The Pros and Cons of Self-Control in Work and Relationships
New research provides insight into where self-control can backfire
Posted May 16, 2022 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
The benefits of self-control are legion, easily laudable: high credibility and trustworthiness, strong relationships and broad satisfaction, and enhanced productivity and success. Self-control is part of the brain’s executive function (e.g., important in ADHD and meditation response), the cornerstone of effectiveness, because self-control allows optimized allocation of mental resources, the ability to say “no” to temptations and to focus on the task at hand (“inhibitory self-control”), the ability to regulate aversion to work to diminish procrastination, and the capacity to manage desires and to regulate emotions—remaining “calm, cool and collected”.
Under the Veneer of Self-Control
On the flipside, as authors Lapka, Kung, Brienza and Scholar describe in a paper in Social Psychological and Personality Science (2022) looking at the less appealing consequences of self-control, people with high self-control get loaded up with more work as others see them as able to do more with less effort. On top of that, people who believe they are able to get more done through willpower receive more negative peer evaluations—perhaps because they appear superior, aloof, or unempathetic.
Conducting six studies, the researchers tested two hypotheses: first, that people who are seen as possessing high self-control will be seen as more robotic, and, second, that people will shy away from social connection with those seen as having higher levels of self-control.
The first two studies looked at correlations among perceived self-control, “robotic dehumanization”, perceptions of warmth and competence, and motivation to connect socially. Researchers asked over 500 participants via online survey to think of two people from their own lives, one with high and one with low self-control. The participants then completed a variety of rating scales probing which of those factors occurred together.
The researchers found that people seen has having greater self-control were also seen as more robotic and dehumanized. While there was a lowered desire for social contact with them, the measure did not reach statistical significance in the two studies.
A second set of two studies, with over 290 participants, went beyond correlation by manipulating perceived self-control (one group was instructed to imagine someone with “extremely” high self-control and the other group someone average in self-control) and checking whether there were resultant changes in perceived roboticism and motivation to hang out with the imagined other. Again, participants rated those with high self-control as being more robotic, more dehumanized. And again there was a trend toward wanting to avoid social connection, the degree reaching statistical significance in one study group but not both.
A third set of two studies was designed to address limitations of the first two studies by simulating more realistic, evocative, and richly detailed scenarios for participants. In these studies, nearly 1,200 participants were presented with four narratives covering a range of self-control characteristics, for high and average levels of self-control–for a total of eight scenarios. The same measures were used as in the previous studies.
Confirming the expectation that those with high self-control are perceived as more robotic and dehumanized, partial evidence was again found that participants would be less interested in getting together socially with people with very high self-control, at least in part because they might be seen as robotic and a touch inhuman at times. People were less motivated to spend time with those having high self-control who were seen as being lower in warmth. Self-control alone was not shown to be a deterrent to socializing in these studies; intermediary factors accounted for the effect.
Knowing When to Control Self-Control
Self-control is a key aspect of personality associated with higher performance, and is part and parcel of family traits including conscientiousness—which is comprised of facets including dutifulness, achievement striving, self-discipline and deliberation. Why does this matter? When asked, people will usually identify wanting to change one or more personality traits—and there is evidence that it is possible to do so with deliberate planning, ongoing reappraisal, and concerted effort. One of the most common personality traits associated with effectiveness and productivity is conscientiousness, which is related to grit (comprising persistence of effort and, to a lesser extent, sustained interest)–a trait requiring exquisite levels of self-control and leading to positive outcomes in many domains.
However, high self-control is not without downsides, including becoming over-burdened with work and viewed negatively by peers.
People may have trouble working with high self-control individuals because of how they are perceived: The six studies find that when people are seen as being highly controlled, they are consequently seen as more robotic and thereby dehumanized. Seeing the other person in such a light is likely to reduce feelings of empathy and skew decision-making—potentially leading to behaviors that undermine relationships.
Along these lines, when high self-control was associated with perceived reduced warmth related to being robotic, participants expressed a significantly lower desire to spend time together. This, of course, could have negative effects on relationships and productivity, especially for those in settings that require greater social networking and interpersonal warmth both within and outside the workplace.
Self-Control Essential Reads
Future studies can look at correlations with other personality traits and real-world relationships and outcomes, including how high perceived self-control affects relationships in real-world settings. For example, are people high in self-control invited to social events less often and, if so, under what circumstances? Do people who are seen as cold and aloof become more detached, and when do they take steps to build relationships, knowing that their behavior may impede social connection?
For high-productivity individuals who possess great self-control—particularly those for whom relationships are crucial—this work is useful in pointing out areas of potential liability. Self-control may come at an unrecognized premium. While it can be incredibly appealing, it sometimes comes across as cold and robotic, perhaps inhuman—important information for high-achievers who find that relationships don’t always go as they wish, and even may be told they are intimidating without realizing it.
More and more, so-called “soft skills”—social and emotional intelligence, “walking the walk”, practicing servant leadership, and related qualities—are emerging as being at least as important as job-related skills. Understanding is growing how relationships, and even attachment style, play a crucial role in professional success. Ironically, people high in self-control—and also high in self-reflection and psychological mindedness—may find this research particularly compelling.
Lapka SP, Kung FYH, Brienza JP, Scholer AA. Determined Yet Dehumanized: People Higher in Self-Control Are Seen as More Robotic. Social Psychological and Personality Science. May 2022. doi:10.1177/19485506221093109
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