A Hot/Cool-System Analysis of Delay of Gratification: Dynamics of Willpower

Authors: Janet Metcalfe, Columbia University; Walter Mischel, Columbia University

Publication: Psychological Review

Year: 1999

Focus Area: Persuasion, Decision Making, Prevention, Emotion

Relevance: Willpower can be manipulated – both positively and negatively – when people make decisions. The hot-cold framework provides suggestions on the subtleties of willpower manipulation and suggests potential techniques and explanations to increase willpower.

Summary: How are people able to control their actions and feelings if their initial drive is “ruled by a pleasure principle, and largely indifferent to reason”? This paper describes a theoretical framework of hot and cool systems to explain the delay of gratification paradigm (and is limited in scope to this paradigm alone).

  • The ability of a child to sacrifice an immediate reward for a larger,  but delayed reward, has been shown to predict social and cognitive outcomes later in life, including SAT scores.
  • The authors propose that the “cool cognitive” system and the “hot emotional” system interact when willpower is used to overcome an immediate desire.
  • Control strategies include hiding the stimulus (desired object) or ignoring it, both of which decrease the intensity of the hot system. Alternatively, efforts to activate the cool system include distracting oneself, either with another object or internally.
  • Photographs of desired objects were far easier to resist than the object itself. Even telling oneself that a desired object (i.e. a piece of candy) is a photograph can increase the length of time one is able to resist.

Author Abstract: A 2-system framework is proposed for understanding the processes that enable – and undermine – self-control or “willpower” as exemplified in the delay of gratification paradigm. A cool, cognitive “know” system and a hot, emotional “go” system are postulated. The cool system is cognitive, emotionally neutral, contemplative, flexible, integrated, coherent, spatiotemporal, slow, episodic, and strategic. It is the seat of self-regulation and self-control. The hot system is the basis of emotionality, fears as well as passions – impulsive and reflexive – initially controlled by innate releasing stimuli (and, thus, literally under “stimulus control”); it is fundamental for emotional (classical) conditioning and undermines efforts at self-control. The balance between the hot and cool systems is determined by stress, developmental level, and the individual’s self-regulatory dynamics. The interactions between these systems allow explanation of findings on willpower from 3 decades of research.

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