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Can We Compute The “Weaker Self” Mathematically?

Everyone knows them. Everybody needs them. No matter if we want to resist a cup of ice cream or force ourselves to do an hour of sports. Self-control sits with us at the table and trains with us in the gym.

In the late sixties, Walter Mischel did experiments with pre-school children. He faced them with a very difficult task…

In front of the child there was a marshmallow. The adult in the room made an offer: “I’m going out now and will be back soon. When I come back and the marshmallow is still there, you will get a second one.

“The Marshmallow Test” made history and more experiments followed. In 2014 the book by Walter Mischel was published, in which he talks about his experience and the current state of research on the subject of self-control.

In this book Walter Mischel also mentions his colleague David Laibson from Harvard University and his research on “Hyperbolic discounting“.

Simplified explained it is about a mathematical formula for self control. It answers the question:

Why does icecream win against the gym?

When it comes to making a decision, two systems compete with each other in our brain. The “hot (what I want now)”- and the “cold (what I should better do)”-system.

The hot system is emotional and present. The cold system is rational and concerns about ourself in the future. In other words, when I prefer icecream, the hot system has won.

Hyperbolic discounting” is about the mathematical calculation of decision making. So if you want to know in advance what your decision will be, you can compute it yourself with pen and paper.

Investment and profit.

Icecream is a reward for most of us. But it also has a high cost that our future selves will have to pay: overweight.

We do not like obesity because it shakes our perception of ourselves. We feel ugly, are stared at or verbally abused by others, do not fit our own ideals, feel physically bad, etc.

However, we also know how to avoid obesity or how to reduce it, e.g. by not having icecream or by doing sports. For most of us, sport is not a reward, but work. We get the benefit after doing sports. Fitness, a slim body, health etc.

We can also express this in a different way:

  • The investment to eat an icecream is immediately rewarded. In the long run, however, overweight is the profit.
  • Investing in sports is a pain in the short term, but in the long term fitness and a slim body is the profit.

Let’s imagine a scale from -10 (bad) to +10 (good) for both the investment and the long-term profit. Now we rate sundaes, sports, obesity and fitness on the scale. We give a weight to everything:

Now something comes into effect that the “Marshmallow Tests” have shown: The more distant the profit is in the future, the less attractive it is for us. The “today” has a higher weight for us than the “tomorrow”.

Everything that is in the future does not concern us, but our future self. For this reason, the value on the profit scale is divided in half: Investment + (profit / 2):

Icecream + (obecity / 2) => 4 + (-6 / 2) => 1
Sports + (fitness / 2) => -5 + (7 / 2) => -1.5

It’s just like real life: The icecream wins.

How can we use this?

Even from this simple example we can learn something: Losing weight through abstinence and willpower doesn’t work because we are consciously pushing the cold system and the hot system loses. We try to influence the decision-making-system and ignore how it works.

But what would happen if we change the variable values used by the decision-making-system? If we change the foundation of the decision?

In our example we have previously evaluated icecream, sports, obesity and fitness. If we change our mindset, we automatically affect the outcome.

  • We could “program” ourselves that icecream, due to its high sugar level, is one of the more “toxic” foods which, in large quantities, is bad for our body.
  • We could boost fitness for ourselves in its importance for health and visualize the reward that awaits us.
  • Being obese is not only an aesthetic problem, but has a direct negative effect on our health.
  • And once we start running, it’s kind of fun.

Icecream + (obesity / 2) => 2 + (-8 / 2) => -2
Sport + (fitness / 2) => -4 + (9 / 2) => 0,5


By working on our attitude, we influence the results of the decision-making-system. So instead of finding the results stupid, we should work on the things that the decision system needs as a base for its work: Our mindset.

If we give icecream, alcohol, TV, etc. a high and important place in our lives, we should not be surprised about the results. Or in other words: Garbage in, garbage out.

If we change our mindset, we also change our behavior.

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