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What Do You And Triceratops Have In Common?

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CNN recently reported that researchers at Montana State University, after 15 years of research, have concluded that it took triceratops a million years to develop its signature horn. Fascinating stuff, right?

What Does This Have To Do With Me?

Given this glacially slow evolution, it shouldn’t come as a major shock that the human brain is still influenced by primal instincts. Eons ago, when survival and reproduction were our primary concerns, and food and potential mates were often scarce resources, it was in our best interests to act on impulse and seek immediate gratification.

As such, we developed a motivational system that propelled us toward action and consumption. Dopamine – the primary hormone in the reward system – plays a major role in anticipation and arousal, and triggers stress hormones that make the object of desire seem critical to survival. Which it may have been when you had to chase down dinner (and maybe a mate, too) as it ran by.

Fast forward to present day, where you can order dinner at a drive-thru while perusing potential mates on Tinder, and our primal urges are not necessarily in our best interests anymore. This is where triceratops comes in.


How Am I Like A Triceratops?

Triceratops                                                                (Not in size)

Just as the prehistoric creature eventually developed its characteristic horn to increase its chances of survival, the prefrontal cortex of the human brain has evolved to help with impulse control and delaying gratification – to help us survive in the modern world. Where our primal brain operated using primarily a fight-or-flight response, our present day brains have a pause-and-plan response to allow for thoughtful action. Mind you, the fight-or-flight response still serves us extremely well in emergency situations and external dangers; however, the pause-and-plan response is necessary when instincts are pushing you toward a bad decision – when the enemy is within, if you will – allowing you to look at the big picture and think long-term.

Enter willpower, the biological instinct that evolved to protect us from ourselves and help us differentiate from what we want most to what we want right now.


So Why Aren’t I A Goal-Accomplishing Fool?


Willpower sounds great, right? – the ability to remember to look out for your long-term interests even when it’s easier to do the opposite. So why, then, is it so hard to make lifestyle changes like losing weight and exercising more? As it turns out, there are a multitude of reasons that behavior change is so hard. We’ll just look at a few:

  • You have a limited supply of willpower, especially under stress, as both have high energy requirements. Trying to control too many things at once can exhaust willpower, just as a muscle becomes fatigued from use. In addition, as there’s only so much energy to go around, stress makes you even more susceptible to temptation. Your brain will default to what it thinks will make you feel better, which generally means it’s relying on impulses and immediate gratification. The flood of dopamine released at the promise of reward actually causes your brain to mis-predict what will make you happy.
  • You are likely more influenced by social factors than you realize. Many behaviors you think fall under self-control are actually choices shaped by others. It’s human nature to want to conform to the norm and often times this “pull to center” outweighs your desire to do the right thing. You even have specialized brain cells that track the actions of others and these influences in your mind can tip the balance of power between two conflicting goals.
  • You are great at rationalizing. While humans are the only species to think about the future, we often think about our present and future selves as two different people. (In studies, brain activity when thinking about your future self is the same as when thinking about a stranger). If you’re unable to access your future self’s thoughts and feelings, you’re more likely to choose immediate satisfaction at the cost of future happiness. You are rational in theory, but in practice, waiting longer for a reward makes it worth less to you (a term called delay discounting).


Is There Anything I Can Do?

Luckily, there are plenty of things you can do to strengthen willpower and preempt your more primal urges from derailing your long-term success.

  • Train your willpower “muscle” Brain lifting weights

Building a habit of noticing what you are about to do and choosing the more difficult option instead of the easiest is one way to increase overall willpower. By consistently controlling any small act that you’re not used to controlling (for example, opening doors with your non-dominant hand), your brain gets used to pausing before acting, which is exactly what you need to do to analyze your decisions before trusting your instincts. Like an athlete, you want to train your willpower “muscle” by pushing its limits, but also pacing yourself and not taking on too much at once.

  • Choose stress-relieving activities

Turning to such activities as exercise, yoga, reading, prayer, and hobbies will make more of a positive impact than you realize. As mentioned earlier, stress essentially forces you to rely on impulses and immediate gratification for the promise of happiness. Unfortunately, many of the stress-relieving activities mentioned above don’t excite the reward system, so you underestimate how they make you feel. Exercise, especially, will not only decrease stress but actually increase your willpower reserve at the same time.

  • Surround yourself with the right people

While social influence can pull you down, it can just as easily pull you in the right direction if you surround yourself with people who share your commitment to your goals and make it feel like the norm.

  • Outsmart (And Be Kind To) Yourself

Once you recognize that you have bounded rationality (rationality only up to a point), you can use that to shift the balance of power back to self-control. Your reward system flourishes at the promise of immediate gratification, which means that getting some distance between you and your temptation will allow you to make a rational decision. Try instituting a 10-minute wait period for temptations and you’ll likely greatly decrease their influence over you.


In addition, you can preempt your Tempted Self from sabotaging your Future Self by limiting your options in advance, known as precommitting. You can help yourself reach your goals by eliminating the easiest route to giving in, making it inconvenient to change your mind, and putting a delay between your feelings of temptation and the ability to act on them.

Lastly, we’ve seen that your future self feels like a different person entirely, which makes it hard to self-reflect. By strengthening your continuity between present and future self, you will not only increase your willpower, but be compelled to be the best version of yourself now.

Awareness of the aforementioned will surely help you with your willpower challenges; however don’t expect perfection. Self-compassion and forgiveness can actually minimize guilt and subsequent indulgence, and increase motivation and self-control, whereas self-criticism will do the exact opposite. Give your inner voice the viewpoint of a close friend or family member who supports and encourages you.


Though humans have come a long way from having to stalk their prey for dinner, we are still very driven by evolutionary impulses. Thanks to the development of the prefrontal cortex, we do have the ability to pause-and-plan our responses rather than always seeking immediate gratification. That being said, it requires a great deal of energy to fight these instincts and do what’s better for us in the long term. The tips above serve to help you better understand how willpower works and how you can get the most out of it.

If you’re interested in reading more about willpower, check out The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It


Lacey-Bordeaux, Emma, Dave Alsup, and Mesrop Najarian. “Study: Triceratops Took a Million Years to Develop Horn.” CNN. Cable News Network, 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 03 July 2014.

McGonigal, Kelly. The Willpower Instinct: How Self-control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. New York: Avery, 2012. Print.

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