Social influences on self-control

Social influences on "self"-control (paper here)

Joe Kable, University of Pennsylvania

As Duckworth and Kern (2011) note, currently over 1% of the abstracts in PsycInfo are indexed by “self-control” or one its synonyms. As part of this widespread interest, cognitive and neural scientists are debating the psychological mechanisms of self-control (Ainslie, 1975; Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999; Muraven & Baumeister, 2000), and the implementation of these mechanisms in the brain (Figner, et al., 2010; Hare, Camerer, & Rangel, 2009; Hare, Malmaud, & Rangel, 2011; Kable & Glimcher, 2007, 2010; McClure, Ericson, Laibson, Loewenstein, & Cohen, 2007; McClure, Laibson, Loewenstein, & Cohen, 2004). These efforts, however, currently proceed without much agreement on a theoretical or operational definition regarding what constitutes “self-control” (Duckworth & Kern, 2011). Definitions have been offered, of course, but one gets the sense that many investigators are content defining self-control in much the same manner that American courts define pornography – “I know it when I see it” (Jacobellis vs Ohio, 1964). Just as our intuitions regarding physics can be mistaken, so too can our intuitions regarding psychology (Stanovich, 1985). This essay argues that an over-reliance on “intuitive psychics” is hindering efforts to identify the cognitive and neural processes involved in self-control. Specifically, current theories tend to underemphasize or ignore completely a factor of critical importance – the social world. Yet, “self-control” is a concept that only emerges at the level of the person in society: it is the social world that defines what is and is not a self-control problem. This realization has important implications for people interested in cognitive and neural mechanisms: it suggests that self-control is unlikely to be a single process; that the computation of social norms is an understudied process that is likely critical for self-controlled behavior; and that interventions that target the social context to increase the influence of norms may prove the strongest way to increase self-controlled behavior.





  • Hugo Mercier
    Hugo Mercier 3 August 2011 (16:05)

    Thank for a great paper! I really enjoyed it, and would agree with just about all of it. A detail: at some point you cite the example (from Miller and Cohen, 2001), of “an American tourist in England overriding their first instinct to look left at a crosswalk.” You argue that there is something social/cultural about this rule, which is certainly true. Yet do you really want to put that under self-control, in the same way as, say, refraining from binge drinking? It seems to me that it would fall more easily under cognitive control that is not self-control. Even though there is a social dimension, the difference might be that it would mostly be the competence, rather than the morals of the rule breaker that would be impugned. In Cristina Bicchieri’s terms, looking right in the UK would be a convention while not engaging in binge drinking would be a social norm. Both rules are social, so I would argue that refraining from breaking a social rule is not sufficient for something to be self-control. But I guess your main point is that it is necessary, which is probably more interesting in any case.

  • Joe Kable 4 August 2011 (03:31)

    Thanks Hugo. I agree with your assessment that the American tourist who successfully looks right at the English crosswalk is not exhibiting what would typically be called self-control. As you note, this means that complying with a social/cultural rule is not sufficient for an act to be considered self-controlled. I think it is a very interesting possibility that a more precise specification — along the lines of Bicchieri’s distinction between social norms and conventions — might prove sufficient. One of the points I was trying to make in that section, though, was that neuroscientists do not generally talk about lateral prefrontal cortex as serving a _social_ function. A lot of work addresses it’s role in encoding context and rules, but there’s not much discussion about where the contexts/rules come from. For humans, I suspect the most important context-setters are social/cultural. This social function of lateral prefrontal cortex might then explain it’s importance for self-controlled behavior. I’m hoping that more attention gets paid to this possibility.

  • Hugo Mercier
    Hugo Mercier 5 August 2011 (03:10)

    Thanks for the reply, I couldn’t agree more!

  • Jean-Baptiste Quillien 28 September 2011 (22:21)

    Thank you very much! I love your paper. Sorry to come so late in the discussion.

    I am very attracted to the idea that issues revolving around self-control, delaying gratification, etc. have a social component. From an evolutionary perspective it makes a lot of sense. If it is individually adaptive to delay gratification in a given instance, then evolution should make it easy to achieve, it should make us, say, “naturally happy” with delaying gratification, much like scrub jays are (probably) happy with hiding their food for the winter rather than eating it right away. Therefore, I am very much inclined to see this as a social problem, as you do. As you say, when I feel it difficult to delay gratification (or to control my impulses more generally), it is because it would really be in my interest not to delay gratification (modulo the social consequences), but precisely it would have negative social consequences (sanctions, ridicule, etc.), and I must take them into account.

    However, even though, as I said, I have a lot of sympathy for this idea (I would like it to be true), I think it has also two problems.

    First, there really seem to be many situations in which controlling oneself is in one’s own direct interest (independently of the social consequences). Hard work is a typical example. I might be wrong, but I really have the impression that hard word pays off in many instances, in genuine fitness currencies, and not only because it is socially well evaluated. It pays off for purely selfish reasons. Hard work allows one to gather more resources, to attract sexual partners, etc. etc. This raises the question: If something like hard work pays off, fitness-wise, then why is it so difficult to achieve?

    Second, even admitting that self control has a social component, this does not evidently explain why it is so difficult to achieve. After all, again, if we are made by natural selection and if it is adaptive to be socially well evaluated, then we should be “naturally” happy to behave in well evaluated manners. And the fact is that, in most cases, we are! It does not require a lot of self control to refrain oneself, say, to pee on the floor at one’s workplace, even though it would be convenient after all. But it would also be a form of social suicide and, conversely, it would require a lot of self control to force oneself to do it.

    So, I don’t really know what to think on this issue. It still seems quite obscure to me. Another possibility, that I would love to be true, and that is very much related but not identical to the one you suggest (if I got it right) is that self control issues are instances in which our intuitions are not sufficient to guide our behaviour and we need a reflective stance on our decisions. This would have the merit to relate issues of self control and issues of cognitive control.

    When you close a normal door lock, you have the intuition that it must be turned clockwise. When your new door lock has been improperly installed backward, you must reflectively arrive at the right behaviour (you must think of your own intuition about the way to close regular locks and then remember that this very door lock is special). And this requires an effort.

    In the same way, when you are alone at home and you “hesitate” between work and procrastination, there is no danger to flee from, the fridge is full of food, there is no sexual or social partner at your immediate reach, and your evolved intuitions thus tell you that you’d better rest. In order to put yourself at work, you need to be somehow reflective. And this also requires an effort.

    This suggestion is very vague and incomplete, but I wander to what extent it relates/differs from what you are suggesting?

    Note that you do not have to answer or comment! Especially so long after the original post! Anyway, that was mostly to say that I enjoyed very much reading your paper!

    Thanks again,