The Social Role of Self-Control

To make a better tomorrow, sometimes we have to put up with a not-so-nice today. 

Long-term goals mean rejecting many of the things that tempt us in the moment. We don’t want to be a slave to impulses and influences, so we fight against them, to varying levels of success. As Walter Mischel writes in the Marshmallow Test, “evolution has not yet adapted our brain for dealing concretely with the distant future.”

Our success depends on self-control. It’s how we force ourselves to work out when we want to sit on our ass, or eat vegetables when we feel like beer and chips. But also, it’s how we avoid saying ‘yes’ when someone asks us if they look fat in those pants.

Self-control appears as though it’s all about the future, but this might not be the reason we have it. It might be more about disguising the truth. Psychologist William von Hippel offers the possibility that it arose predominantly as a social tactic, to halt our initial reactions so as not to reveal something undesirable to our audience.

“Our ancestors were focused on today, with occasional thoughts of what they’d like to do tomorrow, so their lives were not the perpetual exercise in delayed gratification that ours have become,” he writes, “but they did have to control themselves to get along with their neighbors, manage their rivals, and achieve their social goals.”

The Chariot

He compares self-control to a chariot:

  • The horses are your impulses, which pull you in different directions, and correspond to a set of regions at the base of your brain, such as the nucleus accumbens and amygdala.
  • To ensure the horses don’t run amok, the driver resists by reining them in and redirecting them. The driver sits in an area of the frontal lobes called the lateral prefrontal cortex—one of the most recent brain regions to evolve, and one that doesn’t fully develop until we’re in our twenties.
  • There’s also a copilot to notify the driver whenever the horses are veering off-course. the copilot occupies the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC, which sits just behind the frontal lobes. 

Self-control is easier if your horses are obedient, the driver is strong, and the copilot is perceptive.

The copilot activates during the Stroop test—a classic self-control test in which words that spell the names of colours are printed in different coloured ink. So the word ‘green’ might be written in red. When required to identify the colour of the ink, people have a hard time ignoring the word itself. Our copilot needs to be attentive to recognise the discrepancy early, so the driver can find the right response.

Further research also found that a lazy or inattentive copilot not only leads to people saying and doing the wrong thing, but people with a past history of antisocial behaviour can be identified by activity in this region. 

You don’t need an ACC copilot to tell you not to grab a salmon from a bear’s mouth; that would be obvious even to the most distracted of chariot drivers. Rather, you need your ACC to ring the alarm when you’re reaching for the last piece of cake, flirting with the big guy’s girlfriend, or starting to tell your boss what you really think of him. Social interactions are loaded with conflicting motives, which is precisely when we need the services of an attentive copilot.”

Politely declining

William ran a study with his doctoral student Karen Gonsalkorale, whose Chinese ethnicity was key. 

The participants were told the study aimed to examine the effects of certain food chemicals on memory. Karen would look on her clipboard and smile, telling the participant, “You’re in luck! You get to eat my favorite food, which is widely regarded as the national dish of China!”

Karen then presents them with a chicken foot, claws included, cooked in a brown sauce. The study is titled ‘That is Bloody Revolting!’ for a reason. Not everyone blurted that out, however. Some were aware that Karen might be offended if they gasped in horror, so they restrained themselves and found a more polite way to back out of eating it. 

The participants were then asked to complete the Stroop test, and the people who were better at this test were also the ones that showed better restraint when presented with the Chicken’s foot. 

My favorite participant blurted out, “That is bloody revolting!” This statement was followed by an awkward silence, which he broke with a few apologetic mumbles as he sheepishly picked up a foot and tried to muster the courage to nibble on one of the toes. In contrast, some people never lost their composure. They didn’t necessarily eat the feet—many suddenly remembered they were vegetarian or suggested that the feet might not be kosher—but they were polite even if they declined to eat them.”


While self-control gives you the means to get fit and healthy, and to find success in your life and career, it also helps you pick the right words to say when you feel like saying something else. Maybe this seems like only a small part of a greater whole, but it might be the seed from which the other uses sprung. 

We are social creatures, and it is only through cooperation that we have the world we do today. Cooperation happens when we take into consideration other people and their desires and needs. Sometimes we have to neglect our basic impulses to achieve a greater group outcome—and sometimes we have to resist because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, embarrass ourselves, or piss someone off.

“Most psychologists have taken it for granted that we evolved the capacity for self-control in order to pursue long-term goals. To be a successful farmer we must plant the seed rather than eat it; to have a happy retirement we must save our money rather than spend it; to maintain a healthy body weight we must decline the second piece of chocolate cake rather than eat it. But our world looks nothing like the world of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who didn’t plant seeds or save money and who never worried about eating or drinking too much.”

The impulses to eat and drink and mate and fight, all likely benefitted us in the past. Now they don’t serve us like they used to, and cause problems if left unchecked. We might have our social natures to thank for our ability to decide otherwise. 

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