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It’s the thought that counts: Trait self-control is positively associated with well-being and coping via thought control ability

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In the present study, we reason that the ability to keep unwanted thoughts and intrusions at bay – thought control ability – might explain part of the relationship between trait self-control and positive psychological outcomes. We predict that the ability to keep unwanted thoughts at bay causes people high in trait self-control to report higher subjective well-being (Study 1), and makes them to be more likely to cope with stressful life events in an adaptive rather than maladaptive manner (Study 2). Two cross-sectional studies among healthy individuals were conducted (Study 1 n = 284; 70% female; Mage = 22.15 years; Study 2 n = 210, 65.7% female, Mage = 28.07) in which trait self-control, thought control ability, subjective well-being (study 1), and coping styles (study 2) were measured. Additionally, we investigated the mediating role of thought control ability and the conditional effect of gender on this mediation. The results of Study 1 indicate that trait self-control is positively related to subjective well-being. Moreover, thought control ability fully mediated the relationship between trait self-control and subjective well-being, and this effect was particularly strong for women. In Study 2, trait self-control was positively associated with adaptive forms of coping, but negatively with maladaptive coping. Moreover, thought control ability partially mediated the relationship between trait self-control and both types of coping, with stronger results for women than for men. These results suggest that trait self-control affects positive life outcomes in part through an ability to keep unwanted thoughts at bay, thereby facilitating a focus on goal pursuit.
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Its the thought that counts: Trait self-control is positively associated
with well-being and coping via thought control ability
Karlijn Massar
1
&Pavla Bělostíková
1,2
&Xincheng Sui
1
#The Author(s) 2020
Abstract
In the present study, we reason that the ability to keep unwanted thoughts and intrusions at bay thought control ability might
explain partof the relationship between trait self-control and positive psychological outcomes. We predict that the ability to keep
unwanted thoughts at bay causes people high in trait self-control to report higher subjective well-being (Study 1), and makes them
to be more likely to cope with stressful life events in an adaptive rather than maladaptive manner (Study 2). Two cross-sectional
studies among healthy individuals were conducted (Study 1 n= 284; 70% female; M
age
= 22.15 years; Study 2 n=210,65.7%
female, M
age
= 28.07) in which trait self-control, thought control ability, subjective well-being (study 1), and coping styles (study
2) were measured. Additionally, we investigated the mediating role of thought control ability and the conditional effect of gender
on this mediation. The results of Study 1 indicate that trait self-control is positively related to subjective well-being. Moreover,
thought control ability fully mediated the relationship between trait self-control and subjective well-being, and this effect was
particularly strong for women. In Study 2, trait self-control was positively associated with adaptive forms of coping, but
negatively with maladaptive coping. Moreover, thought control ability partially mediated the relationship between trait self-
control and both types of coping, with stronger results for women than for men. These results suggest that trait self-control affects
positive life outcomes in part through an ability to keep unwanted thoughts at bay, thereby facilitating a focus on goal pursuit.
Keywords Trait self-control .Subjective well-being .Coping strategies .Thought control ability .Mediation
The benefits of the ability to exert self-control have been am-
ply described in the psychological literature: High trait self-
control is associated with academic success (Duckworth and
Carlson 2013), better interpersonal relationships (De Ridder
et al. 2012), and more healthy behaviors (Moffitt et al. 2011).
Self-control is defined as [] the ability to override or
change ones inner responses, as well as to interrupt undesired
behavioraltendencies (such as impulses) and refrain from act-
ing on them(Hofmann et al. 2014, p.1). In most cases, this
ability is conceptualized as an effortful and conscious
inhibitory process. However, recently Gillebaart and De
Ridder (2015) proposed the notion of effortless self-control,
that is, an almost automatic ability of strategically avoiding
temptations and developing adaptive routines, which in turn
facilitates the initiation of goal pursuit (see also De Ridder and
Gillebaart 2017). Indeed, people with high levels of trait self-
control report fewer temptations in their immediate environ-
ments (Hofmann et al. 2012), less subjective evaluative re-
sponse conflicts over fooditems (Gillebaart et al. 2016), more
beneficial habits (Galla and Duckworth 2015), and avoid
rather than resist distractions (Ent et al. 2015).
In addition to sustaining a focus on onesgoalpursuitsand
to avoid temptations, distractions, or impulses, the benefits of
high levels of trait self-control have also been established for
other favorable life outcomes. For example, individuals high
in trait self-control have higher self-acceptance, see them-
selves as valuable and worthy, and are able to maintain this
favorable view of themselves across time and circumstances
(Tangney et al. 2004). Further, trait self-control is associated
with personality traits like conscientiousness, agreeableness,
and emotional stability (Layton and Muraven 2014), which in
turn have been associated with objective and subjective life
successes, as well as well-being (e.g. Duckworth et al. 2012).
High trait self-control also facilitates a healthier life:
Possessing higher levels of trait self-control contributes to
achieving positive behavioral outcomes as well as avoiding
*Karlijn Massar
Karlijn.massar@maastrichtuniversity.nl
1
Department of Work & Social Psychology, Faculty of Psychology &
Neuroscience, Maastricht University, PO Box 616, 6200, MD
Maastricht, The Netherlands
2
Positive Storm Coaching, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-020-00746-9
Published online: 28 April 2020
Current Psychology (2022) 41:2372–2381
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved.
negative behavioral outcomes (De Ridder et al. 2012), and in
line with Gillebaart and De Ridders(2015) reasoning, this
effect was more pronounced for automatic or habitual behav-
iors rather than conscious behaviors.
Several explanatory variables for the relationship between
self-control and positive life outcomes have been put forward.
For example, the ability to (automatically) avoid conflicts be-
tween immediate gratification of temptations and goal pursuit
seems to be a mediator (Gillebaart et al. 2016). Additionally,
individuals with high trait self-control seem to be focused on
positive rather than negative outcomes (or stimuli), which in
turn leads to higher levels of happiness. For example, Cheung
et al. (2014) found that regulatory focus mediated the relation-
ship between trait self-control and happiness, such that indi-
viduals with high self-control were more promotion oriented
(i.e., not missing opportunities) and less prevention oriented
(i.e., avoiding mistakes) while pursuing their goals. This focus
on positive rather than negative stimuli was also shown in a
study which utilized eye gaze patterns as a measure of atten-
tional bias (Kelley et al. 2014), and which showed that indi-
viduals with high trait self-control attended more to positive
rather than negative images, even when reminded of their
personal mortality.
Here, we posit that one additional variable which might
explain why individuals with high trait self-control are gener-
ally more satisfied with their lives, is their (perceived) ability
to control unwanted or distracting thoughts; also termed
thought control ability (see Luciano et al. 2005). Thought
control ability is the perception that one is able to effortlessly
prevent unwanted thoughts that may subsequently interfere
with other cognitive processes from entering consciousness.
Such unwanted thoughts, or intrusions, are experienced by
over 90% of individuals in the normal, nonclinical population
(Radomsky et al. 2014). They interrupt onesnormalflowof
thoughts, interfere with task performance, and are associated
with negative affect (Clark and Rhyno 2005). Several cogni-
tive strategies can be employed to gain thought control, such
as suppression, the effortful attempt to inhibit certain thoughts,
although ironically this often results in their hyper-
accessibility (i.e., rebound effects; Wegner et al. 1987).
Importantly, ones thoughts do not always have to be negative
to interfere with well-being, as positive unwanted thoughts
may also not always be helpful to ones cognitive processes.
For example, Killingsworth and Gilbert (2010)reportonan
experience-sampling study among 2250 adults which showed
that people were most happy when they were focusing on their
activities rather than letting their mind wander, even if they
were mind-wandering about positive things (see also Kane
et al. 2007).
Moreover, an inability to control the occurrence and con-
tent of ones thoughts is a component of many psychopatho-
logical disorders (American Psychiatric Association 2013),
and lower levels of perceived thought control ability are
predictive of a range of psychopathological symptoms
(Höping and De Jong-Meyer 2003; Peterson et al. 2009). It
has been suggested that deficits in thought control ability
might also be an expression of low self-control (Baumeister
et al. 2007), since akin to trait self-control, the ability to keep
intrusions at bay allows one to focus on goal attainment and
productive activities. Conversely, the susceptibility to be dis-
tracted by task-irrelevant thoughts has been associated with
impulsivity and a lack of self-control (Gay et al. 2011), as well
as with a lack of perseverance and procrastination (Rebetez
et al. 2018).
To sum up, there is by now considerable research which
connects trait self-control to positive psychological function-
ing such as subjective well-being, and it has been suggested
that individuals with high trait self-control are characterized
by the [] ability to override or change onesinner
responses(see Hofmann et al. 2014,p.1)including
thoughts. In line with this, we argue that the ability to control
ones thoughts, and thereby preventing unwanted intrusions
from interfering with ones goal pursuits, is likely to be part of
this ability. Supporting this assumption is the finding that the
ability to control intrusive thoughts is positively associated
with well-being, and negatively with an array of psychopath-
ological symptoms (e.g. Höping and De Jong-Meyer 2003;
Luciano et al. 2005; Peterson et al. 2009). In the current re-
search, we therefore hypothesize that thought control ability
functions as a mediator in the relationship between trait self-
control and positive life outcomes, explaining (part of) the
relationship between these variables. To measure perceived
thought control ability, the Thought Control Ability
Questionnaire (TCAQ; Luciano et al. 2005)willbeusedin
the current research. A recent systematic review (Feliu-Soler
et al. 2019) revealed that this measure has been satisfactorily
used in a variety of populations including individuals from
the general populations and patients with PTSD or clinical
depression and that the instrument has adequate dimension-
ality, reliability, and construct validity.
Study 1
In our first study, we will investigate the mediating role of
thought control ability in the relationship between trait self-
control and subjective well-being, the latter operationalized as
life satisfaction and momentary affect. Life satisfaction is con-
sidered to be the cognitive component of subjective well-be-
ing, and constitutes an appraisal of ones overall quality of life
(Diener et al. 1999), whereas momentary affect is the emo-
tional component of subjective well-being. Given the central-
ity of cognition in both life satisfaction and thought control
ability, we expect that the mediation effect should be stronger
for life satisfaction than for momentary affect. Additionally,
we will explicitly investigate whether there is a gender
2373Curr Psychol (2022) 41:2372–2381
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difference in the hypothesized associations, since the literature
indicates that women are more likely to ruminate (e.g.
Johnson and Whisman 2013), and that men are better able to
control their thoughts (Peterson et al. 2009). One might there-
fore expect that the mediation of thought control ability be-
tween trait self-controland subjective well-being is condition-
al on participantsgender.
Method
Participants
Participants were 284 adults (n= 199 female; n= 85 male;
M
age
= 22.15 years, SD = 2.78; age range 1830), recruited
via social media and the undergraduate student participant
pool. Participation was voluntary; reward consisted of partial
course credit (for students) and raffled gift tokens.
Nationalities of the participants were Dutch (29.6%),
German (27.5%), Czech (20.4%), and other (22.5%).
Approval for materials and procedures used in the study was
obtained from Ethics Research Committee of Psychology and
Neuroscience at Maastricht University (ECP04-09-2012-01),
and informed consent was obtained from all participants.
Materials and Procedure
Upon entering the online survey, participants were informed
about the general aims of the study, provided informed con-
sent, and provided demographic information. Then, they first
completed the 13-item Trait Self-Control Scale (Tangney et al.
2004). On a scale ranging from 1 (not at all like me)to5(very
much like me) participants indicated the applicability of state-
ments that measure individual differencesof self-control, such
as I am good at resisting temptation;α=.80.
Next, they continued with the 25-item Thought Control
Ability Questionnaire (Luciano et al. 2005), that measures
individual differences in the ability to control unwanted, in-
trusive thoughts. Participants indicated their agreement with
the statements on a response scale ranging from 1 (strongly
disagree)to5(strongly agree). An example item is Iam
usually successful when I decide not to think about some-
thing;α= .89. We used sum scores (range 25125) in all
analyses.
Participantsaffective well-being was assessed using the
Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS; Watson
et al. 1988). Individuals were asked to assess ten positive
emotions (interested, excited, determined, attentive, enthusi-
astic, proud, alert, inspired, active, strong) and ten negative
emotions (irritable, guilty, jittery, hostile,distressed, ashamed,
upset, nervous, scared, afraid) they were experiencing in the
current moment. Answers were provided on a scale ranging
from 1 (not at all)to5(very much); α=.88forpositiveaffect,
and α= .89 for negative affect. To facilitate analyses and in
line with Fredrickson and Losada (2005), we used the ratio of
positive to negative emotions as a measure of momentary
affect.
In the final measure of the study, participants completed the
five-item Satisfaction With Life Scale (Diener et al. 1985).
Participants indicated their agreement with the statements on
a scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree)to7(strongly
agree). An example is In most ways my lifeis close to ideal;
α=.87.
After completing all measures, participants were thanked
for their participation and fully debriefed about the studysaim
and hypotheses. The data and survey instrument for this study
can be found on: https://osf.io/pfm8h/.
1
Results
Correlations and T-Tests
Correlation analyses (see Table 1) indicated that as expected,
both trait self-control and thought control ability were posi-
tively associated with life satisfaction and momentary affect.
Specifically, we found medium to strong correlations for
thought control ability (r= .40 and r= .40), and small to me-
dium correlations for trait self-control (r= .16 and r=.23).
Since gender was also associated with thought control ability
(r=.27), independent sample t-tests were performed for all
variables.These showed that men and women did not differ in
their levels of trait self-control, life satisfaction, or momentary
affect (ts(282) < 1.19). However, men scored significantly
higher (M= 80.36, SD = 12.24) than women (M= 72.70,
SD = 12.84) on thought control ability: t(282) = 4.67,
p< .001. Therefore, we decided to also investigate the role
of gender in our subsequent analyses.
Simple Mediation
Next, we conducted bootstrapped conditional mediation anal-
yses (using the PROCESS macro, Model 4; Hayes 2013), with
asymmetric 95% confidence intervals that were based on 5000
bootstraps for indirect effects. All variables were standardized.
Thought control ability was included as the mediator variable,
and life satisfaction and momentary affect were included as
outcome variables.
These analyses indicated that the relationship between trait
self-control and life satisfaction was fully mediated by thought
control ability (total indirect effect: β=.10,SE =.03,95%CI
[0.05, 0.16], R
2
=.02, F(1,282) = 6.90, p< .01), such that the
total effect (β= .15, t(282) = 2.63, p< .01) became non-
1
This project will be made public once the manuscript has been accepted for
publication.
2374 Curr Psychol (2022) 41:2372–2381
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significant when the indirect effect was added (direct effect:
β=.06,t(282) = 1.05, ns). Further, thought control ability par-
tially mediated the relationship between trait self-control and
momentary affect (total indirect effect: β=.09,SE =.03,95%
CI [0.05, 0.16], R
2
= .05, F(1,282) = 16.19, p< .001), such
that the total effect (β=.23,t(282) = 4.02, p<.001) was re-
duced when the indirect effect was added (direct effect:
β=.14,t(282) = 2.56, p<.05).
Conditional Process Modeling
Given the significant differences in thought control ability
between men and women, we also investigated whether par-
ticipant sex moderated the relationship between trait self-
control and thought control ability (path a), or the relationship
between thought control ability and life satisfaction/
momentary affect (path b) using PROCESS model 58
(Hayes 2013).
For life satisfaction, this analysis revealed that there was a
marginal effect of gender as a moderator on path a (trait self-
control thought control ability), β=.21,SE =.12,p=.06,
but not for path b (thought control ability life satisfaction),
β=.02, SE =.13,ns. The analysis of the moderation effect
indicated that the relationship between trait self-control and
thought control ability was not significant for men (β=.05,
SE =.05, 95% CI [.04, .17], but that it was significant for
women (β=.14,SE = .04, 95% CI [.08, .22]. Further, in line
with the marginal significance of the interaction, the Index of
Moderated Mediation was not significant (β=.09, SE =.06,
95% CI [.05, .21].
For momentary affect, we found no indication for condi-
tional mediation; gender did not moderate path a(trait self-
control thought control ability), β=.21,SE =.12,p=.10,
or path b(thought control ability momentary affect), β=
.11, SE =.12, ns. However, the analysis of the moderation
effect of path aindicated that the relationship between trait
self-control and thought control ability was not significant for
men (β= .06, SE = .06, 95% CI [.05, .18]; but there was
significant mediation for women (β=.12, SE =.03,95% CI
[.07, .20]. Again, the Index of Moderated Mediation was not
significant (β=.
06, SE = .07, 95% CI [.07, .20]. Thus, al-
though these effects failed to reach full statistical significance,
there are indications that the mediation effect of thought con-
trol ability in the association between trait self-control and
well-being differs for men and women.
Discussion
The results from Study 1 indicate that ones ability to keep
unwanted thoughts at bay might in part explain why individ-
uals specifically, women with high trait self-control report
higher subjective well-being. It has been firmly established in
the literature that intrusions, mind wandering, and rumination
negatively affect well-being, and in this study we provide
some preliminary evidence that being able to control such
involuntary cognitions is positively associated with subjective
well-being. These results are consistent with previous research
that established the positive relationship between trait self-
control and psychological well-being (Hofmann et al. 2014;
Cheung et al. 2014). Moreover, these results are in line with
research by Gay et al. (2011) who showed that negative ur-
gency and a lack of perseverance two aspects of impulsivity
traditionally equated with lower self-control were negatively
associated with the ability to control ones thoughts. Our study
suggests that the ability to effortlessly control onesthoughts
provides part of the explanation why (female) individuals with
higher trait self-control also report higher subjective well-
being.
In addition to subjective well-being, trait self-control is
associated with other positive psychological outcomes, such
as an increased ability to effectively cope with stressful situa-
tions (Galla and Wood 2015). In Study 2 our main aim is
therefore to extend the findings of Study 1, and to investigate
the mediating role of thought control ability in the relationship
between trait self-control and another positive life outcome,
specifically, adaptive coping strategies.
Study 2
Coping is defined as a variety of [] conscious volitional
efforts to regulate emotion, cognition, behavior, physiology,
and the environment in response to stressful events or circum-
stances(Compas et al. 2001, p. 89). As implied by this def-
inition, coping may be seen as a reflective process which is
dependent on self-control resources, such that increased self-
control is associated with more adaptive forms of coping, such
as problem-focused coping and reappraisal (e.g. Galla and
Wood 2015). Indeed, several studies show that individuals
with high levels of trait self-control engage in more adaptive
(or positive) forms of coping, and that those with lower levels
of self-control are more likely to engage in maladaptive forms
Table 1 Descriptive statistics and intercorrelations for all measures
included in Study 1 (n = 284)
Vari ab le MSD12 34
1. Trait Self-control 2.94 .56
2. Thought Control Ability 74.99 13.12 .25**
3. Life Satisfaction 4.98 1.17 .16* .40**
4. Momentary affect 1.86 .79 .23** .40** .29**
5. Gender ––.07 .27** .06 .04
Gender coded 1(male), 2(female); *p< .01; **p<.001
2375Curr Psychol (2022) 41:2372–2381
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved.
of coping (e.g. Boals et al. 2011; Englert et al. 2011). Adaptive
coping generally brings about more enduring changes or so-
lutions in dealing with (the cause of) the problem or the stress-
or, whereas maladaptive coping strategies focus on immediate
relief fromthe negative feelings that arise as a consequence of
the stressor, but do not necessarily address the cause of the
stress (Lazarus and Folkman 1984).
Although the research on thought control ability and
coping strategies is scarce, Peterson et al. (2009)havesug-
gested that individualsbelief in their ability to control their
thoughts in itself represents a form of psychological coping
with stressors: In their study, negative psychological symp-
toms were predicted by individualsperceived thought control
ability, over and beyond the variance explained by experi-
enced stress. There are also more indirect indications that less
effective thought control ability is associated with less adap-
tive forms of coping such as worrying or punishment, in the
context of psychological trauma (e.g. Valdez and Lilly 2012),
and that being unable to stop intrusive thinking (rumination) is
associated with subsequent poor problem-solving abilities
(Lyubomirsky et al. 1999). We therefore expect that the pos-
itive associations between trait self-control and coping strate-
gies may be (in part) explained by individualsperceived abil-
ity to keep unwanted thoughts from distracting them, allowing
for more enduring responses to daily stressors, and a de-
creased likelihood of choosing maladaptive coping strategies
such as substance abuse. In Study 2, we again take partici-
pantsgender into account, especially given the findings of
Study 1.
Method
Participants
Participants were 210 adults (n= 138 female; n= 72 male;
M
age
= 28.07 years, SD = 9.99; age range 1868). They were
recruited via social media or the undergraduate student partic-
ipant pool (n= 141), as well as via AmazonsMTurk(n=69).
Participation was voluntary; reward consisted of partial course
credit (for students) or payment (for Mturkers). Nationalities
of the participants were German (33.8%), American (32.9%),
Dutch (13.8%), and other (19.5%). Approval for materials and
procedures used in the study was obtained from Ethics
Research Committee of Psychology and Neuroscience at
Maastricht University (ECP04-09-2012-02), and informed
consent was obtained from all participants.
Materials and Procedure
Similar to the method used in Study 1, upon entering
the online survey participants were informed about the
general aims of the study, provided informed consent,
and provided demographic information. Then, they com-
pleted the 13-item Trait Self-Control Scale (Cronbachs
α= .87; Tangney et al. 2004) and the 25-item Thought
Control Ability Questionnaire (Cronbachsα=.94;
Luciano et al. 2005).
Next, participants completed the brief COPE (Carver
1997). This scale has 14 subscales, each consisting of 2
items. Participants were asked to indicate how they usu-
ally dealt with (stressful) events in their lives. They
couldanswerona4-pointscale:1=I havent been doing
this at all,2=Ive been doing this a little bit,3=Ive
been doing this a medium amount,4=Ive been doing
this a lot. Sample items for the 14 Brief COPE scales
are as follows: (1) Active coping: Ive been concentrat-
ing my efforts on doing something about the situation
Imin; (2) Planning: Ive been thinking hard about
what steps to take; (3) Use of emotional support:
Ive been getting emotional support from others;(4)
Use of instrumental support: Ive been getting help and
advice from other people; (5) Positive reframing: Ive
been trying to see it in a different light, to make it seem
more positive; (6) Acceptance: Ive been accepting the
reality of the fact that it has happened; (7) Religion:
Ive been trying to find comfort in my religion or spir-
itual beliefs;(8)Humor:Ive been making jokes about
it;(9) Venting: Ive been expressing my negative feel-
ings; (10) Denial: Ive been saying to myself this
isntreal’” ; (11) Substance use: Ive been using alco-
hol or other drugs to help me get through it;(12)
Behavioral disengagement: Ive been giving up trying
to deal with it; (13) Self-distraction: Ive been turning
to work or other activities to take my mind off things;
and (14) Self-blame: Ive been blaming myself for
things that happened.. In general, scales 1 through 8
can be regarded as adaptive coping, whereas scales 9
through 14 consist of more maladaptive coping strate-
gies. However, in the current study, factor analysis indi-
cated a 4-factor solution fit the data better: We called
factor 1 maladaptive coping (behavioral disengagement,
self-blame, substance use, and denial; Cronbachs
α= .65), factor 2 social coping (instrumental support,
emotional support, venting; Cronbachsα= .72), factor
3problem-solving (planning, active coping, positive
reframing, acceptance; Cronbachsα= .74), and factor
4positive distraction (humor, self-distraction; r= .31).
Religious coping was left out of consideration given
the low factor loadings (all < .36).
After completing all measures, participants were thanked
for their participation and fully debriefed about the studysaim
and hypotheses. MTurk workers subsequently received pay-
ment, and students received partial course credit. The data and
survey instrument for this study can be found on: https://osf.
io/pfm8h/.
2376 Curr Psychol (2022) 41:2372–2381
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved.
Results
Correlations and T-Tests
Correlation analyses (see Table 2) indicated that trait self-
control and thought control ability were positively associated
with problem solving, and negatively with maladaptive cop-
ing. Specifically, we found medium to strong negative corre-
lations for trait self-control (r = .38 and r = .41) as well as
thought control ability (r= .42 and r=.56). However, there
were no significant associations with positive distraction or
social coping for either self-control or thought control ability
(rs < .13). Given the absence of associations between our
independent variables and these latter coping variables, we
decided to leave them out of further consideration. Next, t-
tests were used to investigate gender differences for both in-
dependent and both dependent variables. These analyses
showed that men and women did not differ in trait self-
control and maladaptive coping (ts<.96). However, men
scored significantly higher than women on thought control
ability [men M= 82.96, SD = 16.43, women M= 73.42,
SD = 18.86; t(208) = 3.63, p< .001] and problem solving
[men M= 2.99, SD =.52, women M= 2.81, SD =.57; t
(208) = 2.28, p<.05].
Simple Mediation
Next, we conducted bootstrapped conditional mediation anal-
yses (using the PROCESS macro, model 4; Hayes 2013), with
asymmetric 95% confidence intervals that were based on 5000
bootstraps for indirect effects. All variables were standardized.
Thought control ability was included as the mediator variable,
and maladaptive coping and problem solving were included as
outcome variables.
These analyses indicated that the relationship between trait
self-control and maladaptive coping was partially mediated by
thought control ability (total indirect effect: β=.22,
SE = .04, 95% CI [0.31, 0.15], R
2
=.17, F(1,207) = 40.94,
p< .001), such that the total effect (β=.41, t(207) = 6.40,
p< .001) was reduced when the indirect effect was added
(direct effect: β=.18, t(207) = 2.84, p< .01). Further,
thought control ability also partially mediated the relationship
between trait self-control and problem solving (total indirect
effect: β=.14, SE = .04, 95% CI [0.07, 0.23], R
2
= .15,
F(1,208) = 35.37, p< .001), such that the total effect
(β=.38,t(208) = 5.95, p< .001) was reduced when the indi-
rect effect was added (direct effect: β= .24, t(208) = 3.41,
p<.001).
Conditional Process Modeling
Given the gender differences in thought control ability
and problem solving, as well as the results from Study
1, we again tested for conditional mediation (using
PROCESS model 58, 95% CI and 5000 bootstraps;
Hayes 2013). These analyses revealed that, similar to
the findings of Study 1, for maladaptive coping,this
analysis revealed a marginally significant effect for the
moderation of gender on path a (trait self-control
thought control ability), β=.23, SE =.12, p=.06, but
not for path b (thought control ability maladaptive
coping), β=.11, SE =.13, ns. The analysis of the mar-
ginal moderation effect indicated that the relationship
between trait self-control and thought control ability
was significant for both men (β=.18, SE =.06, 95%
CI [.31, .07], and women (β=.25, SE = .05, 95%
CI [.36, .16] but that the effects were stronger for
women. The Index of Moderated Mediation was not
significant (β=.07, SE = .08, 95% CI [.22, .08].
For problem solving, we again found that gender moderat-
ed path a(trait self-control thought control ability), β=.23,
SE = .13, p< .05, but not path b(thought control ability
problem solving), β=.21, SE =.14, ns. The analysis of the
moderation effect indicated that the relationship between trait
self-control and thought control ability was not significant for
men (β=.04, SE =.04, 95% CI [.014, .14]; but it was for
women (β=.19, SE =.06, 95% CI [.09, .31]. The Index of
Moderated Mediation was significant (β=.
15,SE =.06,95%
CI [.026, .28].
Table 2 Descriptive statistics and
intercorrelations for all measures
included in Study 2 (n = 210)
Vari ab le MSD123456
1. Trait Self-control 3.22 .72
2. Thought Control Ability 76.69 18.59 .47***
3. Maladaptive Coping 1.66 .52 .41*** .56***
4. Problem solving 2.87 .56 .38*** .42*** .24***
5. Social coping 2.55 .64 .11 .05 .06 .22**
6. Positive distraction 2.56 .67 .13 .07 .02 .29*** .05
7. Gender ––.03 .24*** .07 .16* .21** .004
Gender coded 1(male), 2(female); *p<.05;**p<.01;***p< .001
2377Curr Psychol (2022) 41:2372–2381
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved.
Discussion
In Study 2, we extended our findings of Study 1 by showing
that the perceived ability to control onesthoughtspartially
mediates the relationship between trait self-control and coping
strategies, and in particular for women. However, the results
were weaker than those found in Study 1, and we found only
partial mediation effects. This suggests that although control-
ling ones thoughts helps individuals in dealing more effec-
tively with stressful situations as well as less ineffectively
trait self-control remains directly predictive of coping strate-
gies. Indeed, the lack of full mediation might be explained by
a suggestion forwarded by Hofmann et al. (2012). These au-
thors concluded that one of the main benefits of trait self-
control might be the ability to avoid problematic situations
or stress i.e. anticipatory coping rather than controlling
ones thoughts, emotions, or behaviors once such stressors are
encountered. The current results also fit in with reasoning
about thought control ability being a coping strategy in and
of itself (e.g. Gaudreau and Blondin 2002; although these
authors defined thought control as emphasizing positive as-
pects of the self and of past, actual, and future stressful sport
situations,p.7).
Interestingly, in the current study, the indirect effect for
maladaptive coping strategies was stronger (β=.22) than
that for problem solving (β= .14), suggesting that being able
to effectively control ones thoughts could benefit individuals
especially in the context of less constructive coping strategies
such as self-blame or substance use. Similar to the suggestion
made by Boals et al. (2011), lower self-control combined with
a perceived inability to avoid intrusive thoughts might thus be
indicators of individualstendency to engage in less healthy
coping strategies. These associations become especially rele-
vant if one is trying to pursue (cognitive) goals in the context
of e.g. substance abuse or dieting, since it has also been
established that rumination is predictive of choosing maladap-
tive distraction strategies, such as substance abuse or binge
eating, especially among women (e.g. Nolen-Hoeksema
et al. 2007).
General Discussion
The aim of the current research was to investigate whether indi-
vidualsperceived ability to control their thoughts could be one
of the possible mediating variables in the relationship between
trait self-control and positive psychological outcomes specifi-
cally, subjective well-being and coping. The results from both
studies indicate that indeed, the ability to keep intrusive thoughts
from distracting goal pursuit or a focus on meaningful activities
partially explains why individuals with high self-control report
higher well-being and more adaptive coping strategies.
Moreover, we found a consistent gender difference, such that
these mediating relationships are present mainly for women, sug-
gesting that for men, the ability to control ones thoughts doesnt
necessarily influence the relationship between trait self-control
and positive psychological outcomes.
Our results fit in with recent reasoning about effortless self-
control (e.g. Gillebaart and De Ridder 2015) and the role of
habits in explaining the link between self-control and (health)
behaviors: [] self-control may be particularly related to the
forming of adaptive routines or habits rather than the ability to
control oneself in specific situations(Adriaanse et al. 2014,
p.1). Based on our results that thought control is a significant
mediator, we would like to extend this reasoning by also in-
cluding the ability to effortlessly control ones thinking pat-
terns and especially the ability to keep unwanted,
distracting, or negative thoughts from disrupting onescurrent
goals as part of the reason why individuals with high trait
self-control report more positive outcomes in life.
Interestingly, Adriaanse et al. (2014) also report that self-
control mainly operates through the avoidance of maladaptive
habitual behaviors, rather than the creation of adaptive habits.
Here, we report a similar trend: The effect of thought control
ability on the use of maladaptive coping strategies was stron-
ger than the effect on adaptive coping strategies.
Implications and Limitations
All in all, the findings of the current research are promising
and extend the literature on trait self-control and positive psy-
chological functioning. Moreover, the findings offer some im-
plications for practice. Specifically, our findings suggest that
intervention programs aimed at increasing self-control with
the goal of increasing psychological functioning should also
incorporate a focus on thought control ability. One way to
achieve increased thought control ability could be by includ-
ing components of meditation practice or mindfulness train-
ing. After all, the main focus of meditation practice is not
about controlling which thoughts arise, but about whether
one pays attention to these thoughts (Friese et al. 2012).
Further, research has shown that meditation or mindfulness
training can reduce reactivity to repetitive thinking (Feldman
et al. 2010), and that increased meditation experience is pos-
itively associated with perceived thought control ability,
whichinturnisassociatedwith well-being (Gootjes and
Rassin 2014). Given the often counter-productive and nega-
tive effects of thought suppression (not thinking about a cer-
tain thought), which ironically may cause hyper-accessibility
the suppressed thoughts (Wegner et al. 1987), achieving more
effective thought control strategies is important; especially for
vulnerable individuals such as trauma victims or those suffer-
ing from emotional disorders (e.g. Purdon 1999).
There are some limitations to the current research which
have to be noted. First, the research reported here is cross-
sectional, which does not allow for causal conclusions.
2378 Curr Psychol (2022) 41:2372–2381
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved.
Although we suggest that higher self-control increases
thought control ability, which in turn increases positive psy-
chological outcomes (for women, in particular), future exper-
imental or longitudinal studies need to establish whether this
is indeed a causal chain of effects. Moreover, we found some
interesting gender differences, and future research could focus
on determining the underlying if any mechanisms between
trait self-control and positive psychological outcomes for
men, since our mediation effects were mainly present for
women. Since rumination and depression occurs more fre-
quently among women than among men (Johnson and
Whisman 2013), and men scored higher than women on
thought control ability in the current research, it could be that
for men, other variables than thought control ability might
explain how trait self-control positively influences well-being.
Examples of such mediating variables could be a sense of
personal agency, or control, over the direction oneslifeis
taking (i.e. self-efficacy; Bandura 1992), or a higher general
self-esteem (see e.g., Moksnes and Espnes 2012).
Another limitation is the conceptual overlap between trait
self-control and thought control ability, since both constructs
center on a sense of control. However, the bivariate correla-
tions suggest that although some variance is shared between
these variables (r= .25 in Study 1, and r= .47 in study 2),
there is also a considerable amount of variance that is not
explained by the overlap between these variables, suggesting
that these are related but separate constructs.
Conclusion
While increasing evidence shows that trait self-control is as-
sociated with a number of positive life outcomes, the under-
standing of the processes underlying these associations still
needs to be enhanced. Our study demonstrated that the ability
to control ones thinking patterns may be one of the possible
mechanisms through which people, especially women, with
high trait self-control experience positive psychological func-
tioning, such as subjective well-being and coping. These re-
sults provide starting points for intervention programs that aim
at increasing psychological functioning, by suggesting that a
focus on thought control ability could be incorporated. Such
thought control training may be helpful to keep unwanted,
distracting, or repetitive negative and positive thoughts from
disrupting ones current goal pursuits, and thereby promote
healthy psychological functioning.
Code Availability not applicable.
AuthorsContributions KM and PB contributed to the conception and
design of the study; PB contributed to data collection; KM, PB, and XS
performed the statistical analysis; KM wrote the first draft of the manu-
script; PB and XS wrote sections of the manuscript. All authors contrib-
uted to manuscript revision, read and approved the submitted version.
Data Availability Upon acceptance of this manuscript, all materials and
data will be made publicly accessible via the Open Science Framework;
https://osf.io/pfm8h/
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflicts of Interest/Competing Interests The authors declare no com-
peting interests.
Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adap-
tation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as
you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, pro-
vide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were
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statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain
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... With the emergence of positive psychology, subjective well-being has become a representative indicator of an individual's adaptation to their life. Recently, the association between self-control and subjective well-being has attracted increased attention from researchers (De Ridder et al., 2012;Cheung et al., 2014;Hofmann et al., 2014;Layton and Muraven, 2014;Carter et al., 2015;Grund et al., 2015;Ouyang et al., 2015;Wiese et al., 2018;Fritz and Gallagher, 2019;Nielsen et al., 2019;Joshanloo et al., 2020;Massar et al., 2020;Zeng and Chen, 2020). Self-control is the overriding or inhibiting of automatic, habitual, or innate behaviors, urges, emotions, or desires that would otherwise interfere with one's goal-directed behaviors (Baumeister et al., 1994;Barkley, 1997). ...
... It is regarded as a key variable affecting individuals' subjective well-being (Hofmann et al., 2014) because it is beneficial in helping people to overcome any experienced interferences, to adhere to their goals, and in motivating themselves to better adapt to life (De Ridder et al., 2012); that is, it helps people to acquire more opportunities to experience happiness. Studies have found that self-control was positively associated with life satisfaction and positive affect, with it being negatively associated with negative affect (Cheung et al., 2014;Grund et al., 2015;Wiese et al., 2018;Nielsen et al., 2019;Massar et al., 2020). However, some researchers have questioned this relationship, arguing that excessive self-control limits an individual's ability to experience happiness (Zabelina et al., 2007;Layton and Muraven, 2014). ...
... In contrast, it is easy to achieve goals and subjective well-being is high when self-control is strong. Although the association between trait self-control and subjective well-being has been controversial, most researchers have argued that there is a positive link between the two (Cheung et al., 2014;Grund et al., 2015;Wiese et al., 2018;Nielsen et al., 2019;Massar et al., 2020). Study 1 supports this view and further finds that the association is moderated by the trait prevention-motivation orientation. ...
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It is well documented that self-control has a positive effect on individuals’ subjective well-being. However, little research has focused on the moderators underlying this relationship. The present research used two studies to examine the moderating role of both trait and state motivation on the relationship between self-control and subjective well-being using psychometric and experimental models, respectively. In Study 1, we explored whether trait motivation (including promotion vs. prevention motivation) moderated the relationship between trait self-control and subjective well-being using a psychometric model. In Study 2, we examined the moderating effects of both trait and state motivation on the effect of state self-control (measured via ego depletion) on subjective well-being using an experimental model. Our results indicated that self-control had a positive effect on subjective well-being, with this relationship being primarily moderated by prevention motivation. When state and trait prevention motivations were congruent, self-control had the most obvious impact on subjective well-being. This study suggests that current understandings around the association between self-control and happiness is limited, implying that motivation should be the focus of future research.
... low) level of self-control reported fewer death-related thoughts while being primed with death. Studies have also shown that individuals possessing high TSC can avoid intrusive and distracting thoughts that affects their pursuit of goals, focus on meaningful activities (Bertrams, Baumeister, & Englert, 2016;Massar, Bělostíková, & Sui, 2020), and think rationally when problem-solving and decision-making (Ballard et al., 2017;Peters & Desposito, 2016). On the other hand, people with high TSC tend to adopt effective emotion regulation (Paschke et al., 2016) and experience less negative and more positive affects (Hofmann, Luhmann, Fisher, Vohs, & Baumeister, 2014;Li, Xiang, Song, Huang, Chen, 2021;Wiese et al., 2017). ...
... The correlation results verified H1 and revealed that TSC before the outbreak (September 2019, T1) was negatively associated with negative affect, perceived mortality threat, and disinhibited eating in the middle (February 2020, T2) and later (April 2020, T3) stages. These findings concur with previous studies that showed that possessing high TSC is positively associated with the ability to regulate negative emotion and adverse cognition (Bertrams et al., 2016;Hofmann et al., 2014;Gailliot et al., 2006;Massar et al., 2020;Wiese et al., 2017). Furthermore, individuals with high self-control capacity are associated with less disinhibited eating behaviors including uncontrolled eating, emotional eating, and binge eating (Ames et al., 2014;Byrne et al., 2021a;Calvo et al., 2014;Reinblatt et al., 2015) as well as more likely to success in weight management (Crescioni et al., Li et al. ...
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As the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) spreads globally, people are at risk of developing disinhibited eating behaviors. This study aimed to examine whether perceived mortality threat and negative affect mediate the relationship between trait self-control and disinhibited eating during the pandemic. A longitudinal survey was administered to a sample of college students (N = 634) before the outbreak (September 2019, T1), during the mid-term (February 2020, T2), and in the later stage of the pandemic (April 2020, T3). Self-report measures of trait self-control (T1), perceived mortality threat (T2, T3), negative affect (T2, T3), and disinhibited eating (T2, T3) were successively completed. Trait self-control was found to be negatively associated with negative affect, perceived mortality threat, and disinhibited eating during the mid-term and later stage of the pandemic. Disinhibited eating was positively associated with negative affect and perceived mortality threat. The longitudinal mediation results demonstrated that trait self-control (T1) could negatively predict disinhibited eating (T3) through negative affect (T2) rather than through perceived mortality threat. These findings suggest that trait self-control is of great importance in regulating psychological discomfort and disinhibited eating during stressful periods and that negative affect might be the main psychological mechanism underlying the relationship between self-control ability and disinhibited eating.
... Similarly, in these studies, it was determined that there is a positive and significant relationship between resilience and self-control (Vötter, 2009;Seok et al., 2012;Artuch-Garde et al., 2017;Yang, Zhou, Cao, Xia, & An, 2019). In addition to the studies that directly support the result of this study, there are also research results showing that high self-control levels of individuals have a positive effect on their lives (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005;Ramezani, & Gholtash, 2015;de la Fuente et al., 2020;Massar, Bělostíková, & Sui, 2020). Based on the results of this research, it can be said that increasing the level of self-control of prospective teachers has an important function in increasing their resilience. ...
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This research aims to examine how emotion regulation skills and self-control variables influence teacher candidates’ levels of resilience. The research was conducted based on the relational screening model. The research group consisted of a total of 462 students, 225 (48.7%) boys and 237 (51.3%) girls, studying at Afyon Kocatepe University Faculty of Education in the 2020-2021 academic year. The average age of the research group was 20.23. “Personal Information Form”, “Brief Resilience Scale”, “Emotion Regulation Skills Scale” and “Self-Control Scale” were used as data collection tools in the context of the research. Stepwise regression analysis method from multiple linear regression analysis was used to analyze the data obtained from the research. In the study, it was concluded that emotion regulation skills and self-control significantly predicted teacher candidates’ resilience.
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Although numerous researches have shown that self-control is a significant promoter of prosocial behavior, the mechanism behind this relationship is still unclear. According to the organism–environment interaction model and self-control model, this study researched whether life satisfaction played a mediating role between self-control and adolescents’ prosocial behavior and if friendship quality played a moderating role between self-control and prosocial behavior. This study used a longitudinal tracking research (T1&T2; and the interval between T1&T2 is 6 months). A total of 1182 Chinese middle school students participated the survey. They were between 12 and 15 years old (average age: 14.16 years old, SD = 1.29). Results indicated that life satisfaction played a mediating role between self-control and adolescents’ prosocial behavior. Furthermore, this direct relationship in the link between self-control and prosocial behavior was significant when adolescents had a good-quality friendship. These results highlight that life satisfaction plays an important role in the relationship between self-control and prosocial behavior. The present study further determined that a high-quality friendship was an important factor that amplified this direct effect.
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Thought control ability is a vulnerability factor implicated in the etiology and maintenance of emotional disorders. This manuscript aims to systematically review the use and psychometric performance of the Thought Control Ability Questionnaire (TCAQ), designed to assess people’s ability to control unwanted thoughts. Three electronic databases were searched for papers administering the TCAQ published in indexed peer-reviewed journals. Data (participants characteristics, country, study design, etc.) were extracted from the results for qualitative synthesis. The TCAQ’s content validity, dimensionality, internal consistency, test-retest reliability, convergent/divergent validity, floor/ceiling effects, and interpretability were summarized. Two reviewers independently screened articles and assessed quality taking COSMIN criteria into account. Finally, the review included 17 papers. The TCAQ has been administered to healthy individuals, students, and adult patients, in six languages from nine countries. We found that the TCAQ, and its shorter versions, demonstrate robust reliability and adequate content validity. Of interest is the TCAQ’s capacity to predict performance in diverse experimental tasks focused on thought control. The TCAQ unidimensionality has been supported in exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses. Regarding construct validity, the TCAQ is significantly related to a wide range of psychopathological measures of anxiety, worry, depression, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, etc. However, as only a few of the included studies had a longitudinal design, we are unable to draw firm conclusions about the measure’s temporal stability. Moreover, psychometric aspects such as factorial invariance across different samples have not been analyzed. Despite these limitations, based on available psychometric evidence we can recommend using the TCAQ for measuring perceived control of unwanted thoughts.
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Procrastination has been described as the quintessence of self-regulatory failure. This study examines the relationships between this self-regulatory failure and other manifestations of self-regulation problems, namely impulsivity and intrusive thoughts. One hundred and forty-one participants completed questionnaires assessing procrastination, impulsivity (in particular, the urgency and lack of perseverance dimensions), and intrusive thoughts (i.e., rumination and daydreaming). Main results show that urgency mediated the association between rumination and procrastination, whereas rumination did not mediate the relation between urgency and procrastination. Lack of perseverance mediated the association between daydreaming and procrastination, and daydreaming mediated the relation between lack of perseverance and procrastination. This study highlights the role of impulsivity and intrusive thoughts in procrastination, specifies the links between these self-regulation problems, and provides insights into their (potential) underlying mechanisms. It also opens interesting prospects for management strategies for implementing targeted psychological interventions to reduce impulsive manifestations and/or thought control difficulties accompanying procrastination.
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It seems common knowledge that trait self-control helps people to achieve the things they find important in their lives by not being distracted by immediate pleasures and temptations. Initial evidence suggests that trait self-control is important in wellbeing as well, with people high in self-control experiencing more positive momentary affect, life satisfaction, and happiness. Whereas it is not so difficult to imagine why effortful inhibition of impulses would benefit continued striving for long-term personal goals, it is more challenging to understand why self-control would make people happier and more satisfied with their lives. The present paper sets out to explain this intriguing phenomenon and aims to identify mechanisms by why people high in trait self-control experience better wellbeing. We examine potential underlying processes that may explain the role of trait self-control in wellbeing and propose initiation of desired behavior and adaptive routines as key components of self-control in wellbeing that challenge the classic explanation of self-control as effortful inhibition.
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Some children fare better academically than others, even when family background and school and teacher quality are controlled for (Rivkin, Hanushek, & Kain, 2005). Variance in performance that persists when situational variables are held constant suggests that individual differences play an important role in determining whether children thrive or fail in school. In this chapter, we review research on individual differences in self-regulation and their relation to school success. Historically, research on individual differences that bear on school success has focused on general intelligence. A century of empirical evidence has now unequivocally established that intelligence, defined as the “ability to understand complex ideas, to adapt effectively to the environment, to learn from experience, to engage in various forms of reasoning, to overcome obstacles by taking thought” (Neisser et al., 1996, p. 77) has a monotonic, positive relationship with school success (Gottfredson, 2004; Kuncel, Ones, & Sackett, 2010; Lubinski, 2009). In contrast, the relation between school success and temperamental differences among children has only recently attracted serious attention from researchers. Temperament is typically defined as “constitutionally based individual differences in reactivity and self-regulation, in the domains of affect, activity, and attention” (Rothbart & Bates, 2006, p. 100). While assumed to have a substantial genetic basis, temperament is also influenced by experience and demonstrates both stability and change over time.
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Background: While self-control has often been related to positive outcomes in life such as higher academic achievements and better health, recent insights reveal that people with high trait self-control (TSC) may even experience greater life satisfaction or happiness. Objective: The current study further scrutinizes this potential association between TSC and happiness, and examines how regulatory focus, defined as the way people frame and direct their goal pursuit strategies, plays a role in this relationship. Accordingly, the present study examines the mediating role of regulatory-focus (promotion and prevention focus) on the relationship between TSC and happiness. Method: Data was collected from 545 individuals (65.9% female, Mage = 27.52 years) regarding their TSC, regulatory focus, and happiness. Results: Mediation analyses demonstrate that TSC positively predicts happiness, while this effect was partially mediated by relatively more promotion focus and less prevention focus. Conclusion: Results suggest that people with higher TSC are happier possibly because they are: (1) more promotion-focused on acquiring positive gains thereby facilitating more approach-oriented behaviors, and (2) less prevention-focused on avoiding losses thereby reducing avoidance-oriented behaviors. These findings are relevant for topical scientific debates regarding the underlying mechanisms of self-control regarding initiatory and inhibitory behaviors.
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Self-control leads to positive life outcomes, but is poorly understood. While previous research focused on self-control failure, self-control success remains unexplored. The current studies aims to shed more light on the mechanisms of self-control by focusing on the resolution response conflict as a key component in self-control success. Trait self-control was measured and participants reported on the magnitude of response conflict they experienced about healthy and unhealthy foods in Study 1 (N = 140, Mage = 33.10, 58 females/81 males/1 unknown). The response conflict process was assessed in Study 2. Outcomes showed that self-reported evaluative response conflict about food items was smaller for people high in trait self-control. Study 2 (N = 118, Mage = 21.45, 68 females/41 males/9 unkown) revealed that higher trait self-control predicted faster resolution of self-control conflict, and an earlier peak of the response conflict. Taken together, these results provide insight into what makes people with high trait self-control successful, namely how they handle response conflict. Implications for self-control theories and future directions are discussed. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved. © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
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Self-control is of invaluable importance for well-being. While previous research has focused on self-control failure, we introduce a new perspective on self-control, including the notion of effortless self-control, and a focus on self-control success rather than failure. We propose that effortless strategies of dealing with response conflict (i.e., competing behavioral tendencies) are what distinguishes successful self-controllers from less successful ones. While people with high trait self-control may recognize the potential for response conflict in self-control dilemmas, they do not seem to subjectively experience this conflict as much as people with low self-control. Two strategies may underlie this difference: avoidance of response conflict through adaptive, habitual behaviors, and the efficient downregulating of response conflict. These strategies as well as the role of response conflict are elaborated upon and discussed in the light of existing literature on self-control.
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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. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2015 APA, all rights reserved).
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High trait self-control has been traditionally described as a keen ability to resist temptation. The present research suggests that high trait self-control is linked to avoiding, rather than merely resisting, temptation. People high in trait self-control reported engaging in behaviors thought to minimize (or avoid) temptation to a greater extent than people low in trait self-control (Study 1). People high in trait self-control were more likely than those low in trait self-control to choose to work in a distraction-free environment rather than in a distracting, yet appealing, one (Studies 2 and 3).