Yielding to temptation: How and why some people are better at controlling themselves

Have you ever found yourself eating a tempting chocolate cake, although you want to lose a few pounds? Have you ever found yourself watching television, although you planned to work on an important but maybe boring project that day? Did you ever procrastinate with submitting your tax declaration, preferring to go to a hockey game that night? Or did you ever catch yourself flirting with another person, although you feel strongly committed to your intimate relationship? All these challenging situations require a large amount of willpower and thus put a persons self-discipline or self-control to the test. In this paper we will review research on trait self-control and self-regulation abilities and their  power in predicting a wide range of outcome variables. Furthermore, we will discuss research that has explored the underlying reasons why some people are better than others in controlling themselves.  

In our everyday lives we are often confronted with tempting stimuli that elicit immediate hot desires (e.g. feeling tempted by the chocolate cake) that promise short-term pleasures. Often these short-term pleasures are in conflict with long-term goals that promise long-term benefits (e.g. losing weight) and thus need to be inhibited or overridden to attain these goals. Self-control refers to a personability to inhibit or alter predominant impulses in the service of long-term goals, values, and personal standards (BaumeisterBratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998).  

Without self-control, people would constantly fail to act according to goals and would succumb to the allure of temptations, even in the face of negative long-term consequences. It has been estimated that the long-term consequences of self-regulation failures explain about 40% of deaths in Western societies (Schroeder, 2007). Experiencing desires that need to be inhibited to attain goals is a common feature of everyday life (Hofmann & Van Dillen, 2012). About half of the time we are awake, we experience desires, and about one-third of these conflict with other goals. In one out of six situations in which our desires conflict with personal goals, we fail to successfully suppress the conflicting desire (Hofmann, Vohs, & Baumeister, 2012). This reveals a nontrivial amount of self-regulation failure in daily life that possibly bears negative long-term consequences.  

 

 

The Positive Effects of Having High Self-regulation Abilities 

Although our ability to self-regulate varies from one situation to another (Hofmann, Friese, & Strack, 2009), self-control also constitutes a personality trait. Some people are generally better in controlling themselves than others (Tangney, Baumeister, & Boone, 2004). The ability to control ones own attention, cognition, emotion, and desires for the sake of ones own goals is related to a wide range of positive outcomes (de Ridder, Lensvelt-Mulders, Finkenauer, Stok, & Baumeister, 2012). A common way to measure peoples self-control abilities is to ask them how good they generally are in resisting temptations (Tangney et al., 2004). Greater willpower, measured at age 4 among preschool children, is related to better academic performance and better social functioning over a decade later (MischelShoda, & Rodriguez, 1989). Low self-control abilities have been linked to a wide range of negative consequences. For example, low self-control abilities are related to aggression and crime involvement (de Kemp, VermulstFinkenauer, Scholte, OverbeekRommes, & Engels, 2009), unhealthy eating (Friese & Hofmann, 2009), alcohol consumption (Friese & Hofmann, 2009), tobacco and marijuana use (King, Fleming, Monahan, & Catalano, 2011), weight gain (Hofmann, AdriaanseVohs, & Baumeister, 2013), psychopathology (Tangney et al., 2004), and sexual infidelity (Gailliot & Baumeister, 2007).  

Students with high self-control have better grades, less school absence, and are more likely to be admitted to a competitive high school compared to students with low self-control (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005). Differences in self-control even seem to be more decisive in influencing academic performance than differences in intelligence (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005). 

Childhood self-control, as measured between the ages of 3 to 11, significantly predicted adult health problems (e.g. alcohol and drug problems), wealth outcomes (e.g. financial problems), and criminal conviction by the age of 32 (Moffitt et al., 2011). And again, self-control seems to be more important in predicting these outcomes than IQ or social class origins (Moffitt et al., 2011): Even if siblings are raised in the same family, the sibling with high self-control will have better development over the lifespan compared to the sibling with low self-control (Moffitt et al., 2011).  

But does self-control turn us into joyless individuals by preventing us from enjoying many daily pleasures and transforming us into highly effective robots? Can people who are self-disciplined and who regularly delay immediate pleasures still feel happy about their lives?  

Yes, they can! Research has shown that self-control is also beneficial for social relationships. High self-control abilities are related to better interpersonal relationships, better individual coping skills such as emotion regulation abilities and better interpersonal skills, such as empathy and perspective taking (Tangney et al., 2004). We also tend to trust other people and our intimate partners more if they are good at controlling themselves, which in turn strengthens our commitment to them (Righetti & Finkenauer, 2011). And being in a friendship or intimate relationship in which both have high self-control is also related to more relationship quality and relationship satisfaction (VohsFinkenauer, & Baumeister, 2011). A recent  meta-analysis (de Ridder et al., 2012) taken over 100 studies with more than 30000 total participants supports the finding that self-control is related to a wide range of positive outcomes.  

Furthermore, research has shown that the ability to control emotions has beneficial effects on health and well-being, such as less stress cortisol responses to a stressor (Lam, Dickerson, Zoccola, & Zaldivar, 2009), more positive affect, less negative affect, and fewer depressive symptoms (Gross & John, 2003). 


Another line of research tested more directly whether trait self-control is related to well-being 
(Hofmann, Luhmann, Fisher, Vohs, & Baumeister, 2013). The researchers equipped over 200 participants with smartphones and asked them to report their desires on random occasions distributed over the course of one week. The participants were asked if they recently experienced a desire. Then they had to indicate the strength of the desire and whether it conflicted with personal goals. Furthermore, they were asked if they had tried to resist the desire and whether they were successful in resisting it or if they ended up enacting the desire. Participants with high self-control reported both higher life satisfaction and more current happiness. Thus, people with high self-control were not only happier with their lives in the long run (and from a more cognitive-evaluative stance), as one would have expected, but were also in a better mood in the here and now. People with low self-control in contrast reported lower life satisfaction because they experienced more stressful conflicts between their desires and goals. Additionally, it was found that people with high self-control were better at balancing their inner conflicts by favoring goals over temptations, which again led to better mood in the short run and higher life satisfaction in the long run. On the contrary, people with low self-control experienced stressful inner conflicts between temptations and goals more often, and were less likely to balance these conflicts in an ideal way, leading to worse mood and decreased overall life satisfaction.  

So, it seems that people high in trait self-control manage their daily lives better because they find themselves less often in situations in which they experience inner battles between their short-term pleasures and their long-term goals. If, however, they find themselves in conflicting situations  after all, a life entirely free of such conflicts seems impossible  they are also better at managing inner conflicts by acting more in line with their goals. Experiencing fewer inner stressful conflicts, and being able to better manage such inner conflicts if they arise, both in turn increases current happiness and overall life satisfaction.  

One might have expected that people with high self-control become happier in the long run by better attaining long-term goals, but are unhappy in the short run because they constantly delay immediate pleasures. They are better at reaching their long-term goals, such as becoming slim or saving additional funds to pay off the house, but they may miss out on momentary pleasures and hence end up being frustrated in the here and now. The mentioned study (Hofmann et al., 2013) clearly contradicts this common stereotype of self-control as being a joyless undertaking.  

Rather, it seems that giving in to temptations that conflict with personal goals does not yield as much momentary pleasure as one might expect. In one study to measure the general happiness-impact of giving in to temptation (as compared to enacting non-tempting desires), it was found that giving in to temptation does not boost momentary happiness due to its effects on self-conscious emotions such as increased feelings of guilt, an effect that was termed the  spoiled pleasure effect (Hofmann, Kotabe & Luhmann, 2013). In contrast, enacting non-tempting desires yielded a strong net gain in momentary happiness. Thus, contrary to common lay theories, enacting temptations does not appear to be a viable way of maximizing short-term utility.  

How Do High Self-control Abilities Boost Human Functioning?  

Until now, we have summarized the positive effects of having high self-control abilities that have been reported in many different life domains. But why do people perform better when they have high self-regulation abilities? What are the underlying differences between people who regularly fail at self-control and people who succeed in controlling themselves?  

The classical view is that self-control is about resisting temptations. Indeed, there is evidence that people with high self-control are better at actively suppressing impulses (Schmeichel & Zell, 2007). But as recent evidence suggests (de Ridder et al., 2012; Hofmann, BaumeisterFörster, & Vohs, 2012; Hofmann et al., 2013), good self-control may just be as much about avoiding temptations as trying to resist temptations in the heat of the moment. Life seems to be less of a struggle for people with high self-control. These findings require a reconceptualization of how trait self-control works, as the classical views on self-control do not take preventive forms of self-control into account. By avoiding temptations entirely, one can try to reduce the probability of even experiencing a desire (Hofmann & Kotabe, 2012). Think, for example, of a smoker who tries to quit smoking and feels overwhelmed by feelings of wanting to light up a cigarette whenever exposed to one. Probably the best thing to do is to avoid buying cigarettes overall or to throw all cigarettes away. Avoiding such tempting stimuli in the immediate environment decreases the odds of strong smoking cravings and thus increases the chances of successful self-regulation (Gross, 1998). Nevertheless, in a world that is enriched with tempting stimuli, we are sometimes not able to actively avoid tempting situations. 

Thus, another good strategy is to selectively direct ones attention away from tempting stimuli to reduce the cognitive processing of these stimuli. Distracting oneself from tempting cues reduces thoughts about the hedonic characteristics of the tempting stimuli, reduces attentional biases and  craving towards it which in turn boosts self-regulatory success (Van DillenPapies, & Hofmann, 2013). Research has shown that children who have higher self-regulatory abilities use more of these  attentional deployment strategies and distract themselves more while being confronted with tempting stimuli (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999; Mischel et al., 1989). If people with high self-control find themselves in tempting situations, they tend to redirect their attention away from these tempting stimuli, process these stimuli less and are better at making choices in line with their goals.  

But why are people with high self-control better at making such difficult choices in favor of long-term goals? How is it that they are less likely to succumb to the temptation when pondering between the temptation and the goal? And is it possible to routinize self-control efforts in a more effortless fashion, so that conscious deliberations become less relevant? Recent evidence suggests that people with high self-control remind themselves more readily of their self-control goals in conflicting situations; the re-activation of such goals then facilitates effective self-regulation (PapiesStroebe, & Aarts, 2008). People with low self-control on the contrary tend to forget or even neglect their self-control goals in tempting situations (Papies et al., 2008; StroebeMensinkAartsSchut, & Kruglanski, 2008). Why should you act according to your goals, if you cant remember them at the moment of temptation? This begs the question of whether it is possible to enhance self-control by counteracting self-control goal neglect. One powerful remedy may be provided through  implementation intentions  specific if-then plans that have been shown to strengthen the links among the when, where, and how of goal-directed behavior (Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006; Webb & Sheeran, 2006). Formulating such plans helps one to stick to ones goals in tempting situations without having to consciously deliberate between temptations and goals.  

These differences in self-regulation processes among people with high and low self-control, such as avoiding temptations, allocating attentional resources, thinking about ones goals, and setting specific plans, presumably explain a large amount of why people with high self-control tend to perform better. We believe that knowledge regarding the underlying differences will help in implementing interventions to teach better self-regulation processes. Indeed, there is evidence that self-control can be improved and that improvements in self-control have practical implications for ones life (Moffitt et al., 2011).   

Conclusion 

Self-control is one of humankinds most important abilities. Even compared with other virtues, such as intelligence, self-control seems to be more important in determining human functioning. Self-control presumably has largely contributed to humankinds survival. It helped people to inhibit their egoistic impulses and to adapt themselves to higher rules of the society to successfully collaborate and share resources among other individuals. In a world that is progressively enriched with tempting stimuli and in which it becomes easier to satisfy these temptations, the practical importance of being able to control oneself can hardly be underestimated. The ability to control oneself therefore influences human functioning across a wide range of domains.  

The aim of this article was to review the consequences of such individual differences in willpower for personal and interpersonal outcomes. Furthermore, we aimed to review the underlying processes by which these abilities boost human functioning. Although some people seem to have better self-regulation abilities than others and these differences seem to be stable across the lifespan, findings on how trait self-control works show that the underlying differences are often situational, as when a person avoids tempting situations. Thus, knowledge about how and why people with high self-control tend to live a happier and healthier life can help to create interventions for impulsive people to learn how to implement better strategies. We hope that information about why some people succeed and some people fail to reach their goals will empower them to employ better self-regulation strategies and so help to improve human lives in the long-run.  

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Declaration of conflicting interests 

The authors declared no conflicting interest with respect to the research, authorship and/or publication of this article.