Maybe you've heard of the famous "marshmallow test" experiment. In this classic study, Stanford researchers brought young children into a room and offered them a tough choice. Eat one delicious marshmallow now or wait 15 minutes and eat two marshmallows. Those kids who were able to control themselves and double their marshmallow haul, the scientists found, went on to earn higher grades and be more successful in life. 

The obvious conclusion is that self-control is an excellent thing to have. But while both science and experience suggest the ability to play the long game will help you get ahead, is there ever such a thing as too much impulse control? 

The idea might sound counterintuitive, but in a fascinating recent HBR blog post, psychologists Michail Kokkoris and Olga Stavrova argue that the answer is yes. As with most things in life, the pair insist the middle way is best and that sometimes it's better to let your desires guide you. 

Sometimes you should just eat the damn marshmallow

A colleague of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's once joked to a journalist that "if  Zuckerberg had been one of the Stanford scientists' subjects ... Facebook would never have been created: He'd still be sitting in a room somewhere, not eating marshmallows." That level of self-control has clearly benefited the billionaire, but according to research cited by Kokkoris and Stavrova, it also may be behind his reputation for being robotic

One major downside of super-high levels of self-control is that it both reflects and contributes to a muting of our emotions. "One of the reasons why people high in self-control resist temptations is that they experience less tempting desires. But this might also mean that these people have less intense emotional experiences," they write. You be the judge of whether more intense feelings are worth the tradeoff of a little less "success."  

But that's only one in a long list of reasons you might not want to wish for Spock- (or Zuckerberg-) like levels of willpower. Too much self-control helps you succeed, but it can also lead to regret. "When people reflect on their lives, they tend to regret exerting too much self-control (e.g., choosing work over fun) and missing out on the pleasures of life," note the authors. Tons of research backs up their assertion that it's the safe and sensible choices we wish we could do over

And that's just the start of the research cited by the psychologists. They also run down evidence that too much self-control can lead you to be overburdened at work, feel alienated from your true self, and judge others harshly for conditions that may be beyond their control. Their post is well worth a read in full

What's the takeaway here? Pretty much what it says on the tin. While there are a million articles out there advising you to get ahold of your impulses, there's also merit in letting your instincts and emotions drive you in sometimes. By striving to be constantly in control and beating yourself up when you fail, you may be pushing yourself away from your authentic desires and emotions, and making yourself less compassionate as well. 

So next time you indulge, if it's a once-in-a-while or a soulful splurge, remember this column and feel less guilty. Sometimes scarfing that marshmallow is the right thing to do. 

Published on: Feb 5, 2020
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