Self-control: it’s a skill that most of us wish we had a lot more of. Yet, every once and a while, you meet a person who has a seemingly mystical ability to make themselves do things they ought to do, and resist the urge to do things they ought not to do. It’s that person who walks their dog, eats their oatmeal, picks up coffee for everyone in the office, and still shows up to work by 9am. The person who gets their day’s work done by lunch and then works out during their lunch hour. The person who not only makes homemade cards for their friends and family’s birthdays, but actually gets them mailed on time.
It’s easy to envy such individuals. People who have high self-control are more likely to achieve their goals in a wide variety of domains. Research shows that people with high levels of self-control tend to get better grades in school, they are less likely to engage in problem behaviors such as binge eating and alcohol abuse, and they have better psychological adjustment compared to people with lower levels of self-control.1 High self-control also has important benefits for romantic relationships. For example, married couples with greater combined levels of self-control are more responsive, trusting, and forgiving of one another, they have smoother day-to-day interactions, they have less day-to-day conflict, and they are more satisfied with their relationships on the whole.2
Looking at the literature, it’s tempting to conclude that one simply can’t go wrong by having high levels of self-control, or by having close others with high levels of self-control. However, in a paper that just came out this year, Koval, vanDellen, Fitzsimons, and Ranby3 explored a potential downside to self-control: the high expectations that others might have of high self-control individuals. Below are the three ways we tend to treat high self-control individuals, according to Koval et al.’s research, that might be damaging for our relationships with such individuals.
1. We Expect Them to Perform Better
We expect people with high self-control to perform better compared to those with low self-control. For example, in Study 1, undergraduate students were presented with a description of a hypothetical student (“Sam”) who was tempted to make an unnecessary purchase on iTunes. Next, the undergrads rated how well they thought Sam would perform in the context of a group project. Undergrads who read that Sam resisted the urge to make the purchase—suggesting that Sam had high self-control—predicted that Sam would perform better on the group project, compared to undergrads who read that Sam had made the impulsive purchase. In other words, when we witness someone exhibiting high self-control in one domain, we then expect them to perform better in unrelated domains.
2. We Ask Them to Do More Work
At first glance, high expectations may not seem like a bad thing. Isn’t it nice for people to think highly of you? Unfortunately, these high expectations are not limited to quality of work. We also expect more from high self-control individuals in terms of quantity of work. In another study, undergraduate students were asked to imagine that they were in charge of a peer mentorship program. They were given a stack of essays written by junior students and asked to distribute them among a group of high-GPA senior students for proofreading. Participants were also given descriptions of the senior students, including whether or not they were successfully meeting their New Year’s resolutions. Senior students who had met their New Year’s resolutions—indicative of high self-control—were given more essays to proofread than students who had failed to meet their New Year’s resolutions. Swap out “proofreading essays” for a task like “doing the dishes” or “running errands”, and it’s easy to see how these high expectations could breed resentment in the context of close relationships.
3. We Underestimate Their Effort
In another study, students were asked to rate their own self-control with items like, “I have a hard time breaking bad habits”. The students were then asked to perform a lab task that requires self-control (typing out a text without including spaces or the letter e), and to rate how difficult they found the task to be. Next, participants were told that another student was completing the same measures and tasks at the same time. They were presented with what they believed to be the self-control ratings of the other student, and were asked to rate how difficult they thought the typing task was for the other student.
Participants’ reports of the difficulty of the tasks for themselves didn’t differ by their self-control levels. That is, students who rated themselves as being high versus low on self-control found the task to be equally challenging. However, when rating other students, participants thought that the task was easier for students with high self-control compared to students with low self-control. In other words, even when high self-control individuals are working just as hard as those with less self-control, people assume that the work is easier for them.
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Taken together, it makes sense that these factors might cause relationship problems for high self-control individuals. With everyone expecting greater and better performance from them while also downplaying their efforts, people with high self-control might be left feeling overburdened by their friends, family, and coworkers. And that’s exactly what the researchers found in their last two studies.
In Study 5, people with high levels of self-control felt that their coworkers expected more from them day to day, and they felt burdened by these expectations. Meanwhile, coworkers recognized that they expected more from these high self-control individuals, but they did not realize that these expectations led to the high self-control individual feeling overburdened. Rather, the sentiment seemed to be that high self-control individuals can “handle” the higher workload.
Study 6 examined potential downsides of self-control among romantic couples. Replicating previous findings, individuals with high self-control tended to be more satisfied with their relationships. However, people with high self-control also felt that their partners relied on them to a greater extent, leading them to feel burdened, which in turn led to lower satisfaction. In other words, although high self-control individuals are happier in their relationships overall, they would be more satisfied still if their partners did not expect so much of them.
The take-home message of this research is that just because high self-control individuals are able to handle large workloads doesn’t mean that they should be expected to. As we saw in the study on effort, completing difficult tasks is just as effortful for those with high self-control as it is for those with low self-control. If those efforts aren’t appreciated and respected, high self-control individuals are at risk of becoming overworked and overburdened. So, if you have a coworker, friend, or even a romantic partner with impressive levels of self-control, try to acknowledge the effort they put in, and keep your expectations of them manageable and fair. In contrast, if you are the person with high levels of self-control, consider using some of that self-control to resist the urge to take on more work than you can comfortably manage. Your relationships will thank you for it.
1Tangney, J. P., Baumeister, R. F., & Boone, A. L. (2008). High self-control predicts good adjustment, less pathology, better grades, and interpersonal success. Journal of Personality, 72, 2, 271-324.
2Vohs, K., Finkenauer, C., & Baumeister, R. (2011). The sum of friends’ and lovers’ self-control scores predicts relationship quality. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2, 138-145.
3Koval, C. Z., vanDellen, M. R., Fitzsimons, G. M., & Ranby, K. W. (2015). The burden of responsibility: Interpersonal costs of high self-control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108, 750-766.
Dr. Samantha Joel – Science of Relationships articles
Samantha’s research examines how people make decisions about their romantic relationships. For example, what sort of factors do people take into consideration when they try to decide whether to pursue a potential date, invest in a new relationship, or break up with a romantic partner?