Why The Hot And Cool System Play A Role in Self-Control

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Why the hot and cool system play a role in self-control is part 2 of the series “Learn Self-Discipline” on Allihoppa. If you want to start from the beginning, simply click on Learn Self-Discipline above and start with the first article “What is the Marshmallow Test And What Can We Learn From It?”.

Humans have evolved over the millennia from monkeys on trees to monkeys in cars. Joking! But then again, it is true. Scientists have discovered that one could say our brains consists of several evolutionary developments. And each one of these is still existing today. That’s why we sometimes react so raw and monkey-like and sometimes so Abraham Lincoln like.

Professor Steve Peters divides these parts of our brain into: the Chimp brain and the Human Brain. The chimp brain doesn’t exert much self-control. It is very emotional and primarily built to ensure our survival – one could argue the its secondary role is to manifest our power status.

The Chimp brain controls our fears, but also our desires. I am extremely arachnophobic for instance. When I see a spider, my educated, behaved self immediately takes a vacation and my chimp brain takes over. Survival mode. One day, I saw something black from the corner of my eye. I quickly checked and saw a big fat spider sitting on the wall right next to me. It was as if my soul had left my body. From outside of my body, I heard myself scream in agony and felt myself moving up and running out of the room. Goosebumps all over my body. And that happened despite me knowing that there are no poisonous spiders here. My chimp brain was stronger.

When we have the chance to get the Marshmallow, we eat it. When we see the spider, we fight or flight.

Mischel puts this into a hot and a cool system. The hot system is the emotional part. The chimp brain so to say. It controls the basic chimp needs. The need for food for instance. Or sexual behavior. The overwhelming emotion of aggressiveness that some people experience at times. But also the addictive behaviors like smoking a cigarette or having a drink. This hot system looks for instant gratification and resembles much of the violent cavemen we once were. You want something that the other caveman has? Go there, kill him, take it. And this part of the brain gets activated when our body is under stress. This makes obviously sense. Outside of the save environment that we have built ourselves in the last centuries, stress was not really related to sitting at a desk for long hours or worrying about the late tax returns, but more like sabertooth tiger jumps out of the bushes and wants to kill us all. 

On the other side of the spectrum is the cool system. This has developed later in our evolution and is able to reflect and think complex thoughts. The cool system enables us to use strategic behavior, behave in a rational way, and control of our animalistic instincts.

These two systems are at constant battle with each other. If you meet someone whom you don’t like, your chimp brain tells you to beat the person up, while your human brain tells you to resolve your conflict in a more mature way or even to fake friendliness if it makes sense from a strategic point of view. 

The good thing is that the more one of the two systems is taking action, the lesser the other one is. So it’s either the chimp or the rational human who control our actions. And this gives us the  chance to influence our behavior. 

So whenever we are tempted and feel that our willpower is required, we need to try to shift our behavior from the hot to the cool system. Or in other words: cool the temptation down. We can do this by focussing on facts rather than emotions.  

Stress makes us move into the chimp part of our brain. And all the more so, constant stress.

Have you been delaying gratification?

If you are a curious mind, you have probably wondered whether you would have taken one or received two marshmallows as a child. Don’t worry, there is an easy way to find that out. As whether you are someone who exerts delayed gratification can be easily determined by your bank account and your health. 

From our earliest days in childhood, we usually get the recommendation to save a bit of our money in order to build wealth. Many say, one should save 10% of the income. But let’s just go for an amount that won’t hurt nobody and calculate how much money you would have today, if you would have saved just 100 €/$/£ each month. Assuming you would have started at the age of twenty and not considering interest rates and the accumulation of interest rates. At age thirty, you would have had 12,000. At age forty: 24,000, At age fifty: 36,000. So if your bank account looks more like round about zero at the end of each month, you are likely not very well in delaying your gratification. 

The same consideration applies to your body. We all know that it doesn’t require Schwarzenegger-like proportions of sports-enthusiasm to have a healthy body. So, if you currently carry a pregnancy belly without actually being pregnant, it appears as though you have preferred instantly gratifying junk food and laziness over delayed gratified healthy food and exercise.

The big question is, whether we can learn or train delayed gratification. After all, it might just be a personality trait that simply cannot be changed. This would obviously be a great excuse to continue the indulgement in instant gratification. The (hopefully not) sad news is, it can be acquired. So how do we do it then?