The Science of Self Control: 8 Things We Now Know About This Aspect of Higher Consciousness

Self-control is the chief element in self-respect, and self-respect is the chief element in courage. ~ Thucydides Click To Tweet

Self control is delaying short-term gratification in favour of long-term outcomes. It is the investment of cognitive, emotional and behavioural 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).

However, people are better at exerting self control when it comes to making decisions that are distant in time compared to near (Fujita, 2008). Eight facts about self-control are presented in this article.

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 behaviours may deplete the ability to exhibit subsequent self control over another set of behaviours. 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.

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 behaviours is by playing the ultimatum game. This game demonstrates the tension between economic self interest and fairness goals (i.e., self-control).

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. 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 behaviours. Taken together, much evidence suggests that the right prefrontal cortex is involved in the human capacity for self control or behavioural 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:

  1. 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.
  2. They show fewer impulse control problems such as binge eating or alcohol abuse.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. High self control is linked to better interpersonal relationships as well (better family cohesion and less family conflict). More specifically, it is linked to more secure attachment style, and better perspective-taking (empathy) and it is associated with less personal distress. In addition, people with high self control report better emotional responses (less anger and better anger management).

Unwanted eating behaviours 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 behaviour 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 may lead to a devaluation of this stimulus, research suggests (Veiling et al., 2008).

6) Self control and over control are not the same.

Theories on over control 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 – the ability to regulate the self strategically in response to goals, priorities, and environmental demands.

From this perspective, the authors state:

“Rigid ‘over controlled’ individuals suffer from problems regulating and directing their capacity for self control. Such over controlled 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.”

7) 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.

Source:  “8 Facts About Self-Control“, from Reflectd.co, a non-profit blog by Simon Moesgaard-Kjeldsen, a psychology instructor at the University of Southern Denmark. It is shared here with permission. If you enjoyed this article you can keep up with Reflectd by following Simon on Twitter

Image: Phra Ajan Jerapunyo-Abbot of Watkungtaphao, wikipedia.org