Wishing for More Self-Control Can Backfire

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Photo: Camerique/Archive Photos/Getty Images

There are some things that, by definition, become harder to attain the more you want them. Contentment, for example. Or coolness (there’s nothing less cool than being visibly thirsty for it). Or, it seems, self-control: In a study recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, psychologists found that wishing you had more of it is enough to diminish what you do have.

For the first part of the study, the authors measured their subjects’ desire for increased self-control by asking them to rate their agreement with statements like “I want to be able to better resist temptations” and “I want to be better able to hold back bad thoughts when they come to mind.” Volunteers also indicated their current levels of self-control by rating the truth of statements like, “People would say that I have iron self-discipline.”

Afterward, all participants were given either an easy task or an assignment that demanded a little more self-control. In one experiment, participants had to copy a paragraph in either their native language or a foreign one; in another, they solved four- or five-letter anagrams. Across the board, the researchers found an inverse relationship between the amount of self-control a person said they wanted and the amount they actually had: Those who did the best at the challenging tasks were the least likely to say they were dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, while those who fared the worst were the ones who wished they were more disciplined.

On the surface, this seems pretty intuitive: Maybe the high performers were just naturally more disciplined people who didn’t wish for increased control because they didn’t need to. But in a separate experiment, the researchers manipulated their subjects’ desire for self-control by asking them to write out an argument explaining either why the trait was beneficial or how it could cause problems — and, consistent with all the other results, the people faced with the more challenging task fared worse when they were led to want it more. “Apparently, a desire for self-control stimulates a debilitating mental state that impairs performance,” the authors wrote.

The reason, they argued, is that when people are forced to confront the gap between their ideal and actual levels of self-control, they end up psyching themselves out: “Performance suffers because people with a strong desire for self-control sometimes disengage and withhold effort,” they wrote. “A demanding self-control challenge emphasizes their (perceived) current incapacity, which diminishes their motivation.” In this respect, at least, the quickest path to self-improvement may be to abandon the quest.

Wishing for More Self-Control Can Backfire