While I was fishing around for something to write about today, I came across an article entitled "Sometimes Self-Control is Belief-Control," written by cognitivie scientist Art Markman, Ph.D., for his Psychology Today blog Ulterior Motives. I arrived at this piece by that circuitous route so familiar to all of us these days. I followed a link to another article, which failed to hold my attention. That article's sidebar directed me to another, which ultimately led me to Markman's observations.
In addition to this kind of serendipitous learning, more pronounced on the internet than in the stacks of my undergraduate school's famed library, I am also interested in the "packaging and promotion" phenomenon, which guides these little intellectual journeys, and in the surprises and disappointments that greet us at the end. Because so often, as in the case of Markman's belief control article, what we see is not what we expected to get.
Markman didn't write what I imagined would go with his title. His post dealt with research demonstrating that
when people are trying to pursue an important long-term goal, they change the way they think about temptations in ways that make the temptations seem more damaging to the long-term goal.
Fascinating enough, addressing as it did the reactions of dieters faced with cookies and serious students tempted to party. But as we often do, I saw what I was interested in seeing in the words of his title. And I was intrigued enough with what I thought his premise was going to be to perform the requisite clicking ritual that would take me to its exposition. And so I was disconcerted by what I read. Because I wanted Markman to agree with me.
Because of the lens through which I see the word "belief" at this point in my life, I expected him to make the case that believing in the possibility, or likelihood, of a desired outcome can keep us on track. For example, I am presently living through the dog days of late life parenting. Some days, I have a hard time imagining my nearly grown children's futures. I remind myself to "believe," and I am calmed and able to mother them less frantically. And to continue offering what support and wisdom I can. When my confidence faltered last summer as I neared the date for the triathlon I had been training for, I purchased and wore a small sterling pendant engraved with the word "believe." I continued training and completed the triathlon more comfortably because of "belief control."
Even the behavior of the dieters and the students Markman discusses can be seen in this light--if, instead of looking at their "beliefs" about the size of the consequences attached to the temptations they are trying to resist, we concern ourselves with their beliefs in the attainability of their goals. If a dieter believes that he or she can reach a healthy weight, such an individual is probably more likely to stay with the program, no matter how many calories are "believed" to be in a particular cookie, or in an entire meal. If a student believes that she or he can do well on a project, it will be easier to refrain from partying and put in the necessary effort, whatever the assessment of the length of time to be spent socializing.
If I am turning on its ear the relationship between belief and discipline that Markman reports, maybe it's because some of my undertakings just now have me standing on my head. Be that as it may, it is time to finish this post and go to bed, because I believe that tomorrow can be a good and productive day, and that a decent night's sleep can make a difference.