The Dark Side of Self-Control

You need more than willpower to succeed in life.

Posted Jun 13, 2018

In the late 1950s, noted psychologist Walter Mischel spent several summers doing field research in a remote village on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. The villagers consisted of two ethnic groups—the Africans and the East Indians.

Each group lived in its own enclave and held negative stereotypes about the other group. According to the East Indians, all the Africans ever did was take it easy and party all day, never giving a thought for the future. And the Africans said, all the East Indians ever did was work hard and stuff their money under the mattress, never enjoying the moment.

When Mischel was working the children in a local school, he offered them a choice between a small treat right away or else a larger treat the next time he came to class. He found that the African children tended to choose the smaller treat right away, whereas the East Indian children often asked for a larger treat later. This was the birth of the so-called marshmallow test, what Mischel is most known for today.

In the classic marshmallow-test scenario, a preschooler is seated at a table with a small treat in front of them. (It could be a marshmallow, piece of chocolate, or a pretzel.) An adult tells them that they can have the treat now, but if they wait until the adult returns, they can have two treats instead. The adult then leaves the room, but a hidden camera records the child’s anguished attempts to resist the temptation.

Some children waited and got their double reward, but others gave in and gobbled the single treat before the time was up. Looking at the films, it became clear that the successful children employed strategies such as closing their eyes or looking away, while those who failed the test focused their attention on the treat.

It’s quite impressive to learn that at least some five-year-olds know how to divert their attention away from temptations, but even more amazing was the result of a follow-up study years later. Mischel found that the children who’d passed the marshmallow test at age five performed much better in school and scored higher on the SAT. In other words, an early ability to delay gratification has major implications for success later in life.

As Israeli psychologist Liad Uziel points out in a recent article, self-control is an even better predictor of academic success than IQ. Apparently, persistence is more important that intelligence when comes to getting good grades in school. Furthermore, adults high in self-control tend to be better adjusted psychologically and more emotionally stable. With so many benefits, many psychologists think we should be working harder to find ways to help people boost their self-control.

However, this “more is better” attitude is dangerous, Uziel argues. In particular, he points to three unresolved issues concerning self-control:

  • Different psychologists use the term self-control in different ways that don’t seem to point to the same basic skill. So what kind of self-control should we be encouraging, anyway?
  • While a certain amount of self-control is good, in some situations too much can actually hinder a person, causing them to make worse decisions than if they’d just followed their feelings in the moment. So clearly more is not always better.
  • Encouraging people to exercise more self-control can also backfire, because doing so reminds them of something they lack. And since they believe they have little self-control, they don’t exercise any.

Let’s consider each of these issues in depth.

Regarding the first point, Uziel indicates that most people think of self-control as the ability to persevere in the face of hardship or temptation. This is exactly the situation that is set up in the marshmallow test. However, adults with good self-control know there are clear limits to how much they can resist giving in to instant gratification. The ice cream in the freezer or the potato chips in the cupboard go uneaten as long as you’re in a good mood, but at the first sign of stress you’re munching away before you even realize it.

Instead, adults with healthy levels of self-control know that the best way to resist temptations is to avoid them altogether. You don’t keep ice cream or potato chips in the house if you don’t want to let them be the outlet for your stress—few people binge on healthy snacks like apples and bananas. In other words, people with high self-control know their weaknesses and arrange their lives accordingly.

Regarding the second point, Uziel remarks that too much self-control is also detrimental to a person’s well-being. People who exhibit over-control engage in rigid behaviors and thought patterns that keep them from adapting to current circumstances. For example, people who are very high in self-control tend to adhere strictly to social norms. Thus, someone who is fundamentally unhappy in their marriage may stick it out for fear of what others would think of them if they got a divorce.

Further, over-controllers will persist in activities intended to achieve a socially sanctioned goal even at the risk of their own health. Uziel cites a study that found binge drinkers were in fact more likely to have high versus low self-control. This is because those with low self-control stop drinking when their bodies tell them they’ve already had more than enough. But the high self-controllers ignore these body cues for the sake of winning the drinking game, and presumably, the respect of their peers. The same can be said for all those workaholics out there who risk their health through lack of exercise, poor diet, and inadequate sleep all so they can achieve whatever goal seemed so glorious at the outset.

Regarding the third point, Uziel comments on the elusive pursuit of self-control. When people are reminded that they need to exert more self-control, they’re less successful at achieving their goals than when they’re not reminded of it. This is because a self-fulfilling prophecy arises when people are reminded of the need for controlling their impulses.

This self-fulfilling prophecy goes something like this: I need more self-control. Which means I have no self-control. And since I have no self-control, I can’t help but give in to temptation. Thus, self-control seems to depend on self-efficacy, which is the belief that we’re capable of accomplishing the task we set before us. If you want to lose ten pounds, believing you have the ability to cope with any challenge that might arise as you pursue that goal is more important than your ability to stare down a pint of Rocky Road or bag of Lay’s.

In the end, Uziel isn’t saying that self-control is bad. Rather, it’s the “more is better” mindset that’s problematic. We need a certain amount of self-control to achieve our goals. But we also need to listen to our intuition and seriously consider what it's telling us. By persevering in this goal, am I endangering my health or my best interests? Am I so focused on myself that I’m hurting my relationships with the people who are important to me? These are questions that can only be answered through the wisdom of intuition—listening to what your body tells you about the current moment, rather than what your mind tells you about the far-off future.

References

Mischel, W. (2007). Walter Mischel. In G. Lindzey, W. M. Runyan, G. Lindzey, W. M. Runyan (Eds.), A history of psychology in autobiography, Vol. IX (pp. 229-267). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

Uziel, L. (2018). The intricacies of the pursuit of higher self-control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27, 79-84.