Self-control refers to the ability to resist impulses and conflicting desires in pursuit of goal-directed behaviors. For instance, a person who intends to lose weight must resist the temptation of eating junk food. The temptation is, therefore, a threat to the person’s sense of self-control.
Threats—be they everyday distractions and temptations, or more serious ones like gambling addiction or alcohol abuse—make the pursuit of important goals difficult. Many of us believe we would be more successful if we had more self-control—but why exactly are high self-control people successful? In today’s post, I review an article by Stavrova and colleagues, published in the October issue of European Journal of Social Psychology, which examines potential mechanisms linking self-control and success.1
3 Explanations for the Link Between Self-Control and Success
Why are people with greater self-control more successful at achieving their goals? Perhaps because they employ effective strategies (e.g. develop good habits). Alternatively, fewer of their desires might conflict with their goals, so they are not distracted or tempted as often as others. For instance, the desire to watch TV for only an hour a day would not conflict with the goal of obtaining good grades.
Aside from habit strength and goal-desire conflict, a third explanation suggests that high self-control individuals choose authentic goals. Let us examine this explanation in more detail.
Research shows we are more effective in pursuing goals that are either authentic or related to our values and interests. Authentic goals reflect one’s true self (who we are on the inside), not one's public self (who we are around others). Authentic goals are chosen not because they are pleasurable or socially desirable but because they are personally valuable and meaningful.2
Self-Control and Authentic Goals
But why is self-control related to authentic goals? Why don’t individuals with low self-control also choose authentic goals? Perhaps it is because they feel vulnerable, so their primary concern is self-protection and not selecting goals that reflect who they are deep inside.
In contrast, individuals with greater self-control may feel a greater sense of power and freedom to act in ways consistent with their true selves and to actualize their potential.
Another possibility is that the goals are the same for both groups, but only those with high self-control incorporate these goals, over time, into their self-concept. Thus, they may appear more authentic to them.
Researching Self-Control, Goal Authenticity, and Goal Progress
Let us now turn to the paper by Stavrova and coauthors and their investigations of the veracity of the above mechanisms.1
The first study explored whether people with high self-control choose goals related to their true or public self. A sample of 294 participants from Amazon Mechanical Turk (average age of 38 years; 56 percent female) completed a self-control measure (sample question: “I am good at resisting temptation”).
They were then asked to name five goals they had been pursuing recently (e.g., pay down credit card debts), to indicate whether the goals were associated with their true or public self, and to estimate how much progress they had been making toward these goals.
Results suggested the participants (especially those with higher self-control) believed that their goals reflected their true selves (compared with public selves). Individuals with higher self-control had also made greater progress toward their goals.
The second study’s sample consisted of 343 students (average age of 20 years; 79 percent female). The results replicated the previous finding, showing a positive association between trait self-control, choice of authentic goals, and goal progress. These associations were independent of existing associations between goal progress and both habit strength and goal-desire conflicts.
For the third investigation, researchers attempted to rule out the possibility that higher self-control individuals did not select more authentic goals but simply assumed their goals reflected their true selves merely because they had made more progress toward them.
The initial sample consisted of 261 students who were asked to set goals for the following week, rate its authenticity, and report on their progress toward their goal the following week. One week later, 217 students (average age: 20 years; 79 percent female) returned to report their progress.
The findings indicated that students with higher self-control had a greater tendency to set authentic goals, which allowed them to make greater goal progress.
Concluding Thoughts on Choosing Goals for Success
The overall findings suggest that high-control individuals are successful because, when compared to low-control people, they are more likely to:
- Have less goal-desire conflict.
- Rely on strong habits.
- Choose authentic goals (this process is independent of the first two).
Habit strength, goal-desire conflict, and goal authenticity might also interact. For instance, choosing authentic goals often means less likelihood of being distracted by desires that conflict with the goal.
So, what can we learn from the success of high-control people? One, we need to develop effective strategies and strong habits.3 When adaptive behaviors become habitual, we spend less energy and self-control resisting temptations. For instance, if you have a piece of fruit with your breakfast cereal regularly enough, unhealthy substitutes will not tempt you as often (or as strongly).
Of course, good strategies and habits must lead to a good goal; therefore, the second point is to examine your goals carefully to determine, one, how often they conflict with your other goals and desires, and two, to what extent they relate to your authentic self. Remember, the more your goals reflect your true self, the less self-control would be required in their pursuit.
1. Stavrova, O., Pronk, T., & Kokkoris, M. D. (2019). Choosing goals that express the true self: A novel mechanism of the effect of self‐control on goal attainment. European Journal of Social Psychology, 49, 1329–1336.
2. Smallenbroek, O., Zelenski, J. M., & Whelan, D. C. (2017). Authenticity as a eudaimonic construct: The relationships among authenticity, values, and valence. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12, 197–209.
3. Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: The psychology of “habit formation” and general practice. British Journal of General Practice, 62, 664-666.