My client, Darin, is preparing to serve as a full-time missionary for the LDS Church. His application is all filled out, but the bishop of his ward congregation won't sign off on it and send it to Church headquarters until Darin has demonstrated an ability to abstain from pornography for a reasonable period of time.
Darin has his heart set on serving as a missionary. It's one of his primary motivations to kick the pornography habit. When temptation hits, he typically reminds himself that he's been without porn for a period of time already, and he'll be heading out as a missionary before long if he can just hang in there.
It can be powerful to think about what you want even more than we want instant gratification, and this approach has helped him go longer periods between relapses. But some interesting research that suggests there's a way to leverage his future goal in an even more powerful way.
Up to now, Darin has been trying to bring his desire to serve as a missionary to mind in the heat of the moment, once temptation has already been sparked. Using this approach, he has to interrupt thoughts about and yearnings for instant gratification and try to replace them with thoughts about and yearnings for a better future.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman has demonstrated in his research that when we have a choice between two attractive options, we place a higher value on whichever one we have "in hand"--or even "in mind"--first.
Kahneman arrived at one "value" of a coffee mug by showing it to participants and asking them how much they'd be willing to pay for it. The price averaged around $3.00. For another group of participants, however, he first gave them each mugs. Then he asked how much they'd be willing to sell it for. The average price of the mug suddenly rose to $7.00! Kahneman called this the "endowment effect." Once we have begun to experience our life as including a certain benefit, we suffer "divestiture aversion." We don't want to give up what we've begun to anticipate experiencing.
It's important to note that while we can't have a future reward (such as serving a mission for Darin) "in hand," it can be just as powerful to have it "in mind." This was demonstrated in a study conducted by Elke Weber, a professor at Columbia Business School, and her colleagues. They had participants choose between a $100 Amazon gift certificate in three months vs. one of lower value--say $75--today. Once participants had possession of the "$100 in three months" gift certificate, they typically would not give it up for the "$75 today" one. If, on the other hand, they started out with the 75.00 one, they were unlikely to give it up for the $100 one.
These researchers discovered they had an amazing power! They could make instant gratification more likely by handing over to subjects the cheaper-but-sooner gift certificate. Conversely, they could pave the way for delayed gratification by giving them the more-valuable-but-only-redeemable-later card. What happens, Weber also discovered, is that the mind tends to spontaneously generate arguments for the attractiveness of whichever option we start out with. Whichever path we first consider taking becomes more attractive even in the consideration!
Here's the cool part: the power these researchers discovered is one we can wield in our own lives. We can turn our focus first to longer term goals and the fulfillment that will flow from them. By bringing our future focus into mind, by starting out the day with that as our baseline, we better leverage the full power of those desires to drive us and determine our actions now.
This month, Darin is trying an experiment: rather than waiting until he is tempted to start playing defense, he is going to start out with a more aggressive offense. He committed to refresh daily his anticipation of the benefits of going without pornography and serving a mission. Starting out with this goal in mind, rather than bringing it to mind in the heat of the moment after the seeds of temptation have already started to sprout, may give him one more advantage in his self-control battle.
I will let you know how it goes for him.