Many people wish they had the advantages of more self-control. But fewer know that the trait can be costly, too
Temptation is part of life. It is commonplace to find yourself in situations where what you want to do and what you feel you should do are in conflict – for instance, choosing between a delicious dessert versus sticking to a diet, or playing video games instead of studying, or watching a movie rather than going to the gym. During these times, you likely aspire to make the ‘right’ decision – the decision that propels you towards your long-term goals. Successfully resisting temptations or, in other words, exerting high self-control more often, is probably something you strive for. There’s certainly a widespread cultural belief in the value of greater willpower and self-discipline, as a glance at any self-help shelf or magazine rack will attest. Yet research by us and others tells a far more interesting and nuanced story about the pros and cons of being someone with ample self-control.
Unsurprisingly, a good deal of past research has focused on the positive outcomes and impacts of having high self-control. Findings show that people with greater self-control experience benefits such as higher productivity and success at school and work, greater success and satisfaction in their relationships, and they are viewed as more trustworthy by their peers. Naturally, these impressive outcomes shine a highly favourable light on the trait, and they jibe with the way that willpower is vaunted in popular culture. But, in fact, there’s growing evidence that self-control is not an exclusively beneficial characteristic – it can also come with various downsides, suggesting we would do well to take a more nuanced view of this trait and our desire for more of it.
Some of the costs of high self-control are social and reputational. Imagine a prototypical highly conscientious individual – someone who always wakes up early, never allows for any distractions from their work, and adheres to a strict diet, budget and workout regimen. You might view them as ambitious, because of their determination and discipline. However, for those same reasons, you might also view this person as mechanical, uninteresting, uptight or even cold. In fact, that’s what we’ve found in our research. In our 2022 study, we presented participants with a description of either a high self-control person (similar to the description we gave you just now) or an average self-control person, and then asked about their perceptions of the character we told them about. We found that, on average, participants rated the person with high self-control as more robot-like and less warm. Moreover, they saw the person who acted on their impulses as more real and genuine – in other words, they saw the person with high self-control as less authentic.
It’s part of human nature to struggle against temptations, so it makes sense that a consistent and unwavering choice to hold back from indulgence can result in people with high self-control being perceived as less than human, hostile or not real. Anecdotal evidence backs this up too – for example, many commentators characterise David Goggins, the US Navy SEAL veteran well-known for his impressive self-control, as machine-like and even cold.
High self-control can also backfire socially in another way, leading a person to be seen as having less power and status. This is because when people act impulsively, such as speaking their mind or indulging themselves, it can be interpreted as a signal of social power in the sense that the person is not concerned with censoring themselves or with conforming to social expectations. In contrast, when a person with high self-control consistently inhibits their impulsive responses, they’re seen as more predictable and keen to play by the rules, which can lead others to see them as weaker.
Enacting this self-control may actually lead you to feel more regret and less satisfaction down the road
These social downsides to high self-control can go beyond perceptions, and affect the way people with high self-control are actually treated by others, such as being excluded from social events. Although you may prefer someone with high self-control as your partner when doing homework or cleaning the house (more duty- or work-like situations), you’re probably less likely to invite them to join you to go out to eat, play games or chat at a party. Our research in 2022 also found that people tend to be less interested in socialising with individuals who have high self-control. So, if your peers view you as having really high self-control, they may avoid inviting you to their brunch or birthday party because they don’t want a seemingly robotic, predictable, inauthentic or cold person around. They might even assume that you would not want to participate in those types of fun social gatherings in the first place.
Even the positive perceptions that people hold about those who have high self-control, such as that they will perform better on group projects or work assignments, can have negative consequences. These assumptions, while apparently positive, can create heightened expectations for the high self-control person, leading them to feel more burdened by the reliance that others have on them. If you are someone who is dependable and self-disciplined, you might have experienced this for yourself, leading you to feel drained by the high expectations of your co-workers, family, friends or even romantic partners. This increased exhaustion and sense of burden can have significant negative consequences, including reduced levels of satisfaction within those relationships.
Other social costs of high self-control come from the way that self-disciplined people tend to see others. For instance, in a study involving romantic partners, those participants with greater available self-control considered mild offences their partner made against them, such as forgetting to call when they said they would, as more severe and hurtful, and they were less likely to forgive their partner, as compared with participants whose self-control had been depleted by a taxing mental task. Over time, this more rigid response to mild issues or transgressions could understandably develop a tension, and potentially resentment, between relationship partners, which would likely harm the relationship.
The hidden costs of high self-control also extend beyond the social domain to affect a person’s emotional life. For instance, consider the experience of regret. Research has shown that, when people reflect on their more distant past, they tend to regret having too much self-control rather than not having enough. As time goes on, people feel less guilty about the times they failed to be self-disciplined, such as not studying or saving money over a winter break, instead feeling regret that they missed out on something that would have brought them joy, such as travelling or spending extra money on something they liked. So, while choosing to control yourself in a tempting situation may seem like the overall best response, enacting this self-control may actually lead you to feel more regret and less satisfaction down the road.
Another potential personal cost of high self-control is experiencing a lack of emotional richness in one’s life due to having excessive emotional regulation. Research shows that people with high self-control tend to experience less spontaneous emotion in their daily lives, and a more limited range and reduced intensity of emotions, compared with people who have lower trait self-control.
Black and Latino youth with asthma, experiencing high amounts of stress with greater self-control, had worse asthma
It might seem counterintuitive, but there’s even a line of research suggesting that high self-control can be bad news for your long-term health. It’s true that an impressive body of work has documented that, on average, people with higher self-control tend to enjoy better health in life, and yet emerging research focused on high self-control among members of minority racial groups paints a more equivocal picture.
For instance, one study of Black and Latino youth with asthma who were experiencing high amounts of stress in school found that those with greater self-control actually had worse asthma and more contacts with their physician over a one-year period compared with their peers with less self-control. Other studies of low-income Black youth similarly found that those with greater levels of self-control were more likely to develop respiratory infections after being sick, showed more indicators of chronic disease risk, more rapid immune-cell ageing, and were more likely to develop diabetes during young-adulthood, compared with their peers from similar backgrounds who had low self-control. This phenomenon, which some researchers have called skin-deep resilience, does not yet appear to be evident in white youth populations.
How and why high self-control appears to have deleterious health consequences for certain groups remains unclear, however researchers have speculated that it could be behaviourally and metabolically demanding for ambitious and self-disciplined ethnic minority individuals to overcome structural societal barriers, and that at this could negatively affect their health.
Indeed, it’s easy to imagine how pursuing your academic or work goals while navigating challenges such as social identity threats and resource-deprived schools would require a lot of willpower, leaving even highly conscientious individuals with an impaired ability to exert self-control in other situations. It might also lead to greater and more constant activation of stress hormone systems. These depleted self-control abilities and greater stress responses could, in turn, lead to poorer health choices and greater strain on one’s physical health. Importantly, this line of work shows that the effects of high self-control on health, while generally positive when averaged across entire populations, appear to be more nuanced than most people think, especially when we take into account specific groups dealing with distinct social challenges.
Self-control is something nearly all of us strive to be better at and, overall, that is likely a good thing. Our focus here on the negative effects of high self-control might leave you wondering whether you should still strive for this trait. We want to emphasise that the vast majority of research on this topic documents many good reasons for wanting to improve your self-control, including the positive implications it can have for your health, relationships, personal success and overall life satisfaction. Our point is that it’s also important to recognise that there can also be some costs to having limitless willpower.
For those of you wishing for more self-control, let our message offer some comfort in the moments when you give in to temptation. For those with high self-control, know that absolute iron self-discipline is rarely necessary – but, also, this impressive trait is likely more beneficial than detrimental in the long run. Additionally, we believe everyone should recognise the potential for bias in how we think about and treat others, including those people who happen to have ample self-control. It is important that we be mindful of the ways our perceptions might potentially dehumanise or burden others, and that we make conscious efforts to correct ourselves.
We can all benefit from understanding both sides of this nuanced research literature. By working to address the unfavourable outcomes related to high self-control, while continuing to pursue the favourable ones, we may each ultimately find a healthy and optimal balance.