What is self-control?
Self-control is to delay short-term gratification in favour of long-term outcomes: it is the investment of cognitive, emotional and behavioral resources to achieve a desired outcome.
Self-control often involves resisting temptations and impulses, and habits often undermine self-control. Humans are relatively successful at exerting self-control to achieve long-term outcomes (Hagger et al., 2009). Self-control is what helps us control our emotions and impulses which enables us to behave in socially adequate ways (Knoch & Fehr, 2007):
“… Overcoming the self’s natural, impulsive nature requires self-control … Without this capacity, we would be slaves of our emotional impulses, temptations, and desires and thus unable to behave socially adequately.” (pp. 128-132).
1. Self-control is a limited resource
According to the self-control strength model, exerting self-control at one time or over one set of behaviors may deplete the ability to exhibit subsequent self-control over another set of behaviors. A study by Shmueli & Prochaska (2009) supports this idea.
In this study, smokers who resisted sweets were more likely to smoke a cigarette during a break compared to smokers who resisted raw vegetables. Participants, whose self-control strength was depleted (due to temptation resistance), were more likely to smoke compared to those who had not depleted their self-control strength.
A study by Vohs & Heatherton (2000) also supports the idea of a self-control strength model. The study draws three conclusions:
- Perceived availability and proximity of tempting snacks undermined subsequent self-control among dieters
- Exerting self-control in one domain leads to subsequent reductions in self-control in another domain
- Asking dieters to suppress their emotional reactions to a movie depleted their self-control resources
Another study found that people’s ability to exert self-control and resist temptation decreases gradually throughout the day (Kouchaki & Smith, 2014). This finding also suggests that self-control is a limited resource.
A study by Gailliot, Baumeister and colleagues (2007) found that self-control relies on blood glucose levels. The study found that (1) exerting self-control reduces blood glucose levels below optimal levels, (2) low levels of blood glucose impairs the ability to exert self-control, and (3) restoring blood glucose levels to a normal level restores self-control. So self-control is a limited resource as it relies on blood glucose levels.
Hagger and colleagues (2009) found that breaks in exerting control (since it is a limited resource) and training in self-control makes people better at exerting self-control.
2. You can improve your self-control
Research suggests that the following ways of thinking promote self-control (Fujita, 2008):
- Global construals: This means keeping in mind one’s goal. Actions are a part of a goal. For example, most dieters commit to healthier diets out of global concerns about health or physical appearance
- Abstraction: This means paying attention to how one’s actions can fulfil one’s goal. For example, a dieter can have an emotional reaction to both the concrete taste of a chocolate cake and to the abstract implications of eating the cake (shame and disgust)
3. Lack of self-control leads to selfishness
One way of illustrating the fact that lack of self-control leads to selfish behaviors is by playing the ultimatum game. This game demonstrates the tension between economic self-interest and fairness goals (i.e., self-control).
In the ultimatum game, one player receives a sum of money (e.g., $10 ) and then proposes how to allocate the sum between himself and another player. The second player chooses to either accept or reject this proposal. If the second player accepts the proposal, then the money is allocated according to the proposal, but if the second player rejects the proposal, no one receives anything.
The rationale behind this game is that, if people are driven by their economic self-interest instead of fairness, they accept even very low offers such as $1 because $1 is better than $0.
On the contrary, if people are driven by fairness (concerns for reciprocity and equity), they reject low offers because they are viewed as unfair (Kahneman et al., 1986). So self-control is believed to encourage people to reject low offers and behave socially adequately.
Evidence suggests that most people (up to 80%) reject low offers in the ultimatum game (Knoch & Fehr, 2007), which indicates that people are relatively self-controlled in a setting like this.
4. Certain brain regions process self-control
In a brain study by Knoch & Fehr (2007), the authors found that the right prefrontal cortex plays a crucial role with regard to self-control. The study showed that participants, whose right prefrontal cortices were stimulated (i.e., inhibited), exerted significantly less self-control in the ultimatum game, i.e. they were less able to resist economic temptation.
As a result, it was concluded that the capacity for restraint (self-control) depends on the activity of the right prefrontal cortex.These findings are congruent with other research findings (Knoch & Fehr, 2007). For example, patients with right prefrontal lesions are characterized by an inability to behave in normatively appropriate ways.
Moreover, patients with predominantly right front lesions show empathy deficits: self-control is necessary to tone down one’s self-perspective and to allow the perception of others’ perspectives.
At last, patients with right-sided frontotemporal dementia show aggressive, antisocial and other socially undesirable behaviors. Taken together, much evidence suggests that the right prefrontal cortex is involved in the human capacity of self-control or behavioral inhibition.
5. Self-control is linked to successful outcomes
A paper by Tangney and colleagues (2004) highlights the five following research findings which link self-control to successful outcomes:
- People with high self-control have better grades. This is probably due to the fact that people with poor self-control are likely to procrastinate on tasks, which can lead to poorer performance and lower grades.
- They show fewer impulse control problems such as binge eating or alcohol abuse.
- They show better psychological adjustment, including somatization, obsessive-compulsive patterns, depression, anxiety, hostile anger, phobic anxiety, paranoid ideation, and psychoticism.These people also show greater self-acceptance or self-esteem.
- They report more guilt and less shame than others. Guilt has recently been associated with beneficial outcomes, whereas shame has been associated with more destructive, divisive outcomes, the authors note.
- High self-control is linked to better interpersonal relationships, i.e. better family cohesion and less family conflict. More specifically, it is linked to secure attachment styles, better perspective-taking (empathy), and less personal distress. In addition, people with high self-control report better emotional responses (less anger/better anger management).
6. Training self-control promotes behavior changes
Unwanted eating behaviors can be inhibited by training self-control. A study by Houben & Jansen (2011) shows that training to inhibit food-related responses (i.e., self-control) can help people gain control over eating behavior and decrease food intake (chocolate consumption).
Research has also shown that drinking behavior can be inhibited by training self-control. In a study by Houben and colleagues (2011), participants who repeatedly inhibited responding to alcohol cues (i.e., self-control) showed both increased negative automatic associations with alcohol-related stimuli and reduced alcohol intake.
Withholding a response (self-control) to a positive stimulus (e.g., alcohol) may lead to a devaluation of this stimulus, research suggests (Veiling et al., 2008).
7. Self-control and overcontrol are not the same
Theories on overcontrol stress the fact that high levels of self-control are associated with psychopathologies, such as obssessive-compulsive tendencies.
However, Tangney and colleagues (2004) suggest that self-control might be better conceptualized as self-regulation – i.e. the ability to regulate the self strategically in response to goals, priorities, and environmental demands. The authors say that:
“Rigid ‘overcontrolled’ individuals suffer from problems regulating and directing their capacity for self-control. Such overcontrolled individuals might lack the ability to control their self-control. In contrast, individuals with a genuine high self-control have the ability to exert self-control when it is required and to suspend self-control when it is not”
8. People with self-control are happier
A recent study by Hofmann and colleagues (2013) has linked self-control to life satisfaction. Self-control may not give instant gratification, instead it may bring contentment in the long run or long-term happiness. Postponing needs and achieving one’s goals is a measure of success and it provides satisfaction, which is likely to make us happy.
The study further shows that participants with a high self-control are not necessarily better at resisting temptations. In fact, they may just expose themselves to fewer craving-provoking situations. In this way, self-disciplined people can remain happy because they avoid desires and conflicts.