Self-control is the capacity to override one’s impulses and automatic habitual responses, and it seems vital for almost everything we do.
The conscious and effortful form of self-regulation that self-control is determines a multitude of factors in our lives – from whether or not our behavior is in line with accepted moral, societal and personal standards, to whether or not we fulfill our personal aspirations.
By exerting self-control we can avoid behaving in maladaptive ways – like eating too much cake after dinner – but we can also align our behavior with our desired outcomes – like going to the gym five days a week.
But self-control is also powerfully adaptive. Studies of self-control consistently demonstrate that it is associated with greater interpersonal popularity, superior school performance, better mental health and coping skills, and less susceptibility to substance abuse problems, eating disorders, and criminality (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005; Finkel & Campbell, 2001; Gaillot, Schmeichel & Baumeister, 2006).
Beyond the obvious advantages that self-control offers, here are three surprising things you might not know about self-control.
Self-control allows people to suppress stereotypes and prejudices. We do know that self-control is particularly useful for improving interpersonal cooperation and group harmony (Baumeister, 2005), but self-control allows us to go one step beyond simply being nice. By curtailing our unacceptable thoughts and judgements about others, we are better able to meet them on objective terms and offer the benefit of a fair evaluation (Richeson & Shelton, 2003).
Self-control helps you refrain from responding negatively to your romantic partner and instead respond positively (Finkel & Campbell, 2001). Much like the top-down regulation that self-control offers when facing our own stereotypes about others, it also helps us bite our lip when angry with the ones we love. And, again much like stereotypes, it is probably during these times that we also do not give them the benefit of a fair evaluation.
Self-control is an expensive resource. Self-control takes a lot of energy, and as it turns out, can be worn down. Several studies have found that after participants complete an initial self-control task, they perform worse on a second self-control task compared to participants whose initial task did not require self-control. In one study, participants had to limit their intake of beer during a taste test because they anticipated a driving test, and participants who had previously engaged in a thought-suppression exercise drank more beer than those who had not previously exerted more self-control (Muraven et al., 2002). In another study, resisting the temptation to eat cookies caused participants subsequently to give up faster on a frustrating task (Baumeister et al., 1998). Studies like these demonstrate that we only have so much self-control at any given time, and if we spend all day fighting off our temptations, at the end of the day, we are probably much more likely to eat that box of cookies – even though we know we shouldn’t.
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D.M. (1998). Self-control depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265.
Baumeister, R. F., (2005). The cultural animal: Human nature, meaning and social life. New York: Oxford University Press.
Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005) Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science, 16, 939-944.
Finkel, E. J., & Campbell, W. K., (2001). Self-control and accommodation in close relationships: An interdependence analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 263-277.
Gaillot, M. T., Schmeichel, B. J., & Baumeiester, R. F. (2006). Self-regulatory processes defend against the threat of death: Effects of self-control depletion and trait self-control on thoughts and fears of dying. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 49-62.
Muraven, M., Collins, R. L., & Neihaus, K., (2002). Self-control and alcohol restraint: An initial application of the Self-Control Strength Model. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 16, 113-120.
Richeson, J. A., & Shelton, J. N., (2003). When prejudice does not pay: Effects of interracial contact on executive function. Psychological Science, 14, 287-290.
Claire Dorotik-Nana is the author of LEVERAGE: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards. For more information on Claire or her work, just visit www.leverageadversity.net
Photo by kaferris