Is Practicing Self-Control the Key to Reducing Aggression?

Most of us are familiar with desires like eating unhealthy foods, drinking the whole bottle of wine, sleeping all day, or getting angry with annoying people. Sometimes we are able to resist these desires and do the things we are supposed to do—like losing weight, running errands, or having good working relationships. Other times, though, we are not so successful. What is it that makes the difference between succumbing to these desires versus overcoming these desires? 

Considerable research suggests that self-control is one factor that that helps people to overcome desires and to stay on track with their long-term goals. Self-control is the “ability to regulate current thoughts, feelings, and behavior to secure benefits” (de Ridder, Adriaanse, & Fujita, in press). 

In their pioneering work on self-control during the 1960s, Walter Mischel (2014) and his students presented children with a choice between immediate gratification or waiting for a larger reward. In the most famous study, the choice was between eating one treat immediately (often a marshmallow) or two treats when the experimenter returned up to 20 minutes later. In the interim, the children could ring a bell to bring back the experimenter if they couldn’t resist the tempting treat any longer. Mischel and colleagues followed up with these children in adulthood. As adults, the children who had waited longer to ring the bell were better off on a host of outcomes compared to the impetuous marshmallow eaters. Importantly, the patient children had better mental and physical health in adulthood.

Another ambitious study followed a cohort of 1,000 New Zealanders from birth to age 32 (Moffitt et al., 2011). Parents, teachers, independent observers, and the children themselves provided ratings of their degree of self-control (e.g., persisting in goals, impulsivity). Relative to children with high self-control, the children who were low in self-control grew up to be more likely to have poor physical health, substance dependence, and lower incomes. Importantly, the children rated as having the lowest self-control were approximately four times more likely to have a criminal conviction than children rated as having the highest self-control. These effects were independent of intelligence and social class during childhood.

These results suggest that self-control is an important ability that may reduce criminality, including violence.

Although theoretical conceptualizations have long pointed to poor self-control as a strong cause of crime, including violent crime (Gottfredson & Hirchi, 1990), only recently have researchers begun to experimentally manipulate how self-control impacts aggression.

One theory that has garnered attention among aggression researchers is “I-cubed” theory (Finkel, 2014). The theory contains three key concepts that interact to produce or prevent aggression: instigation, impellance, and inhibition. Instigations are social interactions that trigger aggressive urges in people. A provocation, such as being belittled or insulted, is the most common instigator. Impellance describes factors that enhance the urge to aggress, such as beliefs that resorting to violence is appropriate. When instigation and impellance are strong, aggressive behavior is likely. However, inhibition, which is a critical component of self-control (Diamond, 2013), can prevent aggressive behavior. When one’s inhibitory abilities are stronger than the urges derived from instigation and impellance, people can resist the urge to aggress (Denson, DeWall, & Finkel, 2012). The idea is simple: aggression occurs when the scale’s balance tips toward the instigation and impellance side; aggression is inhibited when the inhibitory side of the scale is heavier than instigation and impellance.

Increasing self-control reduces aggression

Researchers have been looking into ways that aggressive behavior can be inhibited. One approach that has gained considerable attention over the past few years is self-control training (SCT). SCT involves overriding a desire (or a habit or impulse) and replacing it with a more deliberative or preferred response. Typical training tasks include practicing better posture, avoiding slang or incomplete sentences, squeezing a handgrip trainer for as long as physically possible, and using one's non-dominant hand for everyday mundane activities. This type of training is important for a range of outcomes, including aggression, because it can lead to far transfer. Far transfer occurs when practicing self-control in one domain (e.g., improving physical persistence by squeezing a handgrip trainer) can improve self-control in a range of other, unrelated domains (e.g., resisting aggressive urges).

Only two experiments have looked at the effect of SCT on aggression (Denson, Capper, Oaten, Friese, & Schofield, 2011; Finkel, DeWall, Slotter, Oaten, & Foshee, 2009). In both experiments, participants either completed two-weeks of training or, if assigned to the control group, did not practice self-control. Finkel et al.'s (2009) experiment showed that those who practiced self-control had reduced inclinations to physically harm their romantic partner after a provocation (e.g., catching their partner having sex with someone else).

Denson et al.'s (2011) experiment used deception to get a behavioral measure of reactive aggression. Participants were insulted by getting rude feedback about a speech they had given, and were given an opportunity to retaliate to the provocateur by blasting him/her with white noise. (All participants were debriefed at the end of the experiment in accordance with ethical standards.) The results indicated that only those high in trait aggression benefited from the training. For those people, SCT reduced aggression compared to aggressive people in the control group. From these studies, it seems that practicing self-control in simple ways for a short amount of time can help aggressive people to resist the desire to lash out and harm others.

These results do seem promising, but it is important to note that there has been some debate about the size of the SCT effect on far transfer and whether the training actually produces far transfer at all (Berkman, 2016; Inzlicht & Berkman, 2015). Two meta-analyses have been conducted to clarify the size and direction of the SCT effect in the past year alone. The first meta-analyses was from our laboratory. It included 20 published and 9 unpublished experiments, and found a small-to-medium effect (g = 0.36) of practicing self-control on diverse outcomes (Beames, Schofield, & Denson, in press). Importantly, these effects were not solely due to publication bias. (The full data set and results can be found using this link.) The second meta-analyses included 23 published and 10 unpublished experiments, and found converging results with regard to the effectiveness of SCT (Friese, Frankenbach, Job, & Loschelder, in press). Taken together, these results suggest that the SCT can produce far transfer to many spheres of self-control including aggression.

Despite converging evidence suggesting that SCT is effective, many outstanding questions remain. For example, how does SCT work? And how long do the beneficial effects last for? Of the few studies that have looked into these questions, most are characterized by limitations, such as poor control groups, small samples, or repetitious SCT tasks (e.g., Miles, 2016; Oaten & Cheng, 2006a; 2006b; 2007).

We are currently running a study to build on this research and shed light on the long-term effectiveness of and mechanisms underlying SCT. Participants are attending three sessions over a period of 3 months, and are required to complete SCT at home for either 4 weeks or 12 weeks. Participants in the control group are required to monitor similar behaviors at home for 12 weeks. Of note, participants are completing measures of reactive aggression, and tasks that tap into their motivation, attention, and executive functioning. Check out this link for more information about the study.

Our lab is also running a neuroimaging study to better understand the mechanisms of SCT in the context of aggression. At this stage, it is unclear how SCT can reduce aggression, and some brain data may be informative in this regard. Participants completed 2 weeks of SCT and then had functional scans taken of their brain before and after provocation (i.e., they were insulted by undermining their ability to follow simple instructions). We are in the process of analyzing the data.

Summing it up:

• Anger-driven aggression is a widespread and costly phenomenon. It places significant burdens on individuals and society alike in terms of psychological health, physical health, and financial resources. 

• Due to the negative outcomes associated with anger-driven aggression, it is important to develop theoretical sound strategies to reduce it. 

• We have discussed one promising approach that, at this stage, appears effective in reducing aggression: self-control training. We hope that the next few years will see more replication and extension into our understanding of how, and for whom, SCT can reduce aggression.

Joanne Beames is a Ph.D. and Clinical Masters student in the School of Psychology at the University of New South Wales.
Thomas Denson is an associate professor in the School of Psychology at the University of New South Wales, ISRA council member, and associate editor of Aggressive Behavior.

Beames, J.R., Schofield, T.P., & Denson, T.F. (in press). A meta-analysis of improving self-control with practice. Chapter to appear in D.T. de Riddler, M. Adriaanse, & K. Fujita (Eds.), Handbook of self-control in health and well-being. Routledge.
Berkman, E.T. (2016). Self-regulation training. In K.D. Vohs & R.F. Baumeister (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: research, theory and applications (3rd ed.) (pp. 440–457). New York: Guilford.

Denson, T.F., Capper, M.M., Oaten, M., Friese, M., & Schofield, T.P. (2011). Self-control training decreases aggression in response to provocation in aggressive individuals. Journal of Research in Personality, 45, 252–256. 

Denson, T.F., DeWall, C.N., & Finkel, E.J. (2012). Self-control and aggression. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21, 20–25. 

de Ridder, D.T., Adriaanse, M., & Fujita, K. (Eds.). (in press). Handbook of self-control in health and well-being. Routledge.

Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 135–168. 

Finkel, E.J. (2014). Chapter One – The I3 model: metatheory, theory, and evidence. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 1-104. 

Finkel, E.J., DeWall, C.N., Slotter, E.B., Oaten, M., & Foshee, V.A. (2009). Self-regulatory failure and intimate partner violence perpetration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 483–499. 

Friese, M., Frankenbach, J., Job, V., & Loschelder, D.D. (in press). Does self-control training improve self-control? A meta-analysis. Perspectives on Psychological Science

Gottfredson, M.R., & Hirschi, T. (1990). A general theory of crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Inzlicht, M., & Berkman, E. (2015). Six questions for the resource model of control (and some answers). Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 9, 511-524. 

Miles, E., Sheeran, P., Baird, H.M., MacDonald, I., Webb, T.L., & Harris, P.R. (2016). Does self-control improve with practice? Evidence from a six-week training program. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145, 1075-1091. 

Mischel, W. (2014). The marshmallow test: understanding self-control and how to master it. London, UK: Random House.

Moffitt, T.E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R.J., Harrington, H., … Caspi, A. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 2693–2698. 

Oaten, M., & Cheng, K. (2006a). Improved self-control: the benefits of a regular program of academic study. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 28, 1–16. 

Oaten, M., & Cheng, K. (2006b). Longitudinal gains in self-regulation from regular physical exercise. British Journal of Health Psychology, 11, 717–733. 

Oaten, M., & Cheng, K. (2007). Improvements in self-control from financial monitoring. Journal of Economic Psychology, 28, 487–501.