More than resisting temptation: Beneficial habits mediate the relationship between self-control and positive life outcomes

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2015 Sep;109(3):508-25. doi: 10.1037/pspp0000026. Epub 2015 Feb 2.


Why does self-control predict such a wide array of positive life outcomes? Conventional wisdom holds that self-control is used to effortfully inhibit maladaptive impulses, yet this view conflicts with emerging evidence that self-control is associated with less inhibition in daily life. We propose that one of the reasons individuals with better self-control use less effortful inhibition, yet make better progress on their goals is that they rely on beneficial habits. Across 6 studies (total N = 2,274), we found support for this hypothesis. In Study 1, habits for eating healthy snacks, exercising, and getting consistent sleep mediated the effect of self-control on both increased automaticity and lower reported effortful inhibition in enacting those behaviors. In Studies 2 and 3, study habits mediated the effect of self-control on reduced motivational interference during a work-leisure conflict and on greater ability to study even under difficult circumstances. In Study 4, homework habits mediated the effect of self-control on classroom engagement and homework completion. Study 5 was a prospective longitudinal study of teenage youth who participated in a 5-day meditation retreat. Better self-control before the retreat predicted stronger meditation habits 3 months after the retreat, and habits mediated the effect of self-control on successfully accomplishing meditation practice goals. Finally, in Study 6, study habits mediated the effect of self-control on homework completion and 2 objectively measured long-term academic outcomes: grade point average and first-year college persistence. Collectively, these results suggest that beneficial habits-perhaps more so than effortful inhibition-are an important factor linking self-control with positive life outcomes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Achievement*
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Goals*
  • Habits*
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological*
  • Male
  • Meditation / psychology*
  • Self-Control / psychology*
  • Young Adult