Self-control has been a central theme of my laboratory work for the past two decades. Self-control is one of the most powerful keys to success in life and also a vital key to understanding human selfhood. Self-control is about changing yourself: regulating your thoughts, your emotions, your impulses and desires, and your task performance. Working with a marvelous group of colleagues, we have developed the radical new view that altering oneself depends on a limited resource. The “Strength Model of Self-Control” has attracted much interest from many researchers, and hundreds of studies have replicated our original findings and added many new insights. The idea that a central part of the self is a stock of energy that is used to exert control provides a new and different vision of human nature.
Almost all fields of study that consider human behavior, from economics and political science to literature, grapple with basic questions of human choices. Our laboratory has studied decision-making in multiple contexts. The most important came from the finding that making decisions depends on the same energy resource used for self-control. We have found, for example, that the decisions people made changed as a function of whether they had previously exerted self-control in a separate context—and even whether they had drunk a glass of lemonade sweetened with sugar or Splenda. Moral decisions are of particular interest.
In 1995, Mark Leary and I published a theory paper and literature review entitled “The Need to Belong,” which has been widely influential, listed in the References sections of many thousands of other scientific articles. It is in a way one culmination of a theme of my entire career, which is that interpersonal concerns are paramount in psychology—indeed, most inner processes serve interpersonal functions. After that was published, we began doing experiments to develop the implications of that theory. We started to study what happens when the need to belong is thwarted, especially by a rejection experience. Acceptance and rejection proved to have many remarkable effects on people, though not always the ones that were initially predicted! Understanding how rejection affects people can provide insight into experiences that affect nearly everyone and that may particularly illuminate how disadvantaged groups and others excluded by society react. Rejected people show strong behavioral reactions, including aggressiveness, reluctance to help, lack of empathy, emotional numbness (rather than the distress we initially hypothesized), self-defeating behavior, temporary reductions in intelligent thought, loss of self-control, and orientation toward preventing further disasters, yet no loss of self-esteem
Sexuality is central to many theories of human behavior, ranging from evolutionary theory to Freudian psychodynamics. Despite its neglect by mainstream social psychology, it is undeniably an important category of interpersonal behavior. My work on sexuality is a sideline, but nonetheless an important, indispensable part of the big-picture account of human nature I seek to attain.
Much of my work was based on an extensive reading of the published research literature on sexual behavior. Major conclusions included the following. First, though both nature and culture shape sexuality, their relative influence differs by gender, such that female sexuality is more cultural whereas male sexuality is more natural. The review article on “erotic plasticity” amasses a huge amount of evidence for this conclusion. Second, contrary to some politically correct positions, there is a gender difference in sex drive: Men want sex more often than women, on average. Third, the widespread cultural suppression of female sexuality is mainly instigated and sustained at the behest of women. Fourth, “sexual economics” provides a wide-ranging and powerful basis for analyzing sexual interactions in terms of costs and benefits and marketplace dynamics. The core idea is that sex is regarded everywhere as something men want from women, and so men give women other valued commodities (love, respect, commitment, attention, money, etc.) for sex, whereas the reverse sort of exchange is vanishingly rare.
Right from the start of my career in the 1970s, I learned that social psychology could justify its existence by explaining why people do irrational, counterintuitive things. Self-defeating behavior is defined as actions that produce detrimental consequences for the self. Many social sciences have a dominant model of humans as rational decision-makers, and so self-defeating behavior exposes the limits of human rationality. I am always intrigued by the many processes and patterns relevant to self-destructive activities, when they occur.
Few people seek harm or cost to self as a primary goal, but many will embrace such harms and costs when associated with other gains. A powerful formula for many self-destructive behaviors involves short-term gains coupled with long-term costs. As one example, cigarette smokers experience immediate pleasures from smoking but endure delayed costs up to and including premature death. Self-handicapping (e.g., alcohol abuse, failure to study or prepare) involves creating obstacles to one’s own success—which appeals because it provides excuses for possible failure. Procrastination brings short-term gains of pleasure and even better health, at the cost of long-term stress, ill health, and subpar performance. When people are in bad moods, they may shift toward high-risk, high-payoff activities that contain the possibility of very positive outcomes that would bring joy but also carry the heavy risk of further problems.
Two of the greatest, grandest, most profound questions about human nature concern the nature and functions of consciousness and the possibility of free will. My overarching goal of understanding the human condition cannot evade grappling with these centrally important issues. Initially, I subscribed to the common view that the two problems were heavily interrelated, so that solving one would lead to solving the other, but over time I have increasingly seen them as largely distinct problems.
With consciousness, the issue is to what extent conscious processes cause behavior. In recent decades, psychology has seen wide swings, ranging from assuming that ultimately conscious thought dictates almost everything one does to the contrary assertion that conscious thought has no causal function and everything happens by virtue of unconscious processes. My work has sought a middle ground that recognizes the power of unconscious processes but still accepts the vital contribution of conscious ones. We have shown, for example, that genuine logical reasoning does not occur without conscious thought. We have surveyed extensive and diverse evidence that conscious thought is indisputably a cause of many behaviors. Most broadly, we have argued (in psychology’s most prestigious and rigorous journal) that the functions of conscious thought need to be understood on an interpersonal basis. For a solitary creature, there is very little basis for arguing that thoughts need to be conscious — but, for example, it is impossible to talk without being conscious of what one is saying.
The challenging and far-reaching question of free will also goes to the heart of issues of human nature. After grappling with this for many years and sympathetically reading arguments on both sides, I concluded that much of the ostensible debate is simply a matter of competing definitions. The important issue, to me, is in what sense the human mechanism for guiding action is different and “freer” than what is seen in other species. My interest in this grew out of my research on self-control and decision-making. Indeed, the fact that making choices and exerting self-control depend on a common energy resource provided a conceptually powerful basis for addressing the philosophical problem of free will. Whether to call these evolutionarily novel forms of action control “free will” may be a matter of definition, but understanding how human behavior is guided by meaningful appraisals of morality, long-term planning, social norms and laws, counterfactual analysis of prior actions, and contemplation of future sequences will furnish centrally important and profound insights into what makes us human.