Who Needs Self Control?

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Next time you finish off a box of cookies or a whole pie, despite having controlled yourself all day, don’t blame yourself. Blame human nature.

In the latest issue of the journal Psychological Science, the researchers taunted subjects with the story of a waiter who was surrounded by gourmet food but not allowed a taste. Some of the subjects were encouraged to go beyond polite listening and actually imagine this poor waiter, to have real empathy with his situation. And then everybody was shown pictures of expensive stuff. Those who had put themselves in the shoes of the waiter, had suffered all that self-control as he had, wanted that stuff, no matter the price.

Yes, we are hardwired to have a limited amount of self control. The theory is that, when our ancestors were struggling to survive in the wild, those who had lower self control could not be satiated by a little bit of food and were more likely than their stoic neighbors to head out and get more — thus increasing the chances those low self control types lived longer.

Evolutionarily speaking, Gordon Gekko was right. Greed is good. Of course, in a land of plenty, greed is a little less useful. Especially if you’re talking about boxes of cookies. Or, you know, mortgage-backed securities. I guess the trick should be to lose control in smaller ways. But that’s easier said than done, isn’t it?