Hidden Costs of Self-Control

September 26, 2022

Samantha Lapka

“Self-control describes the act of regulating oneself to meet expectations or achieve goals in the face of temptations.”

Most people consider high self-control an admirable trait – and for a good reason. Those with greater self-control tend to experience higher productivity and success at school and work and are viewed as more trustworthy by their peers. According to past research, they also report greater success and satisfaction in their relationships.

However, recent research has uncovered some hidden costs to having high self-control that can lead to potentially negative social outcomes.

In a series of studies, participants were asked to think or read about people with high or average self-control. They then answered questions about their perceptions of the person they thought or read about. It was found that participants viewed those higher in self-control as more robot-like and less warm compared to those with only average self-control. Additionally, some evidence suggested that participants were less interested in hanging out with those whom they viewed as higher in self-control. Franki Kung

But why would this be?

Whether it means choosing to indulge in a delicious dessert vs. sticking to our diet or staying in to study vs. catching up with friends, we all face temptations in our lives, and our desire to give into these temptations is part of what makes us human.

Therefore, people who control themselves very well can appear to others as either lacking or immune to these normative human needs. Through other people’s eyes, they can be likened to a machine or a robot because of their lack of “human error” or desire - a phenomenon in psychology called ‘dehumanization.’

It’s essential to recognize that while iron self-discipline is often strived for, the way it is perceived may lead to unintentional negative consequences in our social or work relationships. 

Efforts to prevent those consequences might include making time to get to know your acquaintances so you can establish a stronger bond, or re-humanizing your workplace by celebrating the pro-social efforts of colleagues instead of only their good performance.

In understanding both sides of self-control perceptions, we can work to address the unfavorable outcomes for those with high self-control while offering a more accurate picture, and perhaps some comfort, to those who decide to eat ice cream after going to the gym.

All in all, self-control is a journey; sometimes, it is okay to indulge in what you want to do instead of sticking to what you should do. Keep pursuing your goals, but don’t be afraid to give yourself a break from time to time.

For Further Reading:

Samantha Lapka (B.A.) and Franki Kung (Ph.D)

Sami Lapka serves as the lab manager for the Conflict and Mindset Lab at Purdue University. She graduated from the University of Missouri in 2020 with a BA in Psychology and minor in Business, and has since been conducting research related to mindset and perception. Some of her current research involves how essentialist mindsets relate to support for diversity policies, the relationship between fixed mindset, political orientation, and beliefs about climate change, and how perceptions of high self-control can lead to dehumanization. In the future, Sami plans to pursue graduate school in Social or Industrial-Organizational Psychology. She is interested in continuing her research on perceptions and mindset in the domains of self-regulation, motivation, well-being, and interpersonal relationships.

Dr. Franki Kung is an Assistant Professor of Industrial-Organizational Psychology and directs the Conflict and Mindset Collaboratory at Purdue University. His interdisciplinary research generates knowledge to improve conflict management of individuals and organizations.

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