The Particular Importance of Keeping Cold
Dual-process theory describes the existence of two decision-making systems; the evaluative, rational ‘cold’ and the impulsive, instinctive ‘hot’. Cognitive bias can influence both systems, however we are more likely to employ bias when the cold system is compromised, given its lower effort requirement as a decision-making tool. Although cognitive biases can help us to make sense of the world very quickly, their accuracy does not always match their speed, and sometimes we can make maladaptive decisions as a result. A reliance on the hot system can also tempt us away from considered, effortful behaviour and towards short term and often unhealthy distractions. It is therefore important to understand the mechanisms that allow the cold system to become compromised, in order to identify how it can be supported.
In order to maintain long-term, goal-orientated behaviour, Baumeister identifies three essential components; the motivation to achieve the goal, the ability to monitor behavior towards it, and the self-regulation or willpower to resist distracting temptations on the way there.
Ultimately, this willpower is controlled by ‘executive function’. This term describes the effortful exertion of volition, in order to self-regulate thoughts and actions. It concerns all of the processes used to monitor and maintain behaviour in order to meet goals. Sometimes this concept is termed ‘the active-self’, so-called because the decisions, processes and behaviours it describes require active, motivated cognitions, which draw upon internal resources. We employ the active-self for a variety of tasks, including thought-control, emotion regulation, attention, motivation and even physical endurance.
Importantly, a vast array of literature has demonstrated that the active-self is dependent upon limited resource, which can be reduced through a process known as ‘ego-depletion’. In this instance, one task requiring the resources of the active self impairs performance on subsequent tasks, until the resources required can be replenished. This depletion process is also influenced by the magnitude of the task; if a great deal of motivation is needed initially, the active self will become more heavily depleted as a result.
The active-self is a necessary product for focused, goal-driven behavior to be maintained, however an individual will experience a lapse in willpower if the resources the active-self depends on become depleted to a certain level. This can be attributed to the fact that the regulation which draws upon the active-self ultimately controls the balance between the hot and cold system.
The ability to self-regulate and maintain a sufficient level of willpower has been repeatedly demonstrated as essential to a wide variety of important life outcomes including higher grades, better overall school performance, better social functioning, stronger romantic relationships, higher self-esteem, better physical and mental health and a lower incidence of substance-abuse and eating disorders and criminal convictions, even after controlling for socioeconomic status, home life and intelligence.
In a delayed gratification study, where children were given the option of eating one marshmallow immediately or waiting for a short period to receive a second marshmallow, those that were able to delay a reward were found to have significantly higher SAT scores and better social, cognitive and emotional coping in adolescence. Additionally, children who were more able to stay focused on a task and displayed persistence in problem solving at age seven were more likely to be physically healthy 30 years later, even when controlling for childhood social environment and health.
The next task therefore, is to further investigate the the systems that underlie and are affected by willpower, which can evidently have such a drastic effect on the course of our lives.