The Metaphor of the Song of the Sirens and Self-Control

Tradition has it that whoever heard the beautiful song of a siren had an inevitable end: drowning in the depths of the sea. Only Odysseus managed to overcome this powerful temptation, and he achieved it through the strategy of forced self-control.
The Metaphor of the Song of the Sirens and Self-Control
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 20 September, 2022

Do you have good self-control? It’s worth remembering that you’re only human and it’s extremely easy to fall into the trap of temptation. For instance, we all allow ourselves to be drawn in by attractive stimuli such as items of clothing, food, or technology in department stores. In fact, the world is like an ocean where the irresistible song of the sirens is always heard in the background.

However, you probably try to set yourself some limits and use some strategies to prevent you from completely losing control. That’s when it can come in handy to remember a specific moment in the history of Odysseus in the Iliad. It’s the one when, in his attempt to return home after the Trojan War, he’s forced to cross the sea in which the sirens live.

Knowing that whoever heard their song would be tempted to jump into the waters, Odysseus ordered his crew to cover their ears, as the sorceress Circe had recommended. Yet he wanted to hear the famous song of the sirens. For this reason, he decided to tie himself to the mast and ask his sailors not to untie him while they were crossing that area, even if he himself ordered it.

Odysseus carried out what we know in psychology as a pre-commitment strategy. Tying himself to the mast was his forced self-control mechanism so as not to give in to temptation. Despite exposing himself to the sirens out of curiosity, he managed to hold himself back. Somehow, we too must find a mast to tie ourselves to in our day-to-day so as not to fall prey to the impulse and power of desires.

Our well-being often depends on our ability to apply prior commitment strategies so as not to get carried away by impulsive behaviors. Those that lead us to the depths of regret.

Woman shopping warm on the January slope letting herself be carried away by the song of the sirens
In our day-to-day, we must make use of self-control so as not to fall into counterproductive behaviors.

The metaphor of the song of the sirens

We understand self-control as the ability that makes it easier for us to control our impulses, emotions, and behavior. It’s the regulated and rational behavior that differentiates us from animals. In fact, it’s thanks to this that we can achieve more enriching long-term goals. This sophisticated and essential capacity is thanks to a specific area of the brain.

A study conducted by Yale University (USA) reveals the region that facilitates self-control is the prefrontal cortex. It’s the region of the brain that takes the longest to mature. This explains why children and adolescents have serious problems controlling their impulses.

The metaphor of the song of the sirens refers to the set of attractive stimuli that exist in your environment that you find difficult to resist. In your daily routine, there are many of them that, like the sirens in the Iliad, raise their voices and display their beauty to try and make you fall into the abyss of regret or unhealthy habits.

Many of our choices aren’t rational. Therefore, we must apply strategies to exercise control over all of our decisions and behaviors (purchases, Internet use, etc).

The song of the sirens in the 21st century

The metaphor of siren songs symbolizes, as an example, someone who can’t stop listening to the voice of their addiction to tobacco and continues to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day. Stores and supermarkets make use of siren songs when deciding how to lay out their products. Marketing and advertising are like sirens, inviting us to buy non-stop.

Social media is also full of siren songs. Each element, color, and algorithm aims to keep you glued to the screen for as long as possible. Furthermore, you’re not always aware of these phenomena, because sirens are captivating and it’s really difficult to resist their presence. However, the more you expose yourself to them, the more you sink.

This happens due to the fact that, as a human, you’re an emotional being and don’t always carry out reasoned behavior. Your impulses rule and your emotions guide your reactions. Consequently, it isn’t easy to put self-control into practice when the stimuli around you are so attractive.

The pre-engagement strategy: self-control is healthy

Dr. Janet Schwartz of Tulane University (USA) conducted a really interesting experiment on this subject, which was later published in the journal, Psychological Science. A program was proposed in South Africa called Discovery Vitality. It consisted of proposing to families that they buy only healthy foods in supermarkets. If they did, they’d receive a 25 percent discount on the total purchase.

The program lasted six months and was a success. Families avoided buying foods that were processed and rich in saturated fats etc. In effect, they carried out a pre-commitment strategy. In other words, they were able to avoid the ‘siren songs’ of unhealthy foods to acquire those that were more suitable. The program managed, in essence, to encourage more rational purchasing.

Our ability to commit to achieving goals requires working on self-control and avoiding immediate gratification in order to obtain greater long-term benefits.

Woman with illuminated brain representing the effect of the song of the sirens
People with better self-control rely more on good habits than willpower.

Applying the Odysseus strategy

If you think about it, you don’t need third parties to gratify you to commence patterns of healthier behavior. You can apply the Odysseus strategy and develop your own pre-commitment strategies. For example, carrying cash and not credit cards will give you greater control over your purchases.

You can also bypass siren calls on your cell phone apps by limiting your usage time. Indeed, there are many poles you can tie yourself to from time to time just like Odysseus to show yourself that you have control over your life. Nobody needs to do it for you. You’re perfectly capable of designing your own self-control strategies and developing more satisfactory and healthy behaviors.

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  • Schwartz J, Mochon D, Wyper L, Maroba J, Patel D, Ariely D. Healthier by Precommitment. Ciencias Psicológicas . 2014;25(2):538-546. doi: 10.1177/0956797613510950
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