During the fallout from President Clinton’s infamous affair, psychologist Walter Mischel received calls from journalists asking if the president’s leadership could be trusted. For Mischel, who is best known for his series of experiments with children and marshmallows, these questions and the president’s behavior showed some of the misconceptions we have about self control.
In his book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self Control, Mischel addresses the false idea that we are consistent in our behavior across all categories. As Mischel points out, Bill Clinton had incredible willpower to become a Rhodes scholar and win an election for president. However, in two categories, junk food and women, he did not. He also uses Tiger Woods as an example of someone whose willpower was almost legendary on the golf course. But then that willpower just as spectacularly failed him in his personal life.
This shouldn’t be such a big surprise to us. After all, most of us can list such inconsistencies in our own lives. People who are patient at home can be short-tempered at work. I have friends who roll their eyes at my love of desserts but can’t resist having one more drink. A colleague who would never be late for a meeting has no problem making friends wait for him at lunch or dinner.
Of course, we gloss over our own inconsistencies, making up excuses for them. “The people I work with would make a saint swear.” “It’s a special occasion, so I can treat myself to dessert or another drink.” “I’m super busy. I can’t help it if people stop me on the way out and make me late.”
We tend not to give others the same consideration. Years ago, a friend of mine had an affair. She never made excuses for herself, but she did say to me one day, “Just because I messed up doesn’t mean that I can’t still be a good person, does it?”
To many people, it did. If she messed up her marriage, then by default, she didn’t have the self control or morals to be a good parent, teacher, friend, or even citizen.
There’s a post that shows up on my Facebook page every so often: “Don’t judge people because they sin differently from you.” Maybe we should amend this: “Don’t judge people because their self-control failures are different from yours.”