The More You Wish for Self-Control, the Less of It You Have

Have you ever wished you had more self-control? Depending on the task at hand — dieting, avoiding procrastination, cutting down your spending — begging the universe for more self-control has probably been doing the opposite of what you want. According to a March 2017 study, the conscious desire for more self-control can actually give you less.

If You Want It, You (Don't) Got It

In the study, which was published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, psychologists measured the volunteers' desires to increase their self-control by having them rate their level of agreement with statements like, "I want to be able to better resist temptations." The subjects were also asked to rate their current level of self-control. Then, they began working on either an easy or a difficult assignment. According to Science Of Us, those who did the best on the challenging assignment were the least likely to say they'd like to be better disciplined, and those who did the worst were the most likely to wish for more self-control.

But hold on — doesn't it make sense that those who aced the difficult task did so precisely because they already had self-control, and therefore didn't wish for it? Well, in another experiment, the researchers controlled for this possibility by actually manipulating people's desire for self-control. They asked volunteers to write an essay explaining either why self-control was a good thing, or how it could cause problems — then had them complete either an easy or a hard task. Again, those people who were made to want self-discipline did worse on the difficult task than those who were prompted to think about how self-control causes problems. Interestingly, in both experiments, a desire for self-control had no effect on the participants' performance on the easy tasks, suggesting that it's only on the really challenging stuff where a wish for discipline comes into play.

Self-Control Is an Infinite Resource

But, why? Essentially, you psyche yourself out: Thinking about things you wish you had highlights the fact that you don't have them. To fight this effect, the researchers suggest a few things. If you find yourself wishing for discipline, try your best to connect that wish to a specific action you can take: For instance, instead of wishing you had the self-control to avoid online shopping, take concrete steps to actually avoid it by forbidding yourself from visiting shopping websites during certain hours of the day or blocking them. The researchers also suggest reframing the idea of self-control: Instead of thinking of it as a trait you have or you don't, think of it as an unlimited resource you can tap at any time.

Get stories like this one in your inbox or your headphones: sign up for our daily email and subscribe to the Curiosity Daily podcast

For more, check out "The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It" by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., which was based on her wildly popular university course. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Anna Todd May 16, 2017

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.