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Monday, November 23, 2009

Self-Regulation on the Silver Screen

APA In our review of the widely popular film Twilight, Jeremy Clyman and I take a closer look at the character strength of self-regulation, one of the least endorsed strengths across the world and one of the least portrayed in film. One of the film's protagonists, Edward Cullen, is a paragon for self-regulation in the way in which he maintains exquisite, healthy control of his emotions, impulses, and instincts. We note:

Edward tries hard to display self-control as he faces a crescendo of challenges in which he must continue to develop his "muscle" of self-control. Numerous scenes show him resisting. Although he struggles honestly, exclaiming, "I still don't know if I can control myself," he is successful in his efforts.
Is self-control a strength that can easily be built up? What are the best ways for a therapist to help a client enhance their self-control/self-regulation?

What makes this such a popular film?

The second film in this series, New Moon, just arrived in various cities around the world. Does Edward's character strength of self-regulation/self-control continue as strongly through this film as well? What evidence do you see to support your view?

Read the Review
ReviewTemperance: The Quiet Virtue Finds a Home
By Ryan M. Niemiec [and] Jeremy Clyman
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2009 Vol 54(46)


B. Friedrich

First of all, I would just like to comment on the reviewer's thought that Edward Cullen shows "healthy" self-restraint. I would argue that the restraint he shows in the movie is not necessarily healthy. Keeping one's emotions as tightly bound as Edward could have dire consequences.

That being said, I do think that self-control is something that can be built up over time. As evidence, we can look at our own lives as children - we had to learn from an early age that instant gratificaiton is not always possible, nor should it be. After practicing one's self-control efforts, though, I do believe that he/she can improve the characteristic. I would also like to add that I believe self-control/self-regulation is easier for some, and extremely difficult for others. If we look at addiction as an exaple, the case could be made that this ability to maintian one's self-control may be biological, or perhaps a personality trait that is either enhanced or diluted over the course of one's life.

Kay Thomas @ Alliant International University

I haven't seen or read Twilight, but as I understand it--or rather, as I heard the sex columnist Dan Savage explain it--the vampire and bloodlust theme is a metaphor for sex. The author Stephenie Meyer stated in a London Times interview that she is a "straightlaced" member of the Mormon Church. Presumably, her values encompass sexual morality and Mormon website states that Mormon parents help their children "stay in control of their emotions and behaviors relative to physical desire." It seems reasonable that, like most teens, the young people depicted in Twilight are grappling with some "emotions and behaviors relative to physical desire" and a fine way to spice up this theme, as well as avoid overt dialogue on sex, is to rewrite sexual lust as lust for blood. The attitude that it's preferable to describe lust for blood instead of lust for sex might indicate some backward thinking on the part of Meyers, if not the LDS Church or Christianity in general.

So is the "vampire" (i.e. the sexually frustrated, guilt-ridden teenager) regulating himself and his desires or are his parents, pastors, peers, and their conceptions of god, good, evil, and the afterlife regulating those desires for him? The decision is made for him, so he never has to think, learn, or grow, although he'd probably like to bite into Bella's neck like Lestat.

That's probably why these movies have found a huge audience with the under-18 set; they're all dealing with the same conflicts between their natural instincts (kids used to become "adults" and reproduce at puberty; society has changed but our biological timelines haven't much) and social/political/religious rules, compounded by the lack of effective sex education. The moms in the audience might feel a little conflicted too, harboring crushes on a character about their daughters' ages.

Self-control, if we consider the impressive correlation between early tests of ability to delay gratification and measures of adult achievement, doesn't seem to change easily. However, it is a skill, and while it may be limited to some extent by biology, I suspect a person can train him/herself to have greater self-control and that a therapist--particularly a behavioral therapist of some sort--can be helpful in the process. Behavior modification accomplishes its goals in steps, rewarding small gains until the larger goals are met. For example, quitting cigarette smoking may entail going from 20 cigarettes a day (baseline for many habitual smokers) to 19 by increasing the interval between cigarettes by 15 minutes. Increasing the interval by 15 minutes each week gradually cuts out cigarettes until the behavior (and the addiction) is extinguished. Attention span can also be increased by forcing oneself to delay the termination of a productive/useful/necessary activity by increasing periods of time, e.g. reading a textbook for 10, 15, then 20 (etc.) minutes beyond the point of boredom. The therapist's role might consist of recommending and designing the modification plan, supporting the client's efforts, holding the patient accountable, and rewarding the small gains. When the client has gained greater self-control in one area, these gains may generalize to other areas, or the therapist may help in designing a modification plan for other behaviors.

Kay Thomas @ Alliant International University

A cognitive element might be useful in behavior modification too. While behavior change is the goal, cognitive techniques--particularly distraction, but also rationalizing and self-encouragement--can facilitate the initial stages of behavior change. Some clients may do just fine with a purely behavioral approach, but nothing says cognitive techniques can't be beneficial as well.


Similar to a previous comment, I also disagree on the idea that Edward Cullen maintained a “healthy” control of his emotions. Relating to therapy, I believe the notion of self-control/self-regulation has differing definitions. It is hard for the therapist to help a client enhance their self-control without understanding how the client defines this aspect themselves. Based on previous comments, self-control can have varying effects. To an extent, for an individual who lived in a chaotic environment e.g. abuse in the family, they may develop addictive behaviors as a way of self-control. In other words, an individual who develop an eating disorder by refusing to eat can be a sign of maintaining self-control in an environment that is beyond their control. Therefore, building a mutual understanding of how one defines self-control would be important in building rapport and help assist a client in more appropriate and acceptable behaviors.

Nonetheless, I feel the popularity of the film stems from the perfect portrayal of the character, Edward. In contrast to reality, this character is able to control his own emotions and have super-human abilities. All these are in contrast and difficult in reality. In situations of anger, jealousy and love etc, it may be interesting for the audience to see how this character is able to control his emotions through all these experiences with minimal effect. Additionally, even when he can no longer hold his emotions e.g. feeling intense anger, he has the super-human abilities to help him express them without being caught by police. Normally, these extremes of control can be problematic in reality. For example, withholding emotion can lead to mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, whereas expressing emotions to the extreme can lead to legal problems. Furthermore, being a vampire, it creates a fantasy for the audience. Consequently, the fantasy creates unpredictable aspects to the film and therefore, an interest to see how this character may develop and behave in normal situations throughout the series.

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Editor of PsycCRITIQUES

Danny Wedding, PhD

Chair of Behavioral Sciences,
College of Medicine,
American University of Antigua

Associate Editors of PsycCRITIQUES

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