February 2015
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Day 02/02/2015

On being a cyborg: Self Control Technology …*

Willpower is an important thing to have…*

Willpower and self control are important skills. In Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment, he put hundred of 4-year olds in a room alone with a marshmallow, and promised them two marshmallows if they could just wait until he came back.


Children varied on their self-control, and when Mischel’s team followed up with the children through high school, he found that children who delayed gratification or exhibited greater willpower got along better with peers and had higher SAT scores. Those who eat their marshmallow immediately had behavioral problems and did poorly in school.

While the results of this study are controversial (perhaps a post for another week), their are definitive links between wellbeing and willpower. Moreover, it is a skill you can cultivate, and there are a variety of strategies one can use to increase self-control. In the marshmallow study, the most successful participants used ways to remove the temptation such as turning around, covering their eyes, or putting the marshmallow on the far corner of the table, out of reach.

Technology for Self-Control…*

Which brings me to this week’s installment of On being a cyborg. There exist a variety of great technological tools that can help us with self-control. Some of these directly concern our safety such as 1) GPS systems that refuse to let you enter an address when the car is moving, 2) in-car breathalyzers to curb drunk driving, or 3) Apps that utilize GPS and Airplane mode to prevent you from texting while driving (when your phone is moving at greater than 10mph).

Others simply prevent us from making decisions we might regret later. College students might use Don’t Dial! – an iphone app to temporarily block phone numbers from your contacts.  If you are one of those people who just can’t help but go back for seconds (and thirds, and fourths) of a batch of freshly baked cookies, a new technology tool Kitchen Safe can lock various items inside itself for a specified time. It can also be used to lock up phones during dinnertime or video game controllers when you should be getting your homework done.

Perhaps the most relevant apps are ones that can facilitate focus for studying or learning, boosting productivity. SelfControl is an app that blocks distracting websites for a set period of time. If you have a paper to write, block Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for the next 5 hours to prevent yourself from falling down a Facebook rabbit hole for an hour and a half. Other apps such as FocusWriter, Anti-Social, and StayFocused have similar functions – helping eliminate distractions so that you can work productively. For those of us who glue ourselves to a task for hours on end until we lose perspective on the big picture – Time Out allows you to set intervals where to break for 5-10 minutes to relax and take a step back from your work.

THE PROS AND CONs of “willpower tech”…*

While I love the idea of offloading some of the stress of maintaining willpower, I do worry that relying on technology for self-control can backfire if that technology is not readily available. Can the use of these help us to develop habits that will transfer to other contexts? For the example of placing phones in a Kitchen Safe during dinner, I could see the potential to get used to not having a phone at dinner and therefore developing a habit of not looking at one’s phone at the table. I have not yet seen studies on whether or not these types of technology help us to develop long-lasting habits, or if our willpower simply is gone when the tech is removed.

Additionally, to cultivate willpower, we should ensure that we are teaching children to use these apps themselves, rather than enforcing them. A 13 year old self-regulating her study time with the aid of an app is very different from a 13 year old who’s study time is regulated by her parents’ enforcement of an app.

Do you use any sorts of technology to aid you with self-control?


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