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How Self-Control Relates to Behavior (2012) de Ridder


People high in self-control also have good life outcomes.

“People with high self-control are good at automatizing their behavior.”


“Although most theorizing about self-control has focused on the specific act of resisting temptation in a particular setting, self-control may in general operate more by forming and breaking habits. It is thus mainly by establishing and maintaining stable patterns of behavior rather than by performing single acts of self-denial that self-control may be most effective.”

de Ridder, D.T.D., Lensvelt-Mulders, G., Finkenauer, C., Stock, F.M., & Baumeister, R.F. (2012). Taking Stock of Self-Control: A Meta-Analysis of How Trait Self-Control Relates to a Wide Range of Behaviors. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16(1), 76-99. 

Research Story:

Five researchers from the Netherlands and Florida reviewed 102 studies with over 32,000 participants to better understand how self-control relates to various behaviors. Does self-control work for all 9 behaviors studied, both desirable and undesirable? Does self-control work for both effortful and automatic behaviors like habits? Does self-control change actual be- havior or just what people think they can, should, or intend to do? Does the study design (whether it was experimental, published, self-report, or had time delays) affect self-control? Does the age, gender, or country of origin affect self-control?

Self-Control, as measured by questionnaire, is clearly associated with good life outcomes. That was verified here. So, of course, researchers want to figure out how and why this happens. Here’s some of the results:

• Ironically, self-control works best with automatic behaviors, not effort- ful ones. People with high self-control don’t seem to use it on purpose moment to moment, but rather are good at creating habits.

• Self-Control influences both actual behavior and what you think you’ll do. But importantly, people with high self-control think they’ll act re- sponsibly in tempting situations more than they actually do in real life.

• Self-Control predicts being able to do hard things like goals, but it’s hit or miss on getting you to stop doing things that are bad for you like smoking, drinking alcohol, or eating junk food.

• Self-Control works in many different life scenarios, but is least effective with things our biology regulates like eating.

• Self-Control works regardless of your gender, race, or nationality. But one interesting finding was that for groups that tend to be more im- pulsive (teenage males, for example), their self-control scores mattered more. Having high self-control as a teen or as a man affects your life more because it prevents more bad things from happening.

• Self-Control works in love, happiness, binge eating, alcohol use, grades, relationships, speeding, and delinquency. It’s clearly not random, but the effects of Self-Control are small to medium sized.

• Though many picture self-control in dieting or single feats of willpower, there’s not a high correlation between self-control and those spheres.

It’s interesting that people who answer questions like “I am good at resisting temptation” or “I refuse things that are bad for me” actually arrange their real lives to avoid temptation or things that are bad for them. We aren’t really sure that they are good at resisting temptation in the moment because they so readily avoid it.

So What – Application

If people high in self-control also have good life outcomes, then I want some self-control. What do we mean by self-con- trol? Self-control scores answer questions like: I am reliable. I’m not lazy. I am always on time. I eat healthy foods. I’m not easily discouraged. People would say I have iron self-dis- cipline.

If people with high self-control rely on habits and stay out of temptation, and tend to think they can resist temptation, when in reality they can’t, then spending time altering our environments to remove temptation seems the best intervention.

Denise de Ridder