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Don’t! The secret of self-control (newyorker.com)
186 points by alextp 2911 days ago | hide | past | web | 69 comments | favorite

Does anyone here, like me, really appreciate Feynman's just the fact's style of writing?

Most people describe it as eerily cold, but I love it. Articles like the this one on the other hand, while excellent, bury their valuable information under a lot of fluff. And most people like that kind of writing, but I just find it annoying.

Good article, I just wish it was more direct.

The author of this article writes more for us, people who want just the substance, on his blog: http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/

He still wraps the information, but not to the extent he does for other publications and he frequently separates the substance into its own paragraphs. It's a great blog and I recommend it.

Two other cognitive biology blogs that I recommend are http://scienceblogs.com/neurophilosophy/ and http://merzenich.positscience.com/

Consider the source, though. People who place a high priority on dense, "just the facts" writing are probably going to read the research directly. This is intended to introduce the research to an audience that would find it interesting, but are unlikely to already comb through academic journals of psychological research.

I find Oliver Sacks, Douglas Hofstadter, Stephen Pinker, etc. fascinating, but when I want the direct data (rather than commentary), I still go to primary sources. That's what they're for.

Took a lot of self-control just to read through the damn thing!

On the other hand, I could use some more self-control to do actual work instead of reading through HN.

I kept skipping ahead to get to the marshmallows.

One of favourite pieces by Feynman is a critique of fields like psychology.


I really dislike it when people (especially people of a technical mindset like math/physics/CS majors) summarize the above article in the way, and use it to justify their dislike of the social sciences. It's not about the problems of methods in psychology in general, but about blindly applying methods (of any field) without understanding the motivation, underlying assumptions, or unintended consequences behind them.

Most modern psychological research is surprisingly rigorous and depend on sophisticated statistical methods. The results may not be as strong or conclusive as those of, say, chemistry, but for a discipline that has to study something as mercurial as human behavior, it is certainly a useful and worthwhile.

Do you have a vivid example? I think it would make your point much more memorable.

First of all, I am no expert in psychology, and most of my exposure to it was through readings in AI courses.

For a good example of a milestone in modern psychology, consider the Rescorla-Wagner Model--an attempt to model classical (Pavlovian) conditioning in a quantitative manner--which essentially implies that organisms only learn from unexpected events. It not only predicts the degree to which an organism would react to stimuli, but also compensates for something called the "blocking effect," which occurs when something stimulates more than one association and one of those associations overpowers a weaker association, prevent conditioning of the weak association. It is similar to the Widrow-Hoff Least Mean Squares (LMS) learning algorithm that you might learn in a neural networks class. This model is something that has been tweaked and tested under many different conditions and experiments, and the results have been distilled through thorough statistical analysis.

The R-W Model is one part of a dramatic change in our understanding of learning that has occurred in the last couple decades. For a summary of some of these results, Rescorla has an article published about 20 years ago called "Pavlovian Conditioning: It's Not What You Think It Is," [http://jsackur.free.fr/classiques/Rescorla1988.pdf] which should be pretty accessible.

> justify their dislike of the social sciences.

I have no dislike of the social sciences. I just like this piece by Feynman.

I find that I compensate by varying my reading speed. You have to slow down to read Feynman, but you can often take the New Yorker at a few thousand words a minute.

a few thousand words a minute

Reading, or skimming?

I read by quickly identifying paragraphs to skip in an article like this.

Walter Mischel is a slight, elegant man... SKIP

Mischel was born in Vienna... SKIP

The family settled... SKIP

A combination, of course. Let's say, "skimming with awareness of what I'm leaving on the page." If you've never seriously tried it, you might be amazed just how far you can push your reading speed on low-density material while still retaining 90-95% of what you care about.

The two key techniques for doing this effectively are to 1) eliminate subvocalization while reading, and 2) expand your field of vision so that you are reading sentences and paragraphs instead of words.

Of course, if you're reading contracts you're going to sign, you probably want to spend more time on each word.

Oh yes, of course... but how does one eliminate subvocalization. I find I can't take in information unless I vocalize it. Because of this I can't read sentences.

There's a discussion about that here: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=387997

"And most people like that kind of writing, but I just find it annoying."

Why do you say that? Might it be that people have gotten accustomed to that style, and while they would prefer something more direct, have come to accept it as just being how magazine articles are? Or have people adapted their reading style to skim past the "color" fluff and pull out the essential details?

Do people take the time and trouble to complain to editors about these things? Are people more inclined to write to praise than to criticize?

"Does anyone here, like me, really appreciate Feynman's just the fact's style of writing?"

Of course! The problem with this approach is that professional writers are paid by the word, and it's easier to write fluff than come up with more ideas. This is symptomatic of the greater issue: mainstream culture's preference for quantity over quality.

Agreed. tl;dr for me. I'm not looking for or expecting a biography given the title.

Radiolab summarized the study in a 15 minute segment, if you lack the self-control to read the entire article :)


I've never had much trouble holding back -- it's pushing myself forward that's the hard part. Any tips on metacogitating my way out of that?

If you're not pushing yourself forward what are you doing instead? Perhaps whatever you are doing in place of pushing yourself forward is the marshmallow you need to say no to.

Check out Mark Forster's Autofocus system -- worth a shot.

Of course students who 'sit still' and 'do as their told' do better in an educational system which prioritizes conformity.

The kid who decides to open the drawer to find the toys: that's the guy I want on my team. I'm more than willing to farm out grunt work to the 'successful' high delayers.

You're mischaracterizing their argument. They're saying that people who are poor at resisting impulsive behavior tend to be less successful because they're more likely to get caught up in problems associated with poor impulse control. Credit card and gambling debt, drug addiction, getting in fights, etc.

It's about people who fail since they consistently choose to spend time getting wasted or playing WoW rather than studying, practicing, or other things that pay off in the long-term. This isn't about conformity, because it specifically includes people who have trouble meeting their own goals.

It's interesting. But (regarding parenting): "Have they established rituals that force you to delay on a daily basis? Do they encourage you to wait? And do they make waiting worthwhile?"

In life, delaying gratification often pays off - but only to the extent that the provider of said gratification is competent and trustworthy. There are also times when it is genuinely better to take the money and run. Your bank, for example, has little interest in giving you a fair deal, but instead offers financial instruments with superficially attractive terms while burying numerous modifying clauses in the fine print. An employment contract from a major corporation can be similarly unfair. My first cubicle job came with an employment contract that asserted ownership of any intellectual property I produced during my term of employment.

One example that springs to mind is Shuji Nakamura, who has been a major innovator in the field of LED diodes (specifically, he's the engineer who made high-intensity blue light available on the cheap, so if you've got a Blu-ray player you should thank him). For this, his grateful employers bestowed upon a bonus of...$180. He sued and eventually ended up getting $7 million.

Many actions don't have a clear party (parent, teacher, boss, etc.) waiting to reward or punish, though, and the research is specifically about self control. While some people will take advantage of others' responsible behavior, self-sabotaging behavior probably has a greater overall impact on most peoples' lives.

Good example, by the way. I hadn't picked up on it reading the article, but the study really does assume an immediate observer is going to be rewarding the child, rather than more abstract forces such as the job market. The latter is hard to duplicate in a self-contained experiment, of course.

Isn't conformity sometimes appropriate? It seems to me that the trick is knowing when to follow the rules (including your own) and when to bend or break them.

Constantly railing against conformity sounds like a teenager attempting to be "edgy".

While true, what you want is controlled initiative. You need a person that can follow direction, but can also adjust to a changing situation, or to the absence of instruction.

You'll never get that from a conformist, because (in my experience) they are too afraid of failing to start something. They spend too much time analyzing risk and not enough time acting if left to their own devices.

Conversely, someone who is too much of a risk taker spends too little time analyzing the risks of an action.

The sweet spot is right down the middle, and is extremely rare.

The sweet spot is right down the middle, and is extremely rare.

The sweet spot is context dependence, which isn't rare at all. A champion boxer submits to his coach's criticism and his trainer's discipline so he can dominate and control other boxers. A smart entrepreneur with an innovative product doesn't gratuitously innovate in his accounting or his contracts.

And contrary to what you say, successful risk takers are often obsessive about risk.

The sweet spot is right down the middle, and is extremely rare.

This is a pat phrase that means nothing. If you assume there are extremes on either side of a desired trait you can say it's in the middle, but it's not a useful criteria.

PS: What you really want is someone who is more innovative than 95% of people out there, but still capable of functioning within the context of a company.

The right amount of two distinct traits within an individual does in no way imply anything about where the medium distribution of those two traits exists within the general population.

You do want someone who processes both conformist tendencies and initiative in about equal percentage share. Yes, that is unlike a vast majority of people.

I agree.

Here are the choices 1) Do as you are told and get another marshmallow 2) Eat as many marshmallows as you want with no punishment. That doesn't seem to be a very hard choice. I personally like the kid that checks to make sure that no one is looking then eats the inside of the Oreo and returns it.

I'm not arguing with the results. I would imagine that on average those that do as they are told and conform do better on average. But I doubt those are the same people that make big discoveries or become successful entrepreneurs.

So what happened to the kid that split the Oreo and returned it? That seems like a much more interesting question.

Why would you like his behavior? While clever, isn't the same as having an adult as an employee who looks around to make sure nobody's watching while stealing from you just enough so you won't notice? I wouldn't want somebody like that on my team.

The child was only 4 so this sort of unethical behavior may be excusable. Children are still learning right and wrong at that age. Maybe this kid grew up to be a thief or maybe he's just clever and ended up working in computer security or something. ;-P

I wouldn't want somebody like that on my team.

I would. Who is he harming by eating the middle of an Oreo? You imply that his solution to the problem is wrong because it's deceptive. But it's the testers and parents that put him in that situation. I definitely wouldn't hold it against the kid. I think the solution is more unique and out of the box than just sitting there waiting and getting all worked up over it.

Recognizing this behavior as clever and out of the box is similar to saying lazy programmers are good programmers. Everyone knows a truly lazy programmer is no good. It's the inclination to do work in a more efficient way that they are really after. So while the kid being potentially deceptive and stealing is bad, his inclinations and temperament may not be.

That being said I imagine I would have been the kid that ate the center of the Oreo and put it back... so I may be biased.

There was no punishment. Delayed gratification is quite a different beast. I think this is a critical point.

The most successful kids were the ones who found something to distract them from sitting still.

I'm not so sure. The vast majority of Internet startups do not require significant creativity and exploration. Not for examples the level required to invent the transistor or the telegraph. Most startups over the last 10 years are massively grunt work. I would guess that successful recent startups are ruled by those with great amounts of self-control.

This sounds vaguely like the test given to Paul Atreides in Dune, testing to see whether he was Human or an animal.

Dune is a ridiculously good book. I never understood why it's relatively obscure. Other then perhaps the fact that I tend to grit my teeth when I hear people talking (or making movies) about it with only superficial understanding.

Indian Yoga is teaching us about importance of self-control also people can improve their self control through Yoga. People are getting benefited through yoga for self control from thousand of years. Whole concept of yoga is based upon self-control. This research is simply re-inventing the wheel. People who want to improve self-control should try Yoga for at-least couple of months.

Agreed. Additionally, I found meditation was useful for increasing my self-control. Many types of yoga are focused on meditative practices but not all. I think these are just mind tricks (hacks?) and this jives with the research the article presented.

Another worldview changing article. I'd love to be a psychologist, but I'm not clever enough. Honestly, these guys are mind hackers. Finding unit tests for the brain.

You're looking at some of the most interesting research from one of the most clever guys and then generalizing and saying "these guys are super bright".

The best folks in any field are super bright.

I'm not impressed by 95% of psychologists (but then again, I'm not impressed by 85% of coders...).

If I'm not mistaken, the comment you responded to was highly sarcastic.

Mischel's team found that they could teach tricks to underperforming kids, who would subsequently perform just as well as the originally patient ones.

Does anyone here have good hacker-relevant tips for self-control?

(For instance: when tackling a large problem, approach it bottom-up by starting with utility functions.)

See "A Farewell to Alms" for a really interesting discussion of the rise of low time-preference individuals in medieval England, and the role this played in fomenting the Industrial Revolution.

Short interview with the author here: http://www.gnxp.com/blog/2007/08/10-questions-for-greg-clark...

For a scientific article two things were lacking: How do they define "successful"? How big is the variance/standard deviation?

I couldn't find Mischel's 1990 published findings anywhere online for free, but I did dig up this article which describes some of the data.

In the follow up they looked at several factors: Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, sensitivity to rejection, overall functioning, educational attainment, drug use, ratings of self-esteem, and more. It looks like they checked the correlation of each factor separately.

Besides experiment sample issues (which the linked document touches on) it looks the the experimenters were pretty rigorous in attaining valid results.

It's a summary of academic research for the New Yorker. If you want statistics on the results, you'll probably need to consult the research itself, not a popular summary.

It would be nice if they gave a link to the research itself. This goes in general for all popular science news.

The research spans multiple decades and research groups. It's not like the results are published neatly in a single article.

If you really want to read the primary literature, you've got the name of the researcher and his university. PubMed is your friend.

"Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it."

Ah, one of my favorite four-letter words: "Just".

You just add a second database to the system. You just write the slow parts in C. You just learn how to control your attention and thoughts.

Really interesting. I think that most diets don't work because you're forced into thinking about what you eat (and what you're not supposed to). Perhaps the best diet involves changing your lifestyle so that you're doing things that remove your mind from thinking about eating.

Why newspapers are dying: because they could not adapt to the shortened attention spans of modern times and learn to write shorter articles.

It was a little bit interesting, but way, way too long...

I wonder if any of the 'Brain Gym' genre of games train this delay gratification? lumosity.com has games targeting attention but they aren't the games mentioned in the article.

Executive function is determined largely by the amount of self-directed play before age five. That's why electronic toys and baby videos are generally thought to be harmful.

edit: I don't know much about Brain Gym, but Pamela Paul has a whole chapter in Parenting Inc. comparing the different ECE programs, which might answer your question.

Could you define "self-directed play" for those of us who aren't 100% clear on its meaning?

Self-directed play is where the child isn't playing according to "rules". Where there's no "right" or "wrong" way to play, and the child is making up their own game/world/etc as they go. Think "Lego" :)

Self-directed play is simply kids playing on their own terms, making up games with their own rules, making up their own characters etc. You know.. being a Kid and playing with your imagination.

Play directed by the child, ie, the child sees a book next to a soft toy and chooses to look at the book, rather than being directed by a video saying "let's read a story now".

Answering my own question: Cognitive control, also known as executive processing and Executive function are I believe what this article is talking about.

This game claims to train this ability ( but I cannot vouch for its effectiveness) http://games.lumosity.com/brain_shift.html

Where in the world is it May 18th?

That was called the yoga almost 3k years ago. I mean self-control (control of the thoughts and emotions) through behavioral exercises.

Yeah. Similarly, a big part of Buddhism is trying to be live mindfully, to avoid doing impulsive things that just lead to greater suffering. It's historically tended to get entangled with contemporary religious ideas as it spread throughout the world (not all Buddhists believe in reincarnation, etc.), but none of those are essential.

Yoga is also not merely the physical practice (Hatha Yoga.) There are other distinct branches as well that focus on right action (karma yoga), the cultivation of mental discipline / devotion (raja yoga,) and the cultivation of knowledge (jnana yoga.)

It's the secret to avoiding procrastination too - if you can't stop mulling over all the other things floating around your head, then don't - just start. The other things will be replaced fairly quickly with what you're trying to do, and there you go - you've distracted yourself from your distractions and are now being productive :)

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