Empathy: A Surprising Hack for Self-Control
What traits are important for gamblers? Chances are good one of the top traits that many people will name is “self-control.” But I am guessing one traits that won’t spring to mind is “empathy”—at least outside the context of poker.
But did you know that empathy is actually one of the hidden keys to self-control? In fact, if you have a hard time making good decisions when you gamble, it could just be the missing ingredient you need to approach decision-making in a whole new way
What Gambling Without Self-Control Looks Like
Lacking self-control while gambling can lead to all sorts of unpleasant scenarios. Some of them are merely annoying, while others can lead to a significant, ongoing drain on your life finances.
Most people who gamble do not suffer from addictive behaviors, they gamble responsibly. That means that they do not play with money they cannot afford to lose, and their lives do not swing out of balance when they play.
But that does not mean that they do not struggle with self-control in a more “micro” way. Those difficulties can lead to rapid bankroll depletion, abbreviated gambling sessions, and fewer chances to win.
Key Point: Self-control is essential for gamblers to have a positive experience.
It Could Be That You Lack Empathy With Your Future Self
Many of us assume that our frontal cortex is responsible for controlling our impulses and helping us to make wise decisions. But researcher Alexander Soutschek has presented some compelling evidence that the right temporoparietal junction (rTPJ) plays a strong role.
The Atlantic explains, “This area has long been linked to empathy and selflessness. But Soutschek, by using magnetic fields to briefly shut down the rTPJ, has shown that it’s also involved in self-control.”
Explaining more about Soutschek’s study, the article says, “He specifically focused on the back half of the rTPJ—the one that’s been more heavily linked to empathy—and disrupted it in 43 volunteers. When that happened, the recruits became more likely to pocket a pile of cash for themselves rather than splitting it with a partner, and especially when the partner was a stranger. But they were also more likely to pick a small immediate lump of cash over a larger future one, especially when the delays were long.”
If you already empathize easily with your future self, it might seem strange to you that it would be difficult for anyone else. You may think of your future self, as, well, you. But is it?
Psychology Today writes, “Imagine for a moment, the version of you that will wake up in your bed tomorrow: your future self. This person will be very similar to you, but not identical. Billions of cells will be replaced, and whatever occurs between now and tomorrow morning will additionally ensure that you’re not exactly the same person you are at this moment.”
The site continues, “The idea is simple: Your future self is almost you, but not quite. In several ways, your future self is another person, with different desires, a different mood, and a different set of problems.”
Whether your future self is or is not you is beyond the scope of this article, as are related questions like, “What is self, anyway? What is ‘you?’” But one can see that this is not a simple matter at all.
Regardless, the bottom line is this:
If you have a hard time mentally and emotionally connecting with your future self, you may have a hard time controlling the impulse toward immediate gratification—even if it is at the expense of your future self.
If you have an easy time connecting to your future self, it might be easier for you to put off immediate gratification now in exchange for a future payoff.
Key Point: Research shows that one of the keys to impulse control and decision-making is empathy with our future selves.
Negative Scenarios You Can Avoid by Empathizing With Your Future Self While Gambling
Let’s look at some examples of big and small problems that can result from faulty self-control while gambling. We will explore how greater empathy with your future self could help resolve each of them.
- Abbreviated Gambling Sessions
- Never Quitting While You Still Have Cash
- Raising Too Fast
- Problem Gambling
- Slothfulness and Lost Opportunities
Think how many times you have been playing one of your favorite casino games, and you just cannot seem to slow down or switch to another game—even though you want to.
Maybe you have lost about half your bankroll on one slot game. You did not start today’s gambling session planning to lose all your money on one game, and you do want to play others. But you just feel compelled to keep going with this game, maybe even raising your stakes. The impulse is so strong.
In a scenario like this, your current and future selves are basically at odds with one another.
Your future self wants to still be playing 20 minutes for now, and preferably a different game.
But your current self just wants to win at this game, right now.
If you prioritize the needs of your current self over your future self, chances are good you will not switch away from this game. Not only that, but you may significantly increase your coin size. 5 minutes from now, your bankroll may be depleted, and your future self will glumly get off the internet and go watch TV.
But just by going through the process of imagining this outcome in detail, you may already be starting to bridge the emotional gap between present and future.
If you decide to prioritize the desires of your future self, you may find the incentive you need to close the game that has devoured so much of your bankroll, and play some of the other games you hoped to today. You will keep your stakes modest so you can gamble longer.
That means 20 minutes from now, you may still be having fun gambling. Better yet, by extending your bankroll, you may have given yourself more shots at winning. Who knows? You might even come out ahead. Speaking of which, that brings us to the next example.
Have you ever heard of the concept of “gambler’s conceit?” It is a cognitive fallacy that can basically be summed up like this:
“I can quit gambling anytime I want.”
The reason it is a fallacy is because it requires a great deal of self-control in many cases, and often that degree of self-control is simply not there.
This scenario is another example of a time when you are struggling to choose between present and future satisfaction.
Present you wants to use your winnings to keep playing, or what is left of your bankroll, depending on whether you are ahead or behind.
Future you, on the other hand, would rather the present version of you hang onto what remains if your bankroll or cash out your winnings—or maybe just leave them in your online casino account for tomorrow.
When we are not connected to our future selves, the desire for instant gratification holds the most sway. So, we usually keep gambling, despite reservations.
But if you are able to connect to your future self, visualizing the possibilities if you do not gamble the money now, it might be easier for you to walk away.
(For more information about this particular subject, check this out!)
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For the two scenarios we gave above, lacking empathy with your future self is really just going to inconvenience you. You may feel frustrated with yourself later for your decisions, but those decisions did not do anything to disrupt your stability.
A more serious situation we can discuss with respect to decision-making and empathy for your future self is tilt.
Tilt is what happens when you are emotionally dysregulated and start making bad decisions in a desperate bid to take back control.
So, say you are losing a lot of money at roulette, and you feel like the situation is out of control. What you think could bring it back under control is if you could just win back what you lost. So, you place bet after bet, setting larger and larger stakes. The situation spirals more and more out of control. Soon, you lose it all.
What separates this scenario from the first one we talked about is the dysregulated, compromised nature of it.
In our first scenario, you were not in dire straits, and just were having a hard time turning your back on instant gratification.
In this scenario, the situation either is dire or feels dire—and you are being motivated by fear, anger, and frustration.
Your future self hopes you will walk away from this entire situation, but your present self is wrapped up in those emotions and in trying to diffuse them at any cost.
Alas, just being emotionally dysregulated sometimes makes it hard to pull focus on anything but the present moment.
That is why ideally, you should try to have your future self in mind before things really start to un-spool.
If you are starting to pile on losses, for the sake of your future self, you should try and take a break before you start losing emotional control.
The irony of situations like this is that sometimes we may think we are empathizing with our future selves when we make bad decisions on tilt.
You might think, “Well, if I don’t win it all back now, I will have nothing later.”
But the thing to realize is this: It is only your present emotional state that is infused with that anxiety.
Your future emotional state if you continue along this track will not be anxiety—it will be regret.
So, if you are really empathizing effectively with your future self, you will make a different decision in the present—you will stop before you blow your bankroll.
Let’s talk about a different scenario where you might have a difficult time with impulse control. Getting away from simple games of chance, let’s discuss bad decision-making during poker.
Say you are holding a great hand. You are looking at a solid opportunity to win, and to win big—but only if you are patient.
If you raise too quickly and too much, the other players at the table are going to know that you are holding something good, which will cause them to be more likely to fold.
So, you need to draw out the raises. You want to lure them in first, get them invested, and gradually raise so that they think they have a chance to win big too.
But it can be really hard to restrain yourself in a situation like this. You may find yourself fighting the urge to just put a whole pile of chips on the line at once.
This is especially likely to be the case if you have been bleeding chips for awhile now, and have a chance to turn the tables on your opponents. You want to see the situation reverse as soon as possible.
If you give your present self that instant gratification, however, your opponents will probably fold, and your future self will have gained nothing.
One thing that might help you to build a kind of “bridge” between your present and future selves is to imagine not just how happy you will be if you win a big pot, but how satisfying it will feel to watch your opponents take your bait again and again in response to your incremental raises.
Since those moments are in your more immediate future (i.e. you can begin experiencing them with the next raise you make), you might find they work better as motivational fuel than just imagining winning the pot.
As with tilt, one serious issue that can arise when you lack self-control in the present is problem gambling.
Quite a few issues could feed into problem gambling, so preventing it may be more complex than just managing your impulses.
But empathizing more with your future self and making better decisions in the present should certainly be a big help.
Are you trying to learn how to gamble for a living, maybe by playing poker or video poker? If so, you know that it is a lot of work. It requires a ton of practice.
There are going to be times when you just do not feel up to spending hours learning new poker strategies or testing them out.
Your present self just wants to chill. But that is at the expense of your future self, who wants to be rich and accomplished.
If you can prioritize the needs of your future self above your present self, it will be easier to find the discipline to keep practicing, even on days when you just want to relax.
This is a huge deal, as what you do today could make the difference between whether you live your dream life or you spend your future looking back with regret.
Key Point: Empathizing more with your future self can help to prevent minor inconveniences as well as major problems when you are gambling.
How Can You Empathize More With Your Future Self?
Now you understand the link between empathy and self-control, and some of the ways that connecting more with your future self as you are gambling can help you to make more profitable decisions.
But that still leaves the question of how to go about doing that. If you are used to feeling like your future self is some distant stranger, how can you relate to that person you will eventually become?
Alas, my research into this question did not turn up a whole lot of recommendations. But here are a few simple ideas that might help.
- Vividly imagine possible future outcomes.
- Picture vividly the emotions and experiences revolving around taking steps in between.
- Ask yourself what your future self would say to you now.
- Try disconnecting a bit from your present.
- Picture yourself in the future, regretting a bad decision, and then “travel back in time” to the present.
While empathy may come more naturally to some and less naturally too others, we can all learn to do it more effectively.
Some aspects of empathy are voluntary, conscious, and deliberate. There is a component of imagination at play, where we “put ourselves in another’s shoes.”
Actually, to really empathize with another person, we must “put that person in that person’s shoes,” acknowledging that the way they perceive and experience the scenario may be quite different from how we would.
But when it comes to our future selves, we do not need to make such a big jump. You know your own mind well, and we are not talking about scenarios involving the distant future. In most cases, we are talking about how your decision will impact you in the next few hours, or maybe even the next few minutes.
It should be pretty easy to imagine yourself an hour from now in different scenarios.
For example, try to vividly picture what you will feel like if you stake all of your remaining bankroll on your next spin of a slot machine, and you lose. The fun will be over.
Now compare that to a vivid picture of what you will feel if you do not do that and instead take a short break or switch to another slot, and are still playing in 50 minutes with modest stakes. You will still be having fun.
Try and feel those contrasting feelings in the present. If you can do that really effectively, you may find it easy to do what will make you feel good in the future.
Of course, all of this presumes that you have a realistic grasp on the nature of risk and luck, and are not compelled instead by the remote possibility of putting all your remaining bankroll into your next spin and winning a huge jackpot.
If all you can do is imagine that unlikely scenario, that will throw off this entire exercise.
This goes back to my recommendation in the example scenario I gave about the poker session.
When we want something right this instant, even our future self minutes from now can seem utterly detached from us.
So, even though you could be minutes away from winning a pot, it might still be hard to find the incentive to raise in stages.
But if you can imagine the scenario leading up to the win being satisfying in and of itself, you can find the self-control and patience to take it slowly.
Sometimes this may require other mindset adjustments. You might need to learn to derive joy not only from a win, but also from skill and execution.
A common recommendation for increasing empathy with your future self is to imagine that you are that future self, and then write a letter to your present self.
Something like this may be most useful in a literal sense if you are dealing with a long-term scenario (i.e. finding the resolve to stop problem gambling behavior).
But even if you are in a short-term situation, you can do an abbreviated version of this in your head.
Another trick that is similar to the above is to imagine that you are reading a book about your life. Picture for a moment that you are reading this book as someone else.
You have reached a page where the protagonist needs to make a decision—for example, to walk out of the casino for the day with a win, or to keep playing and risk losing it all.
Ask yourself what decision you would want the character on the page to make. How frustrated would you be if you turn the page and they have blown all their winnings because of a lack of self-control?
You would probably be thinking, “Evolve, already! You have made this mistake before.”
Of course, you should not get down on yourself the way you might a character in a book. But the point is that when you are removed from a situation, often the “correct” course of action is clear and simple.
We want to watch characters in stories make progressively smarter decisions, and reap the rewards of those choices.
We can want the same for ourselves in real life.
One more imaginative exercise I saw someone recommend once involves closing your eyes, imagining yourself in a future scenario you don’t want, and pretending for a moment it is the present.
So, for instance, say you have a hard time managing your money, and you regularly spend more than you should on gambling.
You could close your eyes, pretend it is two years from now, and imagine yourself in a bad financial predicament.
Once you are super full of regret and thinking, “I wish I could just turn back time,” open your eyes.
Like magic, you have turned back time. Two years of poor decisions have been undone, and you now have a chance to get it right.
Try doing this every time you are thinking of depositing more than you can afford to lose.
If it works, you should start seeing more financial stability in your life, which is its own reward.
Also, you get to continue to enjoy playing casino games, knowing that you are balancing it as a healthy form of entertainment with the rest of your life priorities.
Once that becomes a habit, it may get easier to continue practicing self-control.
To take another scenario, say it is your life’s dream to play poker for a living—but when each weekend comes along, you just want to veg out and do nothing.
You know what effect that will have on your future. But the future is someone else’s problem, right?
Close your eyes for a moment, and transport yourself decades ahead. Imagine you are old, and you spent every weekend slacking off. Your great dream of becoming a professional poker player never happened, and it never will.
Once that loss really settles into your gut, open your eyes.
Thank goodness—you have miraculously traveled back in time. You still have a chance to become a pro poker player—but only if you put your nose to the grindstone and give it your best.
Freshly motivated by the consequences of what will happen if you do not put in your all, you find it in you to rise above your fatigue and get to work. Maybe soon you will be moving steadily toward your goal.
Key Point: By using your imagination, you can increase your empathy and compassion for your future self, motivating more profitable decisions.
You Can Make Better Decisions When Gambling by Connecting to Your Future Self
When we are in the moment and our impulses are shouting at us, it can be hard to overcome them and make the decision we really want.
But now you know a hidden secret to self-control: empathy for who you will be in five minutes, five hours, and five years.
Once you start making that person’s well-being your priority, you might find that your impulses are easier to ignore.
Hopefully soon, you will be making more decisions while gambling that help you conserve your bankroll, manage your finances, beat your opponents at the poker table, and learn how to play like a pro!
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