Wish you had more self-control? You should hear the downsides

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Temptation is part of life. It is commonplace to find yourself in situations where what you want to do and what you feel you should do are in conflict – for instance, choosing between a delicious dessert versus sticking to a diet, or playing video games instead of studying, or watching a movie rather than going to the gym. During these times, you likely aspire to make the ‘right’ decision – the decision that propels you towards your long-term goals. Successfully resisting temptations or, in other words, exerting high self-control more often is probably something you strive for. There’s certainly a widespread cultural belief in the value of greater willpower and self-discipline, as a glance at any self-help shelf or magazine rack will attest. Yet research by us and others tells a far more interesting and nuanced story about the pros and cons of being someone with ample self-control.

Unsurprisingly, a good deal of past research has focused on the positive outcomes and impacts of having high self-control. Findings show that people with greater self-control experience benefits such as higher productivity and success at school and work, greater success and satisfaction in their relationships, and they are viewed as more trustworthy by their peers. Naturally, these impressive outcomes shine a highly favorable light on the trait, and they jibe with the way that willpower is vaunted in popular culture. But, in fact, there’s growing evidence that self-control is not an exclusively beneficial characteristic – it can also come with various downsides, suggesting we would do well to take a more nuanced view of this trait and our desire for more of it.


A customer at Happiness Forgets cocktail bar in London. Photo by Ian Teh/Panos



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