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Science Says When Self-Control Is Hard, Try Empathizing With Your Future Self

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Science Says When Self-Control Is Hard, Try Empathizing With Your Future Self

You are an achiever, working hard each day to realize your dreams. But what about those days when you hit the snooze button on your alarm or opt for watching an extra hour of TV? Later you might berate yourself for having poor self-control, but what really happens in those moments when you decide between short-term comfort and future goals? Researcher Alexandar Soutscheck at the University of Zurich has found evidence that the same part of the brain responsible for empathizing with others also plays a role in self-control. According to the results of Soutscheck’s study, another way to think of self-control is “empathy with your future self”[1].

The Science Behind Self-Control

People have been fascinated with the neuroscience of self-control since the famous “Marshmallow Test” of the 19060s[2]. In this test, children were given a marshmallow and told that if they avoided eating it for fifteen minutes, they would get a second one. Some were able to wait, while others ate the first marshmallow right away. Scientists assumed the frontal cortex of the brain played the biggest role in this ability to sacrifice short-term satisfaction for long-term fulfillment.

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Soutscheck’s study, however, reveals that

our impulse control is less based on an order from our executive command center, or frontal cortex, and more correlated with the empathic part of our brain. In other words, when we exercise self-control, we take on the perspective of our future self and empathize with that self’s perspectives, feelings, and motivations

From the perspective of our future self, we are able to make decisions that line up with our future goals. Instead of simply restraining themselves or telling themselves what to do, the most successful impulse controllers relate to their imagined future selves like a trusted mentor, allowing their future self to positively influence their current decisions.

The Important Role Empathy Plays

Soutscheck’s study also reveals what happens when we fail to exercise the empathic part of our brain. When Soutscheck interrupted the empathic center of the brain in 43 study volunteers, they were more likely to take a small amount of cash immediately over a larger amount in the future. They were also less inclined to share the money with a partner. Soutscheck’s study showed that the more people are stuck inside their own perspective, even just from having the empathic part of their brain disrupted, the more likely they are to behave selfishly and impulsively.

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When you think about it, impulsivity is often just acting unkindly toward your future self. Consider the previous examples of hitting the snooze button or watching an extra hour of TV. By engaging in these activities, you are hurting the joy and fulfillment of your future self. That’s right, self-control may be more aptly described as behaving altruistically toward your future self. So instead of thinking in terms of restraining your current impulses, think of giving your future self the tools and experiences you need in order to achieve your goals.

The Key to Empathizing with Yourself

Next time you find yourself caught between short-term pleasure and long-term goals, try these simple actions:

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  • Imagine your future self achieving your long-term goal.
  • Step into how good your future self feels about achieving the goal, for example feeling grateful for all the sacrifices that were made.
  • Consider what your future self, who has achieved the goal, might advise you to do in your current situation.

The important thing to do is to step outside your own perspective in the moment. The more we stay trapped in our immediate perspective, the more likely we are to behave in ways we’ll regret. So make stepping into other perspectives and practicing empathy a regular part of your day, even if just the perspective of your future self.

Reference

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Lindsay Shaffer

Lindsay is a passionate teacher and writer who shares thoughts and ideas that inspire people to follow their passions.

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