Can Virtuous Habits Be Cultivated?

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The shopper covets the expensive item and worries vaguely about the credit card bill. The dieter contemplates the fine dessert. The ex-addict looks longingly at the cigarette, the bottle, or the drug, recalling the sweet feelings but also the problems and promises. The man and woman prepare to kiss, warm with alcohol and new intimacy, but are held back by thoughts of their respective spouses back home.  The procrastinator thinks of the tough, worrisome task ahead but notes the deadline is still a week off, so perhaps it is fine to leave it one more day. Such moral and practical dilemmas pervade daily life.

Doing what is right requires strenuous effort to resist the alluring temptations of vice. You strive to resist selfish impulses and push yourself to do what moral duty prescribes. Virtue is hard work

Or is it? Could virtue become a habit — that is, a relatively effortless, automatic tendency to do what is morally right, with a minimum of inner struggle?

The answer to this question, crucial for understanding and improving the moral level of humanity, is emerging from scientific research on willpower. A recent study in which two hundred German citizens wore beepers for a week, and at random intervals reported on their desires at that moment, yielded a stunning finding. The researchers had sorted people into those with relatively good and relatively poor self-control based on questionnaires about their lives and habits. One fairly obvious prediction was that people with good self-control would resist desires more frequently than people with poor self-control. After all, that’s what self-control is for, to resist desires, right?

But the results came out strongly in the opposite direction. People with good self-control were less likely than others to resist desires as they went about their daily lives. How could this be? The answer is that people with good self-control avoid temptations and problem situations, rather than battling with them. Other research confirmed that self-control works most effectively by means of controlling habits, rather than by using willpower for direct control of one’s actions in the heat of the moment.

Self-control is sometimes called the “moral muscle” because it furnishes the basic ability to do the right thing. Most vices and sins involve failures of self-control, and most virtues indicate good self-control. Until recently, it was standard to think of self-control in terms of heroic single feats of willpower, such as for resisting a strong temptation. But much of the new evidence suggests that self-control is most effective when it operates through habits. People use their self-control to break bad habits and establish good ones, and then life can run smoothly and successfully, with low levels of stress, regret, and guilt.

Viewed in that perspective, virtue is best achieved when self-control is exerted so as to establish habits of good behavior. Part of the reason is that using willpower to resist temptation is a strenuous, costly business with unreliable results. Habits are far more reliable than that.

Two decades’ worth of lab research has established that willpower is limited, and exerting self-control to resist impulses or change your actions depletes it. Like all living things, humans naturally seek to conserve their energy, and so exerting self-control to resist temptation or take the path of virtue encounters a natural reluctance (which some moralists would call laziness, or worse). And if the temptation or impulse arises when your willpower has already been depleted by other demands, then your odds of resisting go down, and you do something you’ll regret. That’s why you shouldn’t plan on achieving virtue by relying on willpower to get you through crises, temptations, and other problem situations. Willpower fluctuates, and you can’t count on always having enough.

Instead, if you use willpower to establish virtuous habits, the danger of succumbing to impulse or temptation is reduced. The human psyche is well designed to acquire habits (both good and bad). Doing something new and different takes effort and attention, and sometimes plenty of thought and emotion. In contrast, doing something by habit requires none of those, or at most a very small amount. To conserve the limited mental and physical energy that people have, nature has designed us to convert novel exertions into easy habits. This occurs over time, with repeated practice. Can you remember your initial struggles with a bicycle, a surfboard, a computer keyboard and mouse, a tennis racquet? Yet after enough repetitions, one uses those same items efficiently and effectively, with hardly a thought or error. The human mind’s ability to convert difficult action into easy deft habit is remarkable.

Habits of virtue can be a godsend. Seated at dinner as the waiter begins to serve wine, I have watched and admired how the recovered alcoholic deftly covers his glass with his hand to signal “none for me.” Not so long ago, perhaps, saying no required of him much struggle and anguish. If every offer of wine took as much effort as on his first day of sobriety, it is a fair bet that he would have fallen off the wagon countless times. But it gets easier, thanks to the miracle of habit. Of course, the habit did not appear by magic or wish or resolve. It took willpower to make the refusals habitual.

How far can we rely on virtuous habits? The strongest desires and most problematic temptations probably cannot be defeated by habits alone. But cultivating virtuous habits in many areas can conserve your willpower for when you really need it. This explains the problems of people with characteristically poor self-control. They expend their willpower in ordinary things, like deciding what to eat and whether to blurt out some angry thought. When a more serious temptation comes along, their willpower is depleted, and they succumb. In contrast, people with virtuous habits conserve their willpower for when they really need it.

Indeed, it is questionable whether resisting a strong temptation or impulse can ever become entirely habitual. Virtuous habits are much more successful at avoiding those temptations and impulses than trying to stifle them once they are felt.

To understand this, it is necessary to ponder the question of whether temptation is inside or outside the person. Almost certainly it is both. Although there may be some impulses that arise entirely from inside the body, far more of them are triggered by external objects. Yet these same objects do not trigger everyone equally. They only tempt people who have such desires. So the problem situation — a tempting impulse to do something against one’s values — arises mainly when inner drives meet up with opportunities to indulge them. It takes both a suitably inclined person and the compromising situation to create the maximum temptation. In such situations, habits may help some, but willpower will almost certainly be required. At that point it may be too late for habits to help much.

The solution is not to get to that point. Virtuous habits may be more effective at avoiding temptation than at resisting it. The desires inside oneself cannot be eliminated. (This is probably why many of the great saints of history described themselves as terrible sinners. They knew that they had plenty of sinful desires. But virtue is not the absence of desire for sin — it is the absence of sin despite the desire to sin!) One can prevent inner inclinations and weaknesses from blossoming into full-blown cravings and desires by avoiding the external circumstances that trigger them. The recovering alcoholic knows to avoid bars. The veteran dieter knows not to keep fattening foods available at home. In such cases, even if the inner drive does occasionally produce a strong, specific desire once in a while, the lack of opportunity saves the day. There may be a moment of weakness, when willpower is low and sweet memories lead to cravings, but if there are no pastries or cigarettes or drinks available, virtue remains intact despite the fact that the person is briefly willing to give in.

Playing goalkeeper for my high school soccer team taught me a useful lesson that is relevant here. People told me that the goalie’s job is to block shots, and so I practiced trying to dive and jump to block the balls kicked my way. Yet I could tell I was not making much progress. Deducing that my coach was useless, I went to games and watched how the best goalkeepers played. I noticed that they did not block very many shots. Instead, they prevented shots from happening. They would quietly move forward as the other team passed the ball back and forth, watching for just the moment to intercept a pass, before it was ever kicked earnestly toward the goal. The post game stats might show only a couple blocked shots, suggesting the goalie had not done much, but the truth was that they had prevented more shots than they blocked. And it looked much easier than waiting in the goal and then trying to stop a swerving ball coming right at the goal with the full force of a powerful kick.

In the same way, people with good self-control achieve virtue in a seemingly easy, undramatic fashion. We may reserve our admiration for the most dramatic cases, in which someone heroically does the right thing despite being strongly tempted to do otherwise. But everyday virtue is best achieved not by such heroic feats of willpower, but rather by avoiding such situations in the first place.  By pulling together many small habits, especially for avoiding temptations and problems, one can live a more virtuous life.

Questions for Discussion

1. Are there forms of moral and virtuous behavior that do not involve self-control?

2. Do people ever fully recover from addiction?

3. Do you have any suggestions for bringing up children with willpower and good habits?

Discussion Summary

My essay on the idea of virtuous habits prompted a lively discussion. A couple main thought-provoking themes emerged. Some focused on practical issues, like how to conserve willpower and enable people to get the most positive (virtuous) results with limited willpower. Others focused on the meaning of morality and virtue.

Let me first focus on the meaning of morality and virtue. The issue here is whether it really counts as virtue if people reach it by habits, such as avoiding temptation. In a sense, one achieves virtuous results on the cheap. The person who manages to avoid temptation possibly does not deserve the highest levels of moral admiration. Even our pragmatic decisions about whether to trust the person or form a relationship with the person recognize the difference, insofar as someone who has never misbehaved but never been tempted to misbehave has not really proven him or herself to have strong moral character. True virtue seemingly requires some inner struggle and some degree of actively choosing courses of action that bring the self less benefit, less pleasure, or more unpleasantness than other options offered.

The deeper, more profound question underlying that discussion is what is the essence of morality? There are at least two main places to look for an answer. One involves proving one’s character. I recall once asking one of my Orthodox Jewish friends why they continue to follow those various kosher rules, some of which make life difficult and confer no genuine health benefit, and her answer was that keeping kosher was good for self-discipline. Our research has come around to support that answer: People prove themselves and strengthen themselves by following even completely arbitrary rules, and that can yield benefits and improvements on other things that do matter. This was also the justification for sports back when I was in school, especially using schools’ resources for sports: Supposedly sports build character, and that comes from conforming to often arbitrary rules.

Yet there is something circular about that argument, if that were all there were. Why would we need self-discipline to enable us to behave morally, if the purpose of morality were only to improve and demonstrate self-discipline? Although a purely functional account of morality may miss something, one also misses something if one overlooks functions. Morality serves useful functions: It helps people live together in harmony and cooperation, making it possible for social systems to bring benefits to everyone. And in that context, what matters is the behavior of treating others well, rather than the amount of inner struggle it took to do so.

There was also a disconnect between some of the examples. Yes, the person who was lucky enough to avoid temptation has not really proven himself or herself to be virtuous. But that was not what I proposed. The person who avoids temptation because of prudent planning and careful management of situations is quite different from the person who never saw a donut (to use one of the examples in the comments). The person who arranges life well so as to avoid temptation has really gotten the best of both worlds, that is, both well-earned virtuous results and avoidance of inner, willpower-draining struggle. That person strikes me as an ideal model. If everyone behaved that way, society would flourish.

That brings us to the second issue, namely the pragmatics of virtue. That, also, is where psychology can make a more substantial contribution than it can with debating the deeper meaning of moral virtue. Many comments offered insightful suggestions into the process of achieving virtue, especially in connection with using the mind’s propensity to form habits. Educate people as to what temptations are most difficult to them to resist and what circumstances increase the odds of yielding. Learn to regard virtue as just something you always do rather than making it a daily or hourly choice. Understand social influences, such as the fact that it is harder to maintain virtue when others are indulging in vice, or the fact that people may be more motivated to do things that benefit others than that benefit only the self. Focus energy on developing habits rather than resisting temptation, and know how habits work (e.g., as one commentator pointed out, virtuous habits are often lost when one travels, away from one’s normal routine and supportive cues).

Let me conclude by thanking the Templeton Foundation for suggesting this topic and providing the forum for this discussion!

35 Responses

  1. finkelnc1 says:

    It seems that Baumeister has identified an interesting case where psychology and philosophy diverge. From a philosophical perspective, one might ask whether it’s virtuous to structure one’s life so that one minimizes the experience of immoral urges, thereby reducing the need to exert willpower to behave morally. After all, one could argue that moral behavior virtually requires the exertion of will. From Baumeister’s more psychological (and pragmatic) perspective, the answer to this question appears to be: who cares? If, in the end, an individual behaves righteously, who cares whether that righteousness derives from a lack of immoral urges or from the willpower to override such urges. I share that view. Righteous behavior is righteous behavior, and building a life that allows righteousness to be relatively effortless is just as moral as achieving righteousness through constant exertion of the will.

    • Roy Baumeister says:

      Great thought finkelnc1! Virtue is as virtue does, so to speak. Still, there is a long tradition in philosophy and related fields suggesting that if you enjoy the behavior, or even if you fail to suffer and struggle enough, it isn’t really virtue. If we take a pragmatic view of morality, then short cuts are fine, and what matters is that people behave well enough for society to function smoothly. I think the valuable point in the other tradition is that sometimes struggle is required to overcome selfish and other naughty impulses, and when struggle is required then the likelihood of failure is higher, and so moral praise should be higher when there is struggle than when there isn’t.

      To be sure, someone who is never tempted may produce virtuous behavior easily. But that’s not exactly what I’m proposing — especially because it may be an unrealistic model. Planning your life so as to avoid temptation is an important form of moral effort, however. And insofar as it is more successful than resisting temptation, it deserves its share of moral praise.

      • Caesar says:

        I can’t argue with that. It is important to put effort into the construction of a environment that is not filled with temptation, and that effort deserves praise. And, as you point out, it is more successful than resisting temptation; therefore it should lead to more felicitous (or less pernicious) consequences. As a pragmatist (or a moral cynic who neverthless cares deeply about moral issues?), that seems like a reasonable approach to morality and a reaonable way to apportion approbation. 

    • Daniel Jacobson says:

      I don’t see Baumeister’s work as deviating from philosophy. I see it as a recapitulation and vindication of Aristotle, both in its emphasis on the importance of inculcating good habits and its recommendation of avoiding psychic conflict (in particular, between desires and the will) rather than attempting to overcome them. For Aristotle, virtue lies not in overcoming struggle — he called that temperance and considered it a (distant) second-best alternative — but in, as you put it, minimizing the experience of immoral (or just imprudent) urges.

      The sterner account of morality typically associated with Kant is just one philosophical view. It’s not the dominant one, and not the view of the ancients generally I should think. (Though I am not a scholar of ancient philosophy.) It’s also a substantively better view. Kudos to Baumeister for championing it in modern terms and finding more evidence in its favor.

      • Roy Baumeister says:

        Thanks for making the connection to Aristotle. Your summary sounds like what Aristotle would have said, but I confess to being not very well versed in ancient Greek philosophy, and my knowledge of it is mostly secondhand. I am much more familiar with Kant, but you are correct in saying that his views on morality are not the dominant ones in today’s philosophy or in society generally. In fact his central big idea about the categorical imperative being innate to the mind is probably wrong (though I keep hearing neuroscience and evolutionary folks wanting to re-introduce it in various forms!). In any case, gettiing the best result with less struggle and anguish seems like a double victory!

  2. guinness says:

    Your research is suggesting that the best path to remaining virtuous is to avoid temptation altogether. However, is that true virtue? Is avoiding temptation a sign of virtue or a sign of wisdom? When it comes down to it, removing yourself from a tempting situation before it happens is more of a ‘smart move’ than it is a demostration of moral strength and character. It’s admirable nonetheless, but is creating good habits to avoid temptation really a continuous series of moral choices? – or is it never having to make those choices?

    finkelnc1 Why does it matter as long as the person behaves righteously? Certainly for an addict it would be a choice, but is dieting any where near the realm of a recovering heroine addict? For that matter, which set of morals are we after? Is the goal abstinence or moderation? Morals are different for everyone and how they are achieved is different. Utilitarians might argue for the testing of a tribe in a third world country claiming that the profit for (a cure for cancer) the research outweighs the few lives that are taken in the process, while other moral systems would argue that if even one life is taken in the process, no matter how many could be saved, it’s still immoral. Perspective does matter because it determines our values.

    • Roy Baumeister says:

      Thanks for this comment, guiness. My answer to the preceding comment is relevant here. Somehow our intuitions do not give as much credit for avoiding temptation as for resisting it. Yet virtuous outcomes will be better if temptation is avoided rather than faced and resistance is attempted. Willpower fluctuates, and if you expose yourself to enough temptations, eventually one will catch you with your guard down, and you’ll likely give in.

      The idea that morals are different for everyone seems overstated. Morals are more similar than different, by far, among individuals and across cultures. Morality is born in the requirements of social life. Animals are naturally selfish but social life (and especially culture) requires people to overcome their selfishness to some degree. Morality generally means doing what is best for the group (assuming others do likewise) rather than what is best for the self. There is not much moral credit for doing something that benefits the self hugely, even if it also benefits society. (Remember Knobe’s studies with the CEO who said he only cares about profits, even though his company’s initiative benefits the environment.)

      Bottom line, though, I think we should give people credit for strength of character if they avoid tempting situations and therefore can live up to moral rules without struggle and anguish.

  3. natemlambert says:

    Roy Baumeister’s essay really resonated with me, especially being the recovering food addict that I am. I recently lost 50 pounds and have found it to be nearly as challenging to maintain these losses as it was to lose the weight in the first place and I realize that this is partly due to the time it takes to establish healthy lifestyle habits rather than placing myself in circumstances where I am using up my willpower. For instance, treats such as cookies and cakes I have found to be extremely taxing on my willpower to resist additional portions. I always say to myself, I’m just going to have one little nibble of that brownie and this invariably turns into eating 6 or 7 of them and gaining 3-5 pounds overnight which then takes 10-14 days of hardcore dieting to recover from. I recently vowed to not eat any such treats for the next 3 weeks. With that temptation “off the table” I found that I’ve had enough willpower left to focus on portion control, which was easy to forget about as I faced the internal “battle with the brownie.” Making certain problematic foods completely off limits lets me have something left in the tank for fighting other battles.

    This principle can be applied to raising children. If they are taught that certain behaviors, substances, and settings are completely off limits and internalize these ideals from a young age they will be more likely to be like those individuals in the study Roy referred to that were not having to exert their willpower as often. I’m a father of young children so we’ll see how this strategy goes when their teenagers–easier said than done!

    –Nate Lambert

    • Roy Baumeister says:

      Hi Nate, Very good insight that strict rules are probably easier for children to understand, accept, and internalize, as compared to rules that are unclear, changeable, negotiable, or erratically enforced. Living in the gray area is difficult even for adults! It’s one of the things that makes dieting hard, as indicated by the first part of Nate’s comment: You can’t simply say “No more food ever!” and be done with eating. In a sense, with food and eating one is always on a slippery slope. As for what happens when children get older, it’s probably still best to have firm rules, but these need to be negotiated so that the young person agrees to them and can live with them. I remember when I started dating, and my father insisted that I be home by midnight. After a couple tries, though, I explained that the girl usually had to be home by midnight, and I had to walk her home and all, so it was hard for me to hit that on the dot, so we agreed on 12:20. That I could make, and I wasnt late any more.

  4. Caesar says:

    This reminds me of a sentiment expressed by Kant. According to him, those who behave against their natural propensities are, in some sense, more moral and more worthy of approbation than those who follow their own tendencies, regardless of the outcomes (or, assuming that the outcomes are the same). So, for example, if Sally abhors changing tires but changes one for a fellow citizen because she believes that it is her duty, she deserves more praise than someone who simply enjoys changing tires and who therefore changes the tire because of that enjoyment.

    So, suppose it requires prodigious self-control for me to inhibit a motivation to rob another human, and suppose it requires no self-control for Staci to avoid robbing others because she doesn’t possess the motivation. Who deserves more praise? From Kant’s point of view, the answer is that I do. From a consequentialist’s point of view, they are equal.

    I think the pragmatic answer is that I do, not because my act of inhibition is more noble, but because it is more effortful and therefore requires more motivation. Research has shown that motivation affects the exercise of self-control. Those who are more motivated are more able to parlay the power of self-control. Therefore, our society should encourage the use of self-control, and that can be accomplished by lauding those who use it.

    This doesn’t mean that we should encourage people to create (or live in) environments that are filled with pleasures and temptations simply so they can receive plaudits for avoiding them. But it does mean that we should encourage some of our desirous and less altruistic (in the proximate sense of that word) peers to avoid unfavorable outcomes by using one of nature’s greatest gifts: self-control 

    • Roy Baumeister says:

      Hi Caesar, I wondered whether someone would bring up Kant! Yes, he did have that attitude. As I recall, Schiller wrote a satire of him, in which a friend asks another for a favor, and the friend says well I’d like to do that for you, but that’s the problem, it wouldn’t be morally good of me to do that if I enjoyed it. If I didnt like you, then I could do that favor for you and that would be morally good, but since I like you, I can’t help you. Kant was one of the greatest geniuses ever, but Schiller did have a point!   As for motivation: technically, the non-Sally person is motivated by liking to change tires. Self-control comes into play when there are competing motivations: you want to not change the tire, but you also want to do what is right. Still, your comment is quite right that what deserves praise is the exercise of self-control do to what is right when you sorely want to do what is wrong. In any given situation, some people will find it easier than others to avoid doing the wrong thing. But probably most people have antisocial or selfish impulses from time to time, and the ability to resist and overcome them is vital to the success of human social life.

  5. EZM_Messi says:

    What is often underappreciated regarding this excellent and mechanistic line of research–a line of research that has now led to decades of empirical reports and contributions to our understanding of self-regulation– is that, apart from providing a ‘nuts and boltsy,’ falsifiable mechanistic model of self-control, it has also led to research-stimulating counterintuitive findings, such as that “People with good self-control were less likely than others to resist desires as they went about their daily lives.” Such developments will lead to even more decades of empirical progress.

    • Roy Baumeister says:

      First let me compliment you on the pseudonym “Messi,” one of the greatest soccer players of all time. Such achievements take enormous talent — and enormous self-control to sustain the discipline of training that enables them to transform their talent into achievement. (I recall that we decided to devote one of the anecdotes in our first book on self-control to Madonna, because despite her public persona of ongoing debauchery, she must really have had enormous discipline and self-control to parlay her natural talents and assets into such an extraordinary career! Few others with similar talents would have succeeded so well.)  As for the finding that people with good self-control actually spend less time resisting temptation — I confess all the researchers on that project were surprised by that finding. Had the opposite result obtained, no one would have batted an eye: “Of course people with high self-control spend more time resisting their desires and impulses!” But the counterintuitive finding was strong and clear, and it has changed my thinking about how self-control works.

  6. Vonasch says:

    With the Olympic Games coming up this week, the world will watch as some of the most dedicated athletes in the world compete. To achieve a play on an Olympic Team, especially in a large country like the United States requires an almost unfathomable devotion to a sport. Athletes must spend thousands of hours practicing through pain and injuries, early mornings, and late nights–athletes sacrifice all other aspects of their lives to devote themselves totally to the pursuit of their dreams. One intriguing idea that Dr. Baumeister’s research brings up is that these paragons of self-control might not actually face the temptations that would bring most of us to fall short of our athletic dreams. Perhaps what allows elite performers to sacrifice their social lives in favor of practice is that they don’t see practice as a choice. For the four years before the Beijing Olympics, Michael Phelps didn’t miss a day of practice, and he had unprecedented success. After Beijing, Phelps hardly practiced at all, preferring to party and celebrate his victory. When he returned to the sport, he reported finding it much more difficult to stick to the regimen he knew he needed to pursue to repeat his success in Beijing. Maybe the difference for Phelps was that before Beijing he simply wasn’t tempted because not practicing was not a real possibility in his mind. Attending practice was an acquired habit that didn’t require self-control. After Beijing, Phelps lost that habit, and he was tempted to skip each additional practice. He thus had to use the limited self-control resource, and he may be less successful than he was in Beijing. While he will likely win several Olympic medals, watch for his main competitor, Ryan Lochte, to push Phelps beyond his current abilities and maybe take some of Phelps’ gold.

    • Roy Baumeister says:

      Great example of Michael Phelps. And the point is crucial. As you develop a habit, gradually you lose sight of alternatives. The whole point of a habit is that you don’t have to go through a big decision process, you just do it more or less automatically. Few of us will experience sport at the Phelps level, but I’ll bet every jogger understands the difference. When you decide every day whether to jog, some days are likely to produce a negative decision. It’s easiest when you just assume it’s part of the daily routine and do it without thinking about it. Making yourself do the jog takes some self-control, and it’s best not to have expended willpower on the decision about whether to do it today or not!

  7. E.J. Masicampo says:

    That was a thought provoking article, and these are some interesting responses. I’m particularly enjoying the talk of this distinction between process (how one behaves) and outcome (whether one exerts self-control to behave that way), and the answer to Finkel’s question: Who cares? 

    My initial inclination was to agree that if the outcome is righteous, then the process shouldn’t matter. But, actually, knowledge of the process can be quite useful. Francesca Righetti and Catrin Finkenauer published an excellent paper in JPSP last year, which demonstrated that whether we think people are capable of resistance in the face of temptation has important implications–it lets us know whether they are people we can trust.

    I might meet two people who don’t eat donuts. But if one of them says it’s because he’s never even seen a donut, well then that’s not the guy I’m going to leave alone with my box of Krispy Kreme’s. I’m going to leave them with the other guy who lives upstairs from a donut shop. In fact, if his self-control is that good, I might even trust him in other non-donut-eating domains as well. 

    So when it comes to the process, there is at least some pragmatic reason to care.

    • Roy Baumeister says:

      I hadnt thought of that, but the donut example is a great response to the Finkel point. Process matters not just for the sake of building psychological theory but for the benefit of judging people. As David Pizarro has been saying, moral judgment research usually focuses on judging actions, but people use moral judgments to judge people, because the important thing is to predict their future actions (and whether one can trust them and rely on them). I might add to the donut example by saying that we’d trust the one more than the other not just with our donuts but with other things too, because he has shown that he can resist temptation.

  8. Seth_Gitter says:

    You point to how individuals can set an environment to make their own success at self-control more likely. Fostering an environment where self-control is valued could also raise the likelihood of success among the whole community. The reverse at least seems to hold true. Research on the broken window/bad apple effect has shown disorderly behavior can be contagious; observing violations of the rules leads others to lessen self-control and engage in disorderly behavior. Inasmuch as profanity is an example of rule violation, our research (currently under review) has found that exposing people to profanity can lessen an individual’s concern for rule-following behavior and consequently self-control.

    This research also points to several cases, however, where self-control can be fostered. First, while individuals who were pro-profanity showed decreased self-control after witnessing someone swear, individuals who reported negative attitudes of profanity actually redoubled their efforts at self-control (in the form of resisting pain) in the face of the offending swearer. Encouraging virtuous attitudes may protect people from bad apples in the environment.

    The effect of personal attitudes was still susceptible to public influence, however. When faced with publicly supported swearing (profane comedy routines), even Ps who were opposed to swearing gave in to the crowd and performed more poorly at a self-control task (anagram persistence). Nevertheless, there was more evidence that self-control could be fostered. Dissenting information against the crowd (in this case, censorship of the profanity through bleeping) slightly reversed the self-control reducing effects of profanity among Ps who held negative attitudes of swearing. Therefore, individuals who stand up against and point out others failings at self-control could encourage other like-minded individuals to maintain composure and continue to exert self-control resources. The risk of this, however, is that others might view you as a self-righteous jerk.

    Finally, although less studied, the opposite of the broken window effect seems to occur: observing others engaging in virtuous or controlled behavior can foster an observer’s self-control levels. Research by Ackerman, Goldstein, Shapiro, & Bargh (2009) provides evidence for this effect. Individuals who read about another person exerting high self-control did perform better at a self-control task than others who read about a person who exerted low self-control.

    In sum, encouraging virtuous attitudes, dissenting against poorly controlled individuals, and showing off your own self-control to others may aid in serving the community at large by fostering a sense that self-control is important.  In effect, being a good model of self-control can encourage those around you to be virtuous people. So do unto others as you would have them do unto you, as you can expect virtuous treatment in return.

    • Roy Baumeister says:

      Your comment brings in another dimension. Even if one can achieve virtuous outcomes by low-effort habit instead of high-effort struggle to resist temptation, the result may benefit others. This goes back in some respect to the Finkel point about ‘who cares?’ whether the best result is achieved by struggle or by some easier process. Seeing other people constantly do the right thing (even if they do so rather easily) may help oneself do the right thing (even when some struggle is required). All of this reminds me of an insight that gave me some sympathy to the anti-pornography crusaders. I grew up during the times when censorship was diminishing fast, and sexual images were appearing with increasing frequency in the media, a development which most young men found very agreeable. There were some old fogeys and others who campaigned against this trend, and I remember thinking, why dont they just let people have what they want, they dont have to look at porn if they dont like it personally. They seemed like the ‘self-righteous jerks’ that you mention. But at one point I realized that it is harder for them to maintain their virtue and abstinence when surrounded by people who are quite visibly indulging in those pleasures. (Obviously the anti-porn campaign has pretty much failed, but that is not the point.)

      Moving on, you also bring up some fascinating findings indicating that sometimes people react to non-virtuous behavior by becoming all the more virtuous themselves. These seem mostly one-shot studies, and reacting to someone else’s habit of non-virtuous behavior might be quite different over time. But when you see someone violate an important value you hold, you might well react sometimes by upholding and adhering to the value all the more strongly, at least at first.

      An anecdotal observation by Dianne Tice is relevant here: People generally seem most bothered by and most intolerant of actions by others that do precisely what they want to do but resist. Ordinary working people for example may not be bothered by the epic decadence and debauchery of celebrities, because that is far beyond the sort of temptation they struggle with. But they get mad at colleagues who take an extra ten minutes on their lunch hour, or eat a second donut, and so forth. Or there was the finding that people who express the greatest outrage at gay sex and gay erotica are the ones who also show signs that it does turn them on, which they vehemently deny.

  9. kathleenvohs says:

    As a fellow researcher of self-control, it strikes me that the most useful thing we could teach people is which temptations they are most likely to find hard to resist. For instance, we have found in our work that people are quite bad at resisting the desire to use social media and email — and my guess is that because they don’t realize how easily they succumb to that desire, they don’t put enough muscle behind trying to resist the urge. And for each person, the temptations will differ — for some, alchol; others, shopping; stil others, food. If we could teach people which domains they personally have trouble not succumbing to their desires, then that would go a long way to teaching them virtuous habits of the form Baumeister describes. Avoiding those temptations would be the “habit” then we’d want to instill.

    • Roy Baumeister says:

      Very good point that people’s assumptions are often wrong about how effectively they will be able to resist things. This stems from not understanding which temptations are strongest, as well as from other sources, like the hot-cold empathy gap. Having some reasonably sound information could be quite helpful.

  10. SEA says:

    To add to Kathleen’s excellent point, people could also be taught what types of environmental cues trigger certain desires. Some cues are obvious—the smell of freshly baked cookies will trigger the desire to indulge if a person has a sweet tooth. Other cues may be less obvious. Perhaps a phone call from a friend who smokes is enough to trigger the ex-smoker’s desire to enjoy a cigarette. Increasing awareness of the cues that activate certain temptations would allow people to more effectively avoid temptations. It is unlikely that people are aware of all of the cues that activate temptations, but some people may be more aware of the cues than others. In the German beeper study, for example, people who were high in trait self-control may have been more effective at avoiding temptation than people low in trait self-control because they were more aware of their own desires and of the cues that activate those desires. 

    • Roy Baumeister says:

      There are several important points in your comment. One is the fact that we don’t yet know just how it is that pepole with high self-control manage to pull off their success. Better awareness of their desires, including better desire to anticipate temptation and  trouble (leading to better ability to avoid them) is a very plausible hypothesis and worth pursuing. Another point is how hard it would be to know all the idiosyncratic cues that can evoke desires and undermine self-control.

  11. Ent says:

    I have recently become more aware of the manner in which virtuous habits can lead to better self-control. While on a trip to visit friends and family, my normal habits were interrupted. Consequently, I had a very hard time regulating my alcohol and food intake. When I am home, I lead a fairly regimented life – regular mealtimes, limits on caloric intake, etc. I also eat in the same place for every meal and I don’t usually buy tempting foods at the grocery store. When I am away from home, my self-control suffers because my attempts to follow my habitual nature are often thwarted. I have noticed that others are not especially enamored with my habits. Although my habits typically aid my health, they may sometimes may make me seem obsessive or stuck-up to others. 

    • Roy Baumeister says:

      Yes, habits are partly sustained by familiar surroundings with familiar cues. Good habits can suffer when one is away. (I travel so much I have had to try to develop good habits for traveling, like making sure to work on the airplane, and trying to get a workout almost every day even when at a hotel.) There is an upside, however, which is that bad habits can be easier to break when on vacation. there are some data indicating that people are more successful at quitting smoking when they do it on vacation or on a trip, rather than at home, because they are away from all the usual cues that contribute to and sustain the smoking habit.

      • Karen Blakeley says:

        I am wondering if there is any difference between self control where the beneficiary is purely oneself (e.g. not over-eating which purely benefits the individual) or where the beneficiary is ‘society’ (e.g. stopping yourself from stealing from your organisation or community when you know you will never be found out). The first case involves some kind of reward (being slim) whereas the second case does not (possibly a feeling of self-righteousness, but in many cases this will not be experienced).  Seth’s point about how our self control is influenced by those around us is important and indicates why ‘culture’ is so important.  If you are a banker and your colleagues are all laundering money/rigging LIBOR/selling worthless bonds to clients, then the punishments for being virtuous are significant – being excluded from the group, being ridiculed, losing your bonus, losing status, losing your job (the whistleblower’s dilemma).  The rewards however are minor – that self-righteousness again. Furthermore, we know that people actually lose perspective on what is right and wrong when ‘everybody’s doing it’ (there is an interesting article involving the Ford Pinto disaster by Gioia that highlights this).  How many of us really understood the moral significance of the ‘greed’ culture of the 80’s when we were in the midst of it?  The virtue and self control of the person who sacrifices much for the sake of doing the right thing, cannot, I think be compared to the virtue and self-control of the dieter.  The former has to dig deep – morally, intellectually, spiritually and emotionally – to perform the right action and there are many whistleblowers who have done this and never benefited from their actions at all.

        • Roy Baumeister says:

          You make a profound point, and one that is too easily and frequently overlooked. Self-control is the capacity to change yourself, and it can be used for purely self-serving ends or for moral ones. There is a large gray area, and people talk about dieting as “virtuous” even though as you point out it does not really contribute much to society (and in any case people do not go on diets to make contributions to society). Many moral actions entail substanial costs to self and are never really compensated. In contrast, using self-control for your own benefit is mostly rewarded, and the benefits are often quite substantial, including more achievement and success, better relationships, and longer life. Also, crucially, the biggest reward for moral behavior is probably the benefit of living in a society among well-behaved individuals, but that makes the rewards of one’s own virtuous efforts dependent on whether other people do the same. Otherwise one is just a sucker. Thanks for great comment!

  12. kate.b says:

    Organic gardeners in northern Maine have recently been introduced to an interesting truth: the beetles which come to eat their delicate new plants will NOT attack those which are receiving the nutrition they need from their soil. It is amazing how the moral self and psyche will often reflect the factual findings of the natural material world.  Perhaps the very best way to raise children who are comfortably settled in a virtuous life-style is, to carefully contribute to and celebrate the spiritual, emotional, physical and mental soil they are drawing from – in family, school and community.Instead of fearing the excesses they might indulge in, to emphasise an appreciation of the abundance they experience. Maybe slacking off on the “waste not want not” and “the early bird gets the worm” and the Protestant work  ethic wouldn’t be such a bad thing if your temptation is to drill good habits into your children. A genuine, deep enjoyment of life is the truest sign that you love it – and won’t want to spoil it. 

  13. mickeyi says:

    I think Baumeister has discovered something really important here—that self-control can be attained not merely by Herculean feats of will, but also by situation selection. This brings to my mind two things, both related to emotion. First, this idea of situation selection is very much akin to one of the strategies that James Gross discusses in his influential model of emotion regulation; people can regulate their emotions not only by actively trying to override them, but also by selecting situations where these emotions are less likely to occur. Interestingly, Gross discusses a number of other strategies too, including reappraisal, whereby people appraise a situation in such a way that the emotion is less likely to emerge. I wonder: could something similar happen with plain-old self-control? Could individuals achieve self-control by not only suppressing or overriding their (non-virtuous) impulses, but also by reappraising a situation such that the tempting impulse is less pressing?

     Second, there is lots of research out there in the fields of cognitive and behavioral neuroscience, implicating the importance of negative emotion (specifically, transient surges of anxiety, but not necessarily full-blown emotional episodes or moods) in signaling and motivating control of one’s behavior. If we take this research seriously, this suggests that people who are sensitive and receptive (but not necessarily reactive) to the various emotions they feel, might actually have the potential to be better at self-control too. So, would “emotional intelligence” translate not only to better control of emotions, but to better control more generally? If so, does this mean that training children to recognize, identify, and accept their emotions could translate to better self-control and thus virtuous behavior?

    • Roy Baumeister says:

      The reappraisal idea is good, and this is a great addition to the discussion, because that could be another way of developing virtuous habits — by reinterpreting tempting situations as unappealing. There is some research on this, most notably in some of Walter Mischel’s work on delay of gratification: as i recall, if the children could try to visualize the treats not as sweet foods but as shapes, clouds, whatever, then they were less tempted and therefore better able to resist. There was also the finding mentioned earlier in this discussion about how some people who are most tempted by gay sex end up being the most outspoken against it, which we can see here as an attempt to reinterpret something appealing as something disgusting and offensive.

      Also, I am quite sympathetic to the idea that emotional intelligence can be an aid to self-regulation. Guilt is a great example, of course. Guilt can be a powerful influence on someone’s behavior even if that person never (or almost never) feels guilty, simply because you anticipate guilt and then avoid doing what will make you feel guilty. But for that to work, one has to have a well developed sensitivity to guilt, so that you feel and recognize the anticipatory twinge.

  14. nicolemead says:

    I am in the process of moving (again). Some people loathe it, but I welcome moving because it represents an opportunity to change – a chance to establish new habits. Which leads me to the question of whether it is easier to establish (and more important stick to) a new habit in a new environment than a new habit in one’s current or existing environment? Perhaps that is why people like to travel and why addicts go away for treatment. The trouble for addicts is when they go back to their old environment. What is the trick for getting habits to stick?

    I would like to share a recent study because I think it could be relevant to the discussion. My student and I found that high self-monitors (people who adapt and change their behavior to please others) ate less unhealthy food over the span of a week than low self-monitors (people who act in accordance with their internal desires and wishes). One could simply hypothesize that enhanced self-control among high self-monitors stemmed from a strong self-control muscle (after all, they are always changing and adapting their behavior). However, we found that this effect was only found when we gave participants an eating strategy (deprivation or postponement). So perhaps some people are particularly ready to adopt external guidelines given to them by society (or in this case curious academics)? And I wonder if the new habit changes the strength of the inner motivational conflict. 

    • Roy Baumeister says:

      To answer your question, I would hypothesize that it is easier to establish a new habit in a new environment rather than a familiar one — but sticking to a habit is easier when one is surrounded by the familiar cues that activate it. But that brings up the difficulty you raise, as in, addicts go away for treatment (there is even evidence that it’s easier to quit smoking on vacation, when away from all the usual routines that cue smoking), but the newly virtuous habits may not hold up when one goes home again. The addiction literature certainly shows plenty of that: inpatient treatments produce success at kicking the habit, but then the addict goes home and relapses.

      The new study sounds cool. It does seem that high self-monitors would pick up the new strategy better and faster than lows would. Interesting that they didnt eat better when no such strategy was given.

  15. almele says:

    Excellent article. This reminds me of Aristotle. He thought of something that is often translated as “self-control” as lying between virtue and vice. (Weakness of will lies there too, he says.  Weak-willed people are worse than average at controlling their impulses, but things aren’t hopeless for them.  Learning to stay away from tempting situations would help.) Virtuous people are never tempted to act contrary to what they judge best. They made themselves like that through a long string of past good behavior that made doing good habitual and the other stuff undesired. Vicious people have habituated themselves in the other direction.  Self-controlled people have to stuggle with temptation. With a lot of practice, they may become virtuous.  This is a rather idealized picture, but one can see in it the seeds of the kind of thing Baumeister is talking about.  And it’s nice to have empirical confirmation that Aristotle was on the right track about this.

  16. ntadepalli says:

    I have a layman`s opinion on the subject. I view brain as populated with identically conditioned neurons with social behaviour aided by brain chemicals.Thought is a social behaviour of neurons which can have any bias. Positive bias is pro-active and is willpower.Negative bias is inhibitive and is self-control Building self-control(avoiding activity) is simpler than building willpower as people are naturally lazy.

  17. diannetice says:

      There is some question, here in this discussion and among other philosophical debates, about whether good behavior that is habitual and doesn’t take much effort is as virtuous as good behavior that we struggle to achieve. While that question may continue to be debated, I think an important point that Baumeister makes is that it often takes considerable effort to develop the good habits in the first place, and the behavior only becomes easier and less effortful after an initial and often difficult period of virtuous striving. Thus, I don’t think we should discount habitual good behavior as less virtuous than good behavior that is difficult to achieve, because the effort that was put into the initial habit development should be recognized as virtuous.