New research highlights the social side of self-control.
Self-control plays an important role in achieving our personal goals. Yet, self-control is hard and prone to failure – whether we’re trying to stick to a workout regimen, to reduce alcohol consumption, or to limit air travel to protect the environment. Fortunately, there are strategies we can adopt to make self-control slightly less difficult.
Social Self-Control Strategies
Self-control is sometimes mistakenly thought of as an entirely individual enterprise. However, self-control decisions and their success can be strongly influenced by other people – for good or bad.
Picture the following scenario: You have just decided to become a vegetarian after learning about the environmental and animal-welfare consequences of animal agriculture. Your partner, on the other hand, doesn’t want to follow suit and will continue to eat meat (something you still like the taste of). It’s not hard to imagine how, in this scenario, you will be regularly tempted to eat meat – either when your partner prepares delicious-looking meat dishes or when dining at a restaurant. The need for self-control in order to stick to your vegetarian diet thus seems never-ending, and the odds of successfully maintaining the diet are undoubtedly slimmer than had your partner made the same dietary change as you.
This scenario illustrates how our goals and self-control may be challenged by other people, including those dearest to us. Though we’re especially sensitive to the opinions, preferences, and behavior of close others, even unfamiliar encounters can elicit temptations and lead us astray (e.g., a former smoker seeing someone on the street smoke a cigarette).
But rest assured, other people can also be a force for good and support our self-control. For example, they can help ensure that temptations are not elicited (thereby circumventing the need for self-control in the first place). They can also help monitor our behavior and provide feedback if we’re straying off course, act as models of good behavior, and encourage us to exert self-control when temptations become overwhelming.
While many self-control strategies exist, below are two promising and interconnected social strategies that may help boost your self-control.
- Leverage Goal Support. Goal support involves receiving support from another person in relation to a particular goal in a certain situation or across situations. Goal support is thus a specific type of social support, and one that research suggests can promote goal progress and effective self-control. There are at least two types of goal support. The first is passive goal support whereby support is received automatically, often resulting from simply being around people who generally support your goals (e.g., partner, friends, or family). The second is active goal support where goal support is not automatically available to you, thus requiring you to seek it out deliberately. A well-known example of active goal support is getting a goal buddy or team (e.g., a fitness or running buddy), which research has shown to promote self-control success. So, if you struggle with self-control or staying on track for a certain goal, asking for other people’s support may be an effective strategy.
- Avoid Tempting Social Situations. One of the most illuminating findings in recent self-control research is that people who are generally good at self-control more often find themselves in situations that support their goals and limit the risk of temptation. Indeed, they also tend to find themselves in goal-supportive social environments compared to people who generally struggle with self-control. By being mindful of your social environments you can identify specific people and/or social situations that may lead you into temptation and try to avoid them. For example, if you’re trying to quit smoking, going out with all your friends who smoke may not be the wisest decision (perhaps unless you are also joined by a supportive non-smoking friend). Opting yourself into social environments that are goal-supportive and out of those that aren’t may therefore be a sound self-control strategy.
Although we sometimes cannot change our social environments (or don’t want to), becoming more attentive to them and seeking out goal support may just provide that boost in self-control so many of us desire.
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Copyright of this article totally belongs to Kristian Steensen Nielsen, who is a Research Associate at the University of Cambridge. This article is republished here from psychology today under common creative licenses