A popular view of self-control assumes that self-control requires internal fortitude. We exhort ourselves to “Use willpower!” “Just do it!” “Just say no!” Not coincidentally, across cultures and throughout the lifespan, individuals name self-control as one of their greatest weaknesses.
Young people who can resist momentarily rewarding temptations in the service of more enduringly valued goals excel academically, thrive socially, and flourish physically. Remarkably, the predictive power of self-control for consequential life outcomes rivals that of family socioeconomic status and general intelligence. In other words, science has affirmed the observation of Sir John Templeton that “self-control leads to success.”
We suggest that enacting self-control is dramatically easier when we proactively choose or change our situations to advantage. In particular, we can undermine undesirable impulses (e.g., powering off a cell phone to avoid distracting texts) or potentiate desirable ones (e.g., going to the library to encourage concentration). We argue that situational self-control strategies may be more effective than downstream intrapsychic strategies (e.g., looking away from a beeping cell phone) that have received more attention in the research literature.
In this project, we will complete a series of random-assignment experiments that compare the effectiveness of situational self-control strategies with intrapsychic self-control strategies. We aim to publish our findings and intervention materials in peer-reviewed articles and, in addition, to reach a wider audience through jargon-free summaries written for and proactively disseminated to the lay public.
Our aims are three-fold. First, we hope to further the science of self-control. Second, we want to produce practical recommendations for parents, teachers, and students. Third, we aim to demonstrate that situational factors are part and parcel—rather than antithetical—to the notion of character.