Most people would say that, while these self-destructive acts can have many root causes, they all have one obvious thing in common: they are all examples of failures of self-control. Each of us has desires that we know we shouldn't give in to, but when faced with temptation, some of us lack the willpower to resist it.
A recent paper by psychologists Catherine Rawn and Kathleen Vohs, however, argues that if you really think about it, something about that simple answer doesn't quite make sense. In fact, it turns out that sometimes it's having willpower that really gets you into trouble.
Think back to the time you took your very first sip of beer. Disgusting, wasn't it? When my father gave me my first taste of beer as a teenager, I distinctly remember wondering why anyone would voluntarily drink the stuff. The experience is similar for most of us when it comes to our first sips of wine, hard liquor, and coffee as well. And smoking? No one enjoys their first cigarette - it tastes awful, burns your throat, makes you cough, and is often nauseating. So even though smoking, and drinking alcohol or coffee, can become temptations you need willpower to resist, they never, ever start out that way.
Just getting past those first horrible experiences actually requires a lot of self-control. Ironically, only those individuals who can repeatedly override their impulses, rather than give in to them, can ever come to someday develop a "taste" for Budweiser, Marlboro Lights, or dark-roasted Starbucks coffee.
We automatically think of willpower as a resource we use to help us do the things we know we should do - the things that are good for us. So why then would anyone ever exert willpower in order to do something that isn't good for them?
The short answer is, we do it in order to achieve some goal. And more often than not, that goal has something to do with social acceptance. We force ourselves to consume alcoholic beverages that taste awful, inhale cigarette smoke that gags us, and try to mask the taste of coffee with generous applications of milk and sugar, in order to seem sophisticated, grown-up, and cool. We experiment with illegal drugs, even though we are terrified of the physical and legal consequences, in order to feel accepted. We have sex with people when we feel no sexual desire whatsoever, hoping that they will like us and that maybe it will "go somewhere."
When we use our willpower to overcome our healthy impulses, we are choosing interpersonal gains - like forming friendships and avoiding rejection - over personal well-being. These aren't self-control failures - far from it. They are deliberate choices, and they are in fact self-control successes.
So if you think that your child will grow to become a clean, sober, and abstinent teenager just because he has the willpower to hold out for two marshmallows later instead of one marshmallow now, think again.
Self-control is simply a tool to be put to some use, helpful or harmful. To live happy and productive lives, we need to develop not only our self-control strength, but also the wisdom to make good decisions about when and where to apply it.