If high self-control has a downside, these psychologists couldn’t find it

kettlebell balance demonstrationBy Emma Young

Self-control has been dubbed a “master virtue” – one which enables so many others, such as selflessness and perseverance. Indeed, better control of short-term impulses in conflict with long-term goals is linked to everything from greater health to greater wealth. It’s no surprise, then, that schools are adopting strategies designed to improve their students’ self-control, under the assumption that there is no downside. But is there…?

Some researchers have argued that there might be. High levels of self-control might promote obsessive-compulsive tendencies, or a dysfunctional kind of perfectionism, in which a person rigidly strives for unreachable standards. Another potential downside has been suggested: “Too much” self-control might lead to “frequent and sometimes unnecessary regulation of emotions, thoughts and behaviours, resulting in a life marked by rigidity and blandness, thereby lowering subjective wellbeing” note the authors of a new paper on the topic, published in the Journal of Personality. 

To date, there’s been little actual research to investigate the interplay between changing levels of self-control and wellbeing. So the team – led by Christopher Wiese at Purdue University and including Roy Baumeister of willpower fame and Angela Duckworth, known for her work on “grit” –  ran a series of six studies involving a total of more than 5,000 schoolchildren, college undergraduates and adults aged up to 55.

In the first study, middle-school children (aged 10-14) completed a questionnaire about their impulsivity, their teachers also rated the kids’ self-control, and the children also reported their subjective wellbeing, including how often they experienced positive and negative moods and their overall life satisfaction. This allowed the researchers to see if having especially high or low self-control was related to feelings of well being.

Further studies with university students and a community sample of adults were similar, but in one case there was a real-world test of the ability to resist temptation, which involved persisting with a boring computer task while resisting fun distractions. Another of the studies used a “day reconstruction method”, in which participants recalled how much self-control they had exercised during different activities in a given day, and how they had felt during each activity.

The results of all these investigations? In the researchers’ words, “Self-control enhances subjective wellbeing with little to no apparent downside of too much self-control.” The “little” cost to well being that they did find related to the giving up of immediate pleasures for future gain. Since “these [future] benefits outweigh the loss of in-the-moment pleasures,” the net result was  “overall higher [subjective wellbeing],” the researchers wrote.

There were a few limitations with the research. Perhaps most glaring was the lack of longitudinal data (the same participants were not followed over time) or any kind of experimental test to see the consequences of exercising different levels of self-control. This meant the researchers couldn’t explore, for example, whether people may start to feel less good about repeatedly exerting self-control in the long term. It also means it’s not possible to say based on this research whether over periods of weeks, months and years, self-control affects well being levels, or if happier people simply tend to exert more self-control. However, the researchers said they believe their results provide “preliminary support” for promoting self-control among school-aged children, as well as in adults.

Too much of a good thing? Exploring the inverted-U relationship between self-control and happiness

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

4 thoughts on “If high self-control has a downside, these psychologists couldn’t find it”

  1. Hmmmm….Anorexia Nervosa – isn’t that high self control taken to the pathological extreme? Where does high self control stop and pathology begin? We focus too much on the individual and not the context, in my opinion.

  2. As they do comment on , the causality could well be that positive mood enhances self-control or a third factor involved ( environmental / contextual e.g socio-economic status ? ) which might be influencing both mood and self-control.

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