26 September 2023

What’s the impact of self-control on our lives?

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Ferdi Botha and Dr Sarah Dahmann* say greater self-control is associated with improved life outcomes including health and satisfaction.

Saying ‘no’ is good for you. For the first time the annual Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey of over 17,000 people has quizzed Australians on their levels of self-control.

The results suggest that the more self-control you have, the healthier and more satisfied you’ll be and you are more likely to have savings tucked away for an emergency.

Self-control in HILDA is measured using a self-reported set of questions called the Brief Self-Control Scale.

It’s a simple a set of 13 statements describing aspects of personality that participants rate on a scale of one (‘not at all’) to five (‘very well’) depending on the degree to which the statement fits them.

Examples include “I have a hard time breaking habits” or “I say inappropriate things.” The final scale is an average of the 13 statements and ranges from one (no self-control) to five (full self-control).

Self-control can be thought of as our ability to override short term impulses in order for longer term gain.

For example, if someone has made you angry, your impulse may be to give vent to that anger by firing back an outraged email, but if you need something from this person, the wiser course will likely be to curb your hurt feelings and respond constructively.

And research has shown that greater self-control is linked to better outcomes for people.

This is also what HILDA suggests.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the HILDA results show that greater scores for self-control are all associated with less likelihood for being obese, being a smoker or drinking alcohol excessively.

For every one-point increase in the self-control score, a person is about eight to 10 percentage points less likely to be obese, seven to eight percentage points less likely to smoke, and nine to 10 percentage points less likely to be an excessive drinker.

Self-control is also positively associated with saving money.

For every point higher on the self-control scale a person is seven percentage points more likely to be able to easily raise $A3,000 in an emergency.

Australians with higher self-control also tend to report higher levels of life satisfaction.

HILDA also shows that older people have more self-control than the young, and women have slightly greater self-control than men.

People who are married also have slightly higher scores for self-control, as do immigrants from non-English-speaking countries, compared to Australians born here.

The unemployed have among the lowest average scores for self-control, while higher rates of self-control are also correlated with higher levels of education achievement.

However, whether levels of self-control drive these outcomes or are a consequence of these outcomes is unclear.

For example, we could speculate that the stress and possible disillusionment of being unemployed may over time erode someone’s degree of self-control.

Conversely, higher educational attainment may well partly be driven by higher levels of self-control.

Some research has suggested that your self-control depends in part on your degree of locus of control, that is, the degree to which you believe that what you do matters compared to a belief that what happens to you is simply beyond your control or due to luck.

People with an internal locus of control (you believe that what you do matters) are expected to have more self-control than those with an external locus of control (those who believe what happens is beyond their control).

This idea of locus of control raises interesting questions about what influences our self-control.

For example, believing that you have little or no control over your life may conceivably reflect a sense of powerlessness.

That would suggest a possible reason for why we see lower levels of self-control among the unemployed.

But what is clear is that there are strong associations linking a good degree of self-control with positive outcomes, including in health, wellbeing and finances.

For policy makers then it’s worth exploring how self-control could be promoted, or even taught, either in an educational setting or perhaps in a counselling context.

*Dr Ferdi Botha, Research Fellow, Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Melbourne. Dr Sarah Dahmann, Research Fellow, Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Melbourne.

This article first appeared at pursuit.unimelb.edu.au.

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