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Why Self-Control Might Not Be the Superpower We Think It Is

Self-control is an impressive quality, but we have to be cautious of its flaws.

Key points

  • Self-control helps us achieve our goals and regulate our behaviors, but it occasionally has pitfalls.
  • Over time, exercising self-control can lead to decision fatigue, which can lead to flawed decisions.
  • Research suggests that boosting self-control is not a viable method to reduce aggressive behavior.
Jordi Zamora / Unsplash
Jordi Zamora / Unsplash

We have many avenues to distract us from our goals. Whether it is social media, the latest celebrity gossip or the phones in our pockets, modern society has built engaging systems for our entertainment that can make it hard to focus and be conscious and consistent in our pursuits. This is why the trait of self-control, which is the ability to regulate our behaviors to achieve our goals, is increasingly important.

In a world where people are increasingly prone to such distractions, we tend to put self-control on a pedestal, praising those who have it and criticizing those who don’t. While the trait may be a useful tool to deal with distractions, there are some negative outcomes that may plague people who don’t let themselves be impulsive and carefree from time to time.

Here are two potential pitfalls of never giving in to your spur-of-the-moment thoughts.

1. Self-Control May Actually Be a Cause for Aggression

Generally, people enroll in programs that improve self-control when they feel they might have a propensity to engage in violence. However, these programs rarely work as intended, as a recent paper published in Social and Personality Psychology Compass revealed.

The meta-analysis, which was conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University social psychologist David Chester, went through several papers and studies centered on self-control, violence and aggression to find that despite what we believed in the past, boosting self-control is not a viable method to reduce aggressive behavior. Rather, aggression may be a product of successful self-control.

In terms of brain activity, Chester found that aggression lit up the prefrontal cortex, which is the primary seat of self-control. The prefrontal cortex is where higher-order thinking is carried out — planning, decision-making and problem solving. What’s more, people who are vengeful often plan their attack meticulously to maximize and perfectly time the violence or aggression toward people who may have wronged them. This takes a lot of self-control.

When we consider the types of people who frequently engage in violent acts, the vast majority tend to have psychopathic tendencies. In spite of their psychopathy, such individuals have been known to develop their ability to regulate their behaviors and actions in their teenage years.

So, the idea that a lack of self-control explains a violent streak is not the whole truth. Rather, self-control must be understood as a tool to deal with certain situations (like being surrounded by digital distractions) that call for regulation of impulses. Other times, like when we may be feeling vindictive towards others, it’s okay to give in to our gut, which can actually dissuade us to engage in acts of retribution.

2. Self-Control Could Lead to Sub-Optimal Decision-Making

Self-control is essentially a series of decisions. Every time you exert self-control, you're making a decision to choose long-term gratification over short-term gains and using up some of your mental energy in the process.

Over time, this can lead to a condition known as decision fatigue, which can lead to flawed decisions that could potentially cause us harm.

A classic study led by social psychologist Roy Baumeister published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology experimentally demonstrated how individuals who exerted self-control to avoid being tempted by chocolates were quicker to give up on an analytical task that followed compared to those who weren’t asked to exert self-control around the chocolates.

Could the decision to abandon a challenging task be due to the fact that individuals who exerted their willpower to resist the chocolates had depleted their “brain juice,” leaving them with insufficient mental energy to persevere through the task?

This phenomenon was illustrated, in the real world, in a study conducted by Jonathan Levav of Stanford and Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University. The researchers found that judges were more likely to grant parole earlier in the day, presumably because they had more decision-making energy. As the day went on, and the judges became mentally exhausted from making decision after decision, the rate of parole grants decreased.

This shows that even with the best of intentions, consistent exertion of self-control can lead to decision fatigue, reducing our ability to make good decisions and potentially leading us to act in ways we would usually avoid.


Self-control, as a mental tool, has its place in our lives. It is a vital trait that helps us achieve our goals and regulate our behaviors, but remember that, like all things, balance is key. It's essential to know when to give in to our spontaneous desires and when to exert self-control. By achieving this balance, we can fully harness the power of self-control without falling into its potential traps. It's not about discarding self-control, but about using it wisely and recognizing that, if the situation calls for it, being carefree and spontaneous can be just as valuable.

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