Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • Self control.

  • So, you must be thinking

  • "What do you have to do with problems of self control?"

  • Let's take a little survey:

  • How many people here in the last week

  • have procrastinated more than you wish you would?

  • How many people have exercised in the last week less than you wish you would?

  • Have eaten more than you wish you would?

  • Have had more unprotected sex than you wish you would?

  • (Laughter)

  • So, I want to talk a little bit about self-control

  • and self control is basically the problems that

  • we have all this desire from ourselves for the long-term,

  • but then in the short-term we do very different things.

  • And to get us thinking about this, I want to tell you about

  • one of my biggest challenge with self-control.

  • So, I was in a hospital for a long time

  • and one of those things I got in hospital was

  • a particular version of hepatitis.

  • I got a bad blood transfusion and I

  • got a liver disease as a consequence.

  • And from time to time the liver disease would flur up

  • and I would get even sicker than I was anyway

  • and this was very unpleasant.

  • And about 7 years after I was already out of the hospital,

  • after my injury, I had another one of those episodes

  • I checked myself into a hospital and they told me I had hepatitis C.

  • And the good news was that the FDA was running a clinical trial

  • to figure out whether interfere on

  • and medication that was originally approved for

  • hairy cell leukemia was going to be successful for treating hepatitis C.

  • So I said, "What would happen if I don't join this trial?"

  • They said, "Well, you have a good chance of dying of a liver cirrhosis

  • and it's not a good thing."

  • So, I took the medication.

  • And these injections were kind of the essence of self-control.

  • I had to get myself three injections a week for a year and a half.

  • And if I did it for a year and a half, there was a chance that

  • I might not have liver cirrhosis thirty years down the road.

  • But if I took the medication,

  • for sure I will be sick for about the next 16 hours,

  • think something like headache, vomiting, shaking, stuff like that.

  • Not really terrible compared to liver cirrhosis,

  • but unpleasant and immediate.

  • And the fact is that when we are facing those decisions

  • between something that is immediate and unpleasant

  • versus something that is good, really good

  • but in the long-term future, we often over-focus on the present

  • and sacrifice the future. So, anyway,

  • this is, of course, not a new problem. We all face this.

  • This is the problem of Adam and Eve.

  • You can say, "Who in the right mind

  • will ever give an apple for eternity in the garden of Eden?"

  • What a crazy trade-off. But there's a modern version of this

  • you can say, "Who in the right mind will ever do this?"

  • (Laughter)

  • How many people here ever texted while driving?

  • I mean, it's an incredible thing, right?

  • And you say it's not the case that you said to yourself,

  • "How much do I enjoy living?"

  • "How much do I not want to kill other people?"

  • (Laughter)

  • "How important is this text message right now?"

  • And you said, "Yes, let me do this."

  • No, instead what happened is that

  • the impulse to answer this vibrating phone or to answer the ring

  • overtakes us and we do lots of bad things as a consequence.

  • So think about it the following way.

  • Imagine I gave you a choice between half a box of chocolate right now

  • or a full box of chocolate in a week.

  • And I took this fantastic Lindt chocolate and

  • I passed it around and you could see it and smell it

  • and you could choose between a half box of chocolate now

  • or a full box of chocolate in a week.

  • How many people in those conditions would delay the choice,

  • say, I'll wait another week for another half a box of chocolate?

  • Wave a few hands and I'm willing to bet that

  • if we actually had the chocolate passing around

  • (Laughter) there would be few of those.

  • But most people say, "Give me the chocolate now,

  • I'll take less chocolate now than more later."

  • Imagine I pushed the choice to the future and I said,

  • "What would you rather have: a half of box of chocolate in a year

  • or a full box of chocolate in a year and a week?"

  • Now realize it's the same choice.

  • It's asking, whether you'd be willing to wait another week

  • for a half of box of chocolate,

  • but in this case, when both choices are in the future.

  • How many people would wait another week for a full box of chocolate?

  • Everybody, right? Because in the future we are wonderful people!

  • (Laughter)

  • We will be patient, we will not procrastinate,

  • we'll take our medication on time, we will exercise, we will eat.

  • The problem is that we never get to live in that future.

  • We always live in the present

  • and in the present we're not exactly that wonderful people.

  • So that's a problem with how we treat present and future.

  • So going back to my case, I took this medication,

  • the trial was here when I was a student at Duke.

  • When I finished - they told me the good news:

  • I got rid of my liver disease, that was fantastic news.

  • The second news was that I was the only person

  • in this FDA protocol who always took their medication on time.

  • The question is: How?

  • Do I have more patience and self-control?

  • Do I care more about my future? And the answer is no.

  • But the answer is that I developed a little trick for myself.

  • And my trick is that I love movies.

  • If I had time, I would watch lots and lots of movies.

  • But I don't have much time and I don't watch that many movies.

  • But on Monday, Wednesday and Friday - which were the injection days -

  • on the way to school I would stop in the video store,

  • I would rent a few videos I wanted to watch,

  • I would carry them in my backpack the whole day

  • anticipating watching them,

  • I would get home, I would inject myself and I would put a movie in,

  • I would get the bucket and the blanket for the side effects,

  • but I took the injection immediately,

  • I didn't wait for the side-effects to start

  • I connected something good with something bad

  • and this together with a fact that I don't have a particularly good memory -

  • so I could watch the same movies over and over (Laughter)

  • sustained me through this long time.

  • Now let's think about this.

  • If we just thought of what is important in life,

  • we would say that livers are really important.

  • (Laughter)

  • Nobody could question that. We would also say that

  • side-effects of the medication are not that important, relatively speaking.

  • And this difference in importance should have motivated me and

  • every other patient in the protocol to take our medication on time.

  • But the problem is that this is not how we view life.

  • There's also a time domain.

  • And the liver is not affecting us right now,

  • it will be long term in the future.

  • And because of that, it is vastly discounted.

  • And the injections are now, which becomes much more focal,

  • and central, and take more control over our lives.

  • Now, what was my trick? Did my trick get me to start caring

  • about my liver? No, in fact, I substituted

  • it with videos. It's kind of crazy because

  • videos are even less important than side-effects.

  • We call this reward-substitution.

  • And the idea is that there are many things in life,

  • particularly, delayed rewards that we're not designed to care about.

  • So can we get people to get excited about them?

  • Very unlikely.

  • Think about something like global warming.

  • Can we ever get people to wake up in the morning

  • and feel really excited about solving global warming today?

  • Very unlikely aside from a few [unclear].

  • I mean it's just not going to happen.

  • Actually it's worse than that.

  • Because if you thought the other way,

  • and you said, let me create a problem

  • that people would not care about, that would maximize

  • human apathy, you would come up with global warming.

  • (Laughter)

  • Think about all the reasons: long term in the future,

  • will happen to other people first,

  • we don't see it progressing, we don't see anybody suffering,

  • anything we can do is a drop in a bucket.

  • Can we really care? No. So what can we do?

  • Can we do something like reward substitution?

  • Can we get people to care or to behave as if they care

  • because they care about something else?

  • This thing is actually part of the solution, right?

  • If you think about what makes the Toyota Prius so successful,

  • my non-scientific observation is that

  • when you watch people who drive Toyota Priuses,

  • they smile more than other people.

  • (Laughter) And I think for a good reason: they drive

  • and they say to themselves:

  • "Look at me, I'm a wonderful human being!"

  • ([Laughter)

  • "And not only that. Other people can see me

  • and they recognize what a wonderful human being I am."

  • Can we do the same thing with our heating systems

  • or can we do the same thing with how much insulation we have in our attic

  • or what kind of temperature we keep our houses on in winter and in summer?

  • I think that one solution to self-control problem in general

  • is reward substitution. It's taking the environment

  • and changing it and getting people to behave in the right way

  • because of the wrong reason.

  • The second solution I want to talk to you about

  • is called "self-control contract".

  • This goes back to the story of Ulysses and the Sirens.

  • So if you remember the story,

  • Ulysses knew that when the sirens come he will be temped,

  • so he tied himself to the mast,

  • asked his men to tie themselves to the mast

  • and to put dough in their ears,

  • so that they wouldn't be tempted, either.

  • Now what's this situation? It's not exactly reward substitution.

  • It's a situation in which we know we will be tempted.

  • And we're doing something to make [ourselves] not able to be temped.

  • That's another version of dealing with self-control.

  • Now before we talk about people,

  • let's think about rats and pigeons for a few minutes.

  • So imagine you're a rat or a pigeon and I teach you for a while

  • that the green button means one pellet of food immediately

  • and the purple button means you have to wait 10 seconds

  • and then you then get 10 pellets of food.

  • I teach you this for a long time:

  • green - 1, purple - 10; you learn this and then I give you both

  • and I say, "What would you rather have: green or purple?"

  • Now, realize that for a rat 10 seconds is like a week for us.

  • (Laughter) Really long time.

  • So what do you think they choose? They choose the green.

  • Not so good. It actually gets a little worse.

  • You start the trial, the purple button appears

  • they press on it.

  • A couple of seconds pass, the green button appears.

  • If they can only hold off and not press on anything,

  • they'll get 10 pellet of food, but they can't.

  • They press on the green and they get 1 pennant instead of 10.

  • But there's one interesting version:

  • the trial starts, the purple button appears,

  • they press on it, a second passes a red button appears.

  • And the red button does nothing good.

  • There's no food connected to it, and rats and pigeons

  • don't enjoy pressing buttons particularly.

  • (Laughter)

  • But what this red button does is to turn off the green button.

  • It's the Ulysses contract, it means that

  • the rat and pigeon can do something that they don't like

  • to make sure that they're not tempted in the future to do something bad.

  • What do you think? Will they have enough insight,

  • enough foresight, enough self-control ability to do that?

  • It doesn't seem like it, but they do.

  • Not all the time, but they often do.

  • And the thing is very optimistic on two grounds.

  • First of all, if they can do it, maybe we can do it, too.

  • (Laughter) And the second thing is

  • it's all about design the red buttons.

  • If we're face with temptation with no tools to overcome it

  • we're going to fail much like rats and pigeons.

  • But if we create something that allows us

  • to bypass temptation - like Ulysses contract -