Chiedete a vostro figlio se preferisce un biscotto ora o due biscotti tra un quarto d’ ora, la risposta che vi dà potrebbe illuminarvi sul suo futuro. Nulla più del self-control predice il successo dell’ individuo. Non solo, è anche un elemento della nostra personalità che possiamo almeno in parte “allenare”.
Ever since Adam and Eve ate the apple, Ulysses had himself tied to the mast, the grasshopper sang while the ant stored food and St. Augustine prayed “Lord make me chaste — but not yet,” individuals have struggled with self-control. In today’s world this virtue is all the more vital, because now that we have largely tamed the scourges of nature, most of our troubles are self-inflicted. We eat, drink, smoke and gamble too much, max out our credit cards, fall into dangerous liaisons and become addicted to heroin, cocaine and e-mail.
.Nonetheless, the very idea of self-control has acquired a musty Victorian odor. The Google Books Ngram Viewer shows that the phrase rose in popularity through the 19th century but began to free fall around 1920 and cratered in the 1960s, the era of doing your own thing, letting it all hang out and taking a walk on the wild side. Your problem was no longer that you were profligate or dissolute, but that you were uptight, repressed, neurotic, obsessive-compulsive or fixated at the anal stage of psychosexual development.
Then a remarkable finding came to light. In experiments beginning in the late 1960s, the psychologist Walter Mischel tormented preschoolers with the agonizing choice of one marshmallow now or two marshmallows 15 minutes from now. When he followed up decades later, he found that the 4-year-olds who waited for two marshmallows turned into adults who were better adjusted, were less likely to abuse drugs, had higher self-esteem, had better relationships, were better at handling stress, obtained higher degrees and earned more money.
What is this mysterious thing called self-control? When we fight an urge, it feels like a strenuous effort, as if there were a homunculus in the head that physically impinged on a persistent antagonist. We speak of exerting will power, of forcing ourselves to go to work, of restraining ourselves and of controlling our temper, as if it were an unruly dog. In recent years the psychologist Roy F. Baumeister has shown that the force metaphor has a kernel of neurobiological reality. In “Willpower,” he has teamed up with the irreverent New York Times science columnist John Tierney to explain this ingenious research and show how it can enhance our lives.
In experiments first reported in 1998, Baumeister and his collaborators discovered that the will, like a muscle, can be fatigued. Immediately after students engage in a task that requires them to control their impulses — resisting cookies while hungry, tracking a boring display while ignoring a comedy video, writing down their thoughts without thinking about a polar bear or suppressing their emotions while watching the scene in“Terms of Endearment” in which a dying Debra Winger says goodbye to her children — they show lapses in a subsequent task that also requires an exercise of willpower, like solving difficult puzzles, squeezing a handgrip, stifling sexual or violent thoughts and keeping their payment for participating in the study rather than immediately blowing it on Doritos. Baumeister tagged the effect “ego depletion,” using Freud’s sense of “ego” as the mental entity that controls the passions.