Fear, anger, uncertainty, discomfort, shame, guilt and many other emotions we perceive as negative are often our compass towards growth. It is our resistance to our past and our interpretation of how our experiences should have manifested which define our expectations for the future. How people remember past behavior affects their choices in the present, according to a new study that suggests the relationship between recall and self-control is more complicated than previously believed.
Research on self-control often suggests recollecting past mistakes as a way to avoid making them again. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people with food addictions reflect on past lapses to keep from overeating. But Vanderbilt University professor Kelly Haws thought there might be more to the story, so she and her team designed several studies to test the nuances of recall. Haws and colleagues found that focusing on past behaviors is not always a good idea.
Every mistake we make in life is an opportunity to grow and learn. Through our mistakes we learn what we value and what we require in our lives to allow us to grow stronger in our experiences.
“Be very careful when you ask anybody to dig up the past,” said Haws, an associate professor of marketing at the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management. “That can be a very ineffective way to change future behavior for the better.”
In one experiment, Haws and colleagues divided subjects into two groups: they asked one group to remember self-control “successes” –say, buying shoes from the sales rack rather than shelling out for new Jimmy Choos. The other group was asked to remember examples of poor choices, or “failures.”
Then the researchers added a twist –they wanted to see how the ease of recall affected self-control. To do this, they used a well-known method in cognitive psychology –they asked some subjects to remember more examples than others.
The method works because it’s generally easier to call up two past examples than ten. Therefore, the thinking goes, people asked to remember two instances of smart spending might think they make great choices, since the recall felt easy.
On the flip side, people asked to remember ten examples of good financial decisions might doubt their self-control.
“You start to use that difficulty you’re having as a cue for who you are and what you’re like,” Haws said.
Mistakes are only harmful if we keep repeating them, but if we look at specific situations and reflect what we have learned, we can take actions and the steps required to adjust our path.
Haws gave participants a budget, then asked them how much they would spend on an item they couldn’t afford –a pair of shoes, a handbag or a video game.
Study participants asked to remember few instances of success, on the whole, spent within their allotted budgets. But those asked to remember more good examples exhibited poorer self-control –they tended to splurge on items they couldn’t afford.
The results highlight several interesting elements of the relationship between recall and self-control. Perhaps the most surprising, Haws said, is that searching through the past can negatively affect behavior, depending on the ease of recall, even when past examples are positive.
We are constantly rewriting the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves –that’s what makes recall an unreliable tool for improvement.
Instead of dwelling on the past, Haws said, her research into behavior suggests that setting goals for the future can positively change present behavior. We don’t buy the $700 boots because we want to go on that trip to Europe. We study instead of party because we want a good score on the test.
In short, if we want to have better self-control, “Look forward,” Haws says. “Don’t look back.”
The World Health Organization estimates that about 350 million people worldwide have some form of depression which is often rooted in our perception of regrets and mistakes that have past. When we can recognize our mistakes and acknowledge that they don’t define us, we can create a present and future that doesn’t involve the baggage of emotions that characterize guilt and regret. This opens up our lives to so much gratitude for what we are and what we have become.