You may think of people with high self-control as having enviable reserves of willpower, but recent findings suggest this isn’t the case. Instead it seems the strong-willed are canny folk, adept at avoiding temptation in the first place. A new study in the journal Self and Identity builds on this picture, showing that people high in self-control tend to experience less intense visceral states, like fatigue, hunger and stress (states that are known to encourage impulsive behaviour).
The new findings make sense: after all, it is much easier to be in control of your decisions if you are organised enough to ensure your animalistic needs rarely become overpowering.
Cassandra Baldwin’s team exploited five years’ worth of relevant data from their lab, taking in studies that had measured trait self-control (rated through agreement with statements like “I have hard time breaking bad habits” and “I am able to work effectively toward long-term goals”) and that involved one-shot self-reports of states like hunger, fatigue, daily stress, and symptoms of the common cold.
The researchers ended up with data from over 5,500 college students, mostly women, collected in 25 studies. In many cases, they also had information on how much sleep the participants had had the previous night and the amount of time since they had last eaten.
The results were very consistent: higher trait self-control correlated with less intense experience of all the measured visceral states, from hunger to cold symptoms.
Importantly, amount of sleep the previous night, and time since last eating, partly mediated these associations, suggesting that people with high self-control experience less hunger and less fatigue to some extent because they get more sleep and don’t go so long without eating.
Baldwin and her colleagues said their results “are consistent with prior findings that high trait self-control facilitates structuring one’s life in order to avoid negative consequences.”
The associations uncovered in this research were modest is size, but they remained statistically significant regardless of the time of day, or the time in the semester, that the participants had reported their states. Also, the researchers pointed out that while modest in size, the effects they observed would quickly accumulate. Take, for example, the correlation between higher self-control and getting more sleep the preceding night: “On any given night we would expect a person low in trait self-control to sleep about 20 minutes less than a person high in trait self-control,” the researchers explained. “Over the span of a week, this adds up to a two-hour difference in sleep duration – an accumulation of sleep debt that may have consequences for health and behavior.”
Although the methodology of this research can’t prove that having higher self-control leads to experiencing milder visceral states (via better organized sleep and eating behaviors), the data are certainly consistent with that picture. Longitudinal research that follows people over time will be able to confirm this account.
The reliance on college students is another short-coming. But perhaps more problematic is that these findings still leave open the question of what it is about high self-control individuals that allows them, more than others, to better plan their lives so that they experience less stress and milder visceral states. If it isn’t deep reserves of willpower, what is it?
The emerging picture is that high self-control is associated with having a pervasive inclination for orderliness, planning and thinking ahead, which sounds very much like trait conscientiousness (and personality research has shown that high conscientiousness too is associated with living more healthily and experiencing less stress). So, where then does conscientiousness come from? There is no simple, complete answer as yet, but we do know the trait is partly genetically inherited and that it is fostered through having meaningful social roles and responsibilities.