There may be a down side to self-control

People like to make New Year’s Resolutions involving big changes.  

Some people aim to give up drinking; others want to start exercising. Some particularly ambitious individuals want to start their own business.

These are good intentions, but making them into reality requires a good bit of self-control. Let’s think of self-control as the ability to make sacrifices right now for anticipated long-term benefits.

Some individuals have a high level of self-control. These folks eat properly, exercise, and work hard.

You won’t find them gorging on a mountain of chips while sitting on a couch watching reruns of I Love Lucy. They are likely to live a long and productive life.

But having high self-control is not all good.

Studies have found that several characteristics tend to go along with high self-control. These characteristics include being rigid, tense, and judgmental.

Individuals with high self-control tend to be low in creativity and in interpersonal warmth. Also, they tend to keep their emotions to themselves, making them hard to get to know.

Elon Musk is a person who can serve as an example of almost anything. For instance, he is incredibly creative. He moves the world along in the realm of electric cars and space travel.

But he seems to have less than perfect self-control. He posted a tweet in which he called a heroic cave rescuer a “pedo guy.” That tweet got him sued for defamation. When I saw him smoke a joint on an online video show, I could hardly believe it.

Stock in his company, Tesla, dropped immediately. At about the same time he tweeted about taking Tesla private. That tweet got him sued for fraud by the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

If I had a choice between having lunch with Elon or with someone who had never done anything wrong or foolish, I would choose Elon. But with either person, I would feel inferior.

I try to exert self-control when doing so will pay off for me, for instance in controlling my weight and in doing scientific research.

When I travel, socialise or play sports, I mostly turn off the self-control and try to have fun. It is not always easy to switch from one mode of being to another, but adjusting our thinking and behaviour to the situation is the best way to be productive and happy.

Can you turn your self-control on and off?

John Malouff is an Associate Professor at the School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences, University of New England.