This post examines the virtue of self control. It is meant mostly as a summary of what others have learned about this virtue, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.
What is self control?
In my last post, I covered the virtue of temperance, which involves having a well-chosen and well-regulated set of desires. Self control is related but different. When an intemperate person gives into an unwise desire, they do so because they don’t see anything wrong with it; when a person without self control does so, they do so in spite of knowing it’s wrong. Another way of putting this is that intemperance is a problem in how you exercise the will, while lack of self control is a failure or malfunction of the will. Aristotle suggested this analogy: The intemperate person is like a city with bad laws; the person without self control is like a city that has good laws on the books but that doesn’t enforce them.
Also, while temperance mostly has to do with our desires, self-control also comes into play in how we regulate our responses to other things, such as anger. (Lack of self control in the face of fear falls under the domain of courage. Sometimes people split off response to anger under a distinct virtue like “good temper.”)
Often, particularly in older writing on the subject, you will see the word “continence” used for this virtue, but nowadays that word has become so linked to advertising for adult diapers that it’s less common. “Willpower” is another common synonym. “Akrasia” (or “incontinence”) is sometimes used for the lack of self-control.
How do we lose self control, and how can we strengthen it?
How is it that you can know the right thing to do, resolve to do that thing, know that you will regret not doing that thing, and yet still screw up at the last minute by choosing something else?
Part of the problem seems to be that it is easy to resolve to resist temptation when the tempting thing is at a distance and the tempting impulse is mostly theoretical. As the tempting thing becomes nearer and the tempting impulse more vivid, the earlier resolve is not strong enough to hold the fort. This may mean that the insights about near and far mode thinking will be important in understanding self-control: If you make your resolutions in far mode, but ultimately make your choices in near mode, they may get out of sync. This may also suggest that lack of self control is a sort of cognitive bias concerning time discounting.
Aside from incontinent lack of self-control, there is also a failure mode where the pendulum swings too far the other way: pig-headed stubbornness, in which you stick with your resolutions even when the underlying facts change or when it turns out your resolutions were faulty. A fetish for being “decisive” can lead you to stick with bad decisions when a wiser person would have been more flexible.
In addition to prompting unwise action, lack of self-control can also lead to unwise inaction, for example procrastination in which you commit to some wise course of action but then dawdle along doing something else instead, tempted by mere inertia or laziness.
Lack of self-control might be harder to fix than intemperance. With the intemperate person, you have the hope of persuading them that their desires are poorly chosen; with the incontinent person, they’ve already been persuaded but it doesn’t seem to help matters any. On the other hand, the intemperate person usually has no regrets about their unwise course of action, while the incontinent person does, so at least the incontinent person has a motive to get better.
Aristotle, who considered self control extensively in book Ⅶ of his Nicomachean Ethics, compared it with the virtue of endurance. Self-control is resisting the temptation of things that seem immediately appealing; endurance is resisting the dissuasion of things that seem immediately uncomfortable. It can be difficult to distinguish them in some cases: is the regretful alcoholic reaching for the bottle because they cannot resist the temptation of a pleasing drink, or because they cannot endure the discomfort of withdrawal?
Christians have documented the struggle with akrasia in terms of a battle between the spirit which is inclined to God and the flesh which is mired in sin. Jesus, as his crucifixion approached, felt himself recoil from his chosen task, and noticed “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Paul, in his letter to the Romans, complained, “I do not understand my own actions.… I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” And St. Augustine amusingly wrote in his Confessions, “As a youth I prayed, ‘Give me chastity and continence, but not right away.’ ”
Some philosophers have insisted that incontinence does not really exist distinct from intemperance. In their view, the “incontinent” person does not act contrary to their own temperate judgement, but they merely reveal their real judgement at the last minute, having only deceived themselves into believing that they had good temperate judgement.
Good nutrition (sufficient blood glucose in particular), sufficient sleep, and good health make it easier to exercise self control. Some drugs (e.g. alcohol) make self control more difficult or at least less likely.
Peer pressure is notoriously erosive of self-control. For this reason, strengthening ones assertiveness and self-confidence may be an important factor in bolstering self-control. On the other hand, peers who exercise self-control can perhaps inspire you to greater self control.
Sexual arousal is so notoriously effective at diminishing self control that it seems we have evolved to implement the heuristic that it is far better to have ill-considered sex with disastrous consequences than not to have sex at all.
There is some evidence that self control is a resource that can be depleted with use and that takes time to recharge. So for example if you have to use self control at task A, and then at task B, you will have a harder time than if you were just asked to use self control for task B. And yet, some evidence suggests that “self-regulation… can be strengthened like a muscle, which means that with regular ‘exercise,’ people can become less vulnerable to ego depletion effects” (J.A. Bauermeister, et al. “Assessing motivations to engage in intentional condomless anal intercourse in HIV risk contexts…” AIDS Education and Prevention).
Mindfulness meditation may help to replenish self control reservoirs, at least in the short term (M. Friese, C. Messner, & Y. Schaffner, “Mindfulness meditation counteracts self-control depletion” Consciousness and Cognition).
The Stanford marshmallow experiment found a strong correlation between self-control exhibited by young children and the quality of their later life outcomes on a variety of measures. “Impulsivity” and “poor impulse control” are subjects of psychological investigation, and some interventions such as cognitive-behavioral therapy have shown some promise in improving impulse control.
Strengthening the quasi-virtue of shame may be a good way of making the negative consequences of incontinence more visceral so as to counter the temptation.
Rules of thumb like “don’t respond to an email while you’re angry” or “count to ten before you decide” can help give you the space you need to remember your long-term goals in the face of short-term temptations. Another example that a substance abuse counselor told me about was “play the tape forward” — envision the far-term consequences of the short-term temptation you are contemplating giving in to, so as to make those consequences more vivid, in the hopes that they will weigh more heavily against the temptation.
One school of thought holds that self-control is less an internal skill or trait like “willpower” and more a matter of strategically adjusting one’s environment to add friction to harmful temptations in order to make them less tempting. One way to do this is, when you commit to do the right thing, to establish an automatic penalty for later doing the wrong thing: the Beeminder app is one attempt to facilitate this process. B.F. Skinner created a catalog of environmental interventions to influence self-control.
Addiction and other edge cases
Addiction is either a particularly difficult example of lack of self-control or something that goes beyond mere lack of self control, depending on who you ask. Because the object of addiction comes packaged with strong reinforcing mechanisms (that only get stronger as dependence develops), it is hard to interrupt this with a will that lacks such enticements.
Addicts have painful insight into akrasia: solemn vows of sobriety at dawn that are broken by nightfall; a multitude of attempts to supplement self-control with techniques like “I will stop after two” or “beer and wine only this time” or what-have-you.
The first step in “Twelve-Step” programs is to admit that you are powerless over the object of addiction, that your self control has met its match. There is something of a paradox to this, in that you begin the path of controlling your addiction by surrendering and acknowledging that your will is weaker than it is. In Alcoholics Anonymous, the addict gives up on trying to conquer alcohol with self control, and moves on to other strategies (e.g. peer support, a “higher power”, the steps).
Other examples of people whose actions don’t seem to align with their well-considered decisions are people with obsessive-compulsive disorders, Tourette syndrome, and things of that nature. While these seem to be pretty far afield from the usual lack of self-control that people complain about, it’s possible that things we learn about how to treat and control such disorders might be useful in more mundane cases.