The Reason Self-Control Is So Hard To Boost

The desire for high self-control can, ironically, reduce people’s self-control.

The desire for high self-control can, ironically, reduce people’s self-control.

Ever wished you had more self-control?

You are not alone.

The tricky thing with the desire for self-control is that it often comes too late.

Just as one might suddenly want to be stronger when faced with lifting a heavy object, or richer when a final demand arrives.

The desire comes right at the moment when it is required and after it can be developed.

New research finds that desire for self-control is highest in those who innately have the least and in those who are in direst need of it right now.

Such is life.

To fight your way out of these maddening double-binds, explained Dr Liad Uziel, the study’s first author, requires a little planning ahead:

“Wishing for more self-control can lead to better self-control, but only when this wish serves a long-term process of self-improvement.

If the desire arises when one already needs a high degree of self-control, the desire could be detrimental.

In order for desire for self-control to carry beneficial effects, it must arise at a point where change is feasible.

Changing one’s self-control is a very difficult challenge and must be considered a journey, not a one-shot occurrence.”

For the study, almost 700 people were given tests of their desire for self-control.

These found that when people worried about failure, their desire for self-control was greater, as it was when they thought their own resources were insufficient for the task.

The self-control trap

If all that was not bad enough, a previous study has revealed the existence of a self-control trap.

The trap is that a desire for high self-control can, ironically, reduce people’s self-control.

Difficult tasks become even more difficult when people have a strong desire for self-control, a series of experiments found.

The problem is that a strong desire for self-control becomes a sense of lacking self-control.

In other words, the desire for self-control is a signal to our minds that we do not have it — after all, one tends not desire what one already has.

This lack causes people to lose confidence; with less confidence, they give up on the task.

Escape the self-control trap

There are various ways to escape this self-control trap:

  • Avoid desiring higher self-control — the amount you have will have to do for now.
  • Mentally link your desire to achieve a goal to an intrinsic drive; in other words, something you want to do for its own sake.
  • Make very specific plans, known to psychologists as implementation intentions.
  • Think about the task in a way that makes it seem easier.

Other techniques that have been shown to improve self-control include self-affirmation and thinking abstractly about goals.

The study was published in the journal Motivation Science (Uziel et al., 2021).

Author: Dr Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004.

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