providing us with what we might call settled science on the topic of self-control, but some of the latest research moves in a direction that may be immediately relevant for our churches. Apparently, self-control is not all about me.
- Walter Mischel’s understanding of his marshmallow test is far richer than how I had understood it.
- An interview with one of the leading willpower researchers.
- Why willpower is overrated, maybe even an idea we should get rid of entirely.
- Two good summaries (here and here) of an academic review of willpower and self-control research.
- On the benefits of communal dependence rather than self-reliance.
- Cooperation helps kids earn the second marshmallow.
- Initial research suggests virtues like gratitude may help increase self-control.
- [Subscription required] Christianity Today had a nice piece on the relevant science for sinning less.
Taking Control Together
Last week, I summarized a few empirically valid ways we can form new habits. There is quite a bit of overlap with some of the current literature on increasing self-control. Accountability—using peers to help us keep at the new behavior until it becomes automatic—supports habit formation and interaction with others seems to boost our self-control.
Several new studies are showing that cooperation, community, and the aid of others are important factors. A new version of the marshmallow study suggests that kids are much better at delaying gratification if they are cooperating—each in their own room, where receipt of the second marshmallow is dependent on both of them not eating the first.
Additional research has questioned self-reliance and individual willpower as the key drivers of self-control. Rather, they suggest it is communal. Think of those 12-step programs, like Alcoholic’s Anonymous, that meet regularly in our churches. Think of groups that exercise together, or even personal trainers, and how much easier that can be than solitary visits to the gym. In the words of one researcher, “Communal dependence, rather than self-reliance, is what succeeds.”
I think you will see why this is relevant to church. In fact, we know this already, although we may sometimes forget. Together, gathered as the body of Christ, we are able to do more than working alone as individuals. I believe this is true in so many ways, including our efforts to resist temptation, control our impulses, and create new habits and patterns of living that can make us a little more Christ-like.
When our ministries consider themes like temptation and self-control or how to change behaviors and habits, let’s reach out to scientists who study human behavior. They can teach us the latest research. We can ask them how the communal aspect of the church can be leveraged to achieve gains we cannot make on our own. We can invite them to help in the work of forming disciples.
And may community and love for the other be a motivating factor for us all. It is, after all, why in each and every trip to the store since the pandemic began I have resisted touching my face. It was not my willpower or self-control, but rather a desire to love my neighbors by limiting the spread of COVID-19. And as followers of Jesus that’s probably the best motivation of all.