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The Dark Side of Self-Control

An ability to override short-term impulses that conflict with long-term goals is a hallmark of successful people. But is resisting temptation always beneficial?

Harvard Business Review

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An ability to override short-term impulses that conflict with long-term goals is a hallmark of successful people. Research has shown that people with strong self-control have better health, relationships, finances, and careers. They are also less likely to have problems with overeating, overspending, smoking, alcohol or drug abuse, procrastination, and unethical behavior. Overcoming temptation also seems to be intrinsically rewarding — people with high self-control are also more satisfied with their lives and experience their lives as more meaningful.

But is resisting temptation always beneficial? A small but growing body of research has begun to illuminate a dark side of self-control, with important implications for organizational life.

Self-control can restrict emotional experiences. One of the reasons why people high in self-control resist temptations is that they experience less tempting desires. But this might also mean that these people have less intense emotional experiences; that is, they respond to situations in more neutral ways. For example, high self-control might prevent employees from fully enjoying positive career outcomes, such as promotions, raises, and outstanding performance appraisals.

Self-control may lead to long-term regret. When people reflect on their lives, they tend to regret exerting too much self-control (e.g., choosing work over fun) and missing out on the pleasures of life. This experience of regret emerges only after time has passed. For example, a very successful CEO who had to make a lot of sacrifices in her life in order to pave her way to the top might feel that she has missed out on many pleasures when she gets older and reflects on her life as a whole.

Self-control can lead to increased workload. People tend to rely on others with high self-control, and this might make the latter feel burdened. For example, an employee who is very good at exerting self-control might be overloaded by her colleagues’ requests to undertake tasks and responsibilities, as they all know that she will manage to reliably meet all demands.

Self-control can be used for ill. Self-controlled people seem to be more successful in whatever their endeavors are, including antisocial ones. Although high self-control people are generally less likely to engage in illegal or antisocial activities (e.g., reckless driving or cheating) than low self-control people, when they do engage in such activities, they are less likely to get caught. For example, even though people with high self-control might be highly valued employees in an organization, ironically they might be the ones most “successful” in unethical behaviors that remain undetected and unpunished. In addition, high self-control people are better at complying with social norms, even when these norms impose personally harmful behaviors (e.g., taking illegal drugs to enhance performance).

Self-control isn’t for everyone. For some people, exerting self-control can feel alienating — as if they are required to suppress their true selves. This is the case, for instance, for individuals who rely more on feelings than on reason when making decisions. These individuals are less satisfied with decisions to exert self-control. For example, an employee who makes decisions mostly based on feelings might not be that satisfied with herself, even if she has managed to exert self-control and succeeded in a difficult task that granted her a promotion. This person might feel alienated from herself for putting so much emphasis on work at the expense of other needs and desires, such as spending time with friends and family.

Self-control can lead to bias. Lay people and policy makers often see complex social problems (overeating, overspending, smoking, alcohol or drug abuse, criminality, etc.) as primarily self-control problems. However, this emphasis on self-control might obscure the social, economic, or political sources of these problems. For example, the obesity epidemic is often seen as exclusively a self-control problem. Yet, we know that the roots of this problem also lie in factors such as reduced prices of processed foods, larger serving sizes, or increased sedentary nature of work and leisure. This one-sided emphasis on self-control, also referred to as “puritanical bias,” reflects an ideology that puts the blame for wrongdoing entirely on the individual and neglects the impact of broader societal factors. Thus, major social issues are transformed into mere self-care issues. The same discrimination can happen at work when a boss blames an employee for missing an unrealistic deadline.

Self-control is an important tactic for reaching one’s goals. However, instead of treating self-control as the sole determinant of happiness and success, we need to view it in the broader context of the self in a more holistic way. Besides exerting self-control, accepting our weaknesses and limitations is also important. Psychologists call this “self-compassion.” Self-compassion does not lead to laziness and abandonment. In contrast, it helps people improve themselves by knowing themselves better and setting more realistic goals. Therefore, instead of always being harsh on ourselves and pushing our limits, sometimes being kind with ourselves might be a better way to reach our goals in a self-congruent way.

Michail D. Kokkoris is an assistant professor in the Department of Marketing at WU Vienna University of Economics and Business.

Olga Stavrova is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Psychology at Tilburg University.

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This post originally appeared on Harvard Business Review and was published January 16, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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