Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The changing meaning of the Trait Self-Control scale

The trait self-control scale, developed by Tangney, Baumeister and Boone (2004) is one of the most used instruments in social science. It is the main modern reference for measuring a person's self-control, as evidenced by its 1,400 citations on Google Scholar. However, recent research suggests that the scale does not measure what researchers originally thought it did. Although suggested by its first item “I am good at resisting temptation”, the scale does not appear to measure the ability to resist temptation. Rather, it seems to measure people's ability to avoid temptations in the first place. Below is brief summary of some parts of a lecture I gave to the MSc Behavioural Science students on the changing meaning of the trait self-control scale.

The 13-item trait self-control scale asks people to rate on a scale from 1 to 5 how much certain statements reflect how they are. The questions include, for example, “I am lazy”, “I say inappropriate things”, and “I wish I had more self-discipline” and a higher cumulative score is considered indicative of better trait self-control. Higher scores on this measure have been used to predict outcomes as diverse as interpersonal popularity, healthy relationships, academic success, coping skills, mental health, psychological well-being, obesity, substance abuse, criminality, impulsive buying, and procrastination (for a comprehensive list of references see the meta-analysis by de Ridder et al., 2012). Members of the Stirling Behavioural Science Centre have also used the scale to examine how it relates to time preferences and emotion (see Daly et al., 2009 and  Daly et al. 2012). Until recently, it was commonly assumed that trait self-control predicts these lifetime outcomes so well because the outcomes are related to our ability to be strong in the face of temptations and resist them.

Sticky Toffee Pudding (STP)
A recent study by Hofmann, Baumeister, Foerster & Vohs (2012) suggests otherwise. The authors investigated the relationship between scores on the trait self-control scale and real-life self-control failures. In their “beeper study”, they provided 205 participants with smartphones and beeped them at random times, 7 times per day for a full week. Whenever the participants heard the beep, they were supposed to indicate (i) whether they felt a desire (e.g. for sticky toffee pudding), (ii) how strong the desire was (e.g. irresistible), (iii) whether the desire conflicted with higher order goals (e.g. being healthy), (iv) whether they tried to resist the desire (i.e. used self-control), and (v) whether the desire led to actual behaviour (e.g. eating the STP).

The authors expected that people with a high trait self-control score who found themselves tempted by desires (e.g. for STP or for cookies) would be better at resisting the temptation than people with a low trait self-control score. Exercising this kind of willpower has been the canonical conception of what it means to have good self-control since Walter Mischel's famous experiments in the 1960s examined the ability of children to resist the temptation of eating a marshmallow placed in front of them. However, to the surprise of Hofmann and his colleagues, the results of the study revealed that trait self-control was negatively related to the use of self-control in everyday life. In other words, the higher a person's score on the trait self-control scale, the less often they used self-control in their daily lives.

Resisting the Sirens or taking a different route home?
This is clearly at odds with the conventional view that high trait self-control is related to a strong ability to resist temptations which conflict with higher order goals. On the contrary, it suggests that trait self-control is a proactive trait. Individuals with high scores on the trait self-control scale aren't necessary better at resisting temptations; rather they appear to encounter fewer problematic desires by structuring their lives such that they avoid being exposed to the temptations in the first place. Instead of tying themselves to the mast to resist the sirens of temptation, people with high trait self-control just “take a different route home” (as Roy Baumeister explains here).

Further evidence suggesting that trait self-control is indeed related to avoiding, rather than resisting, temptations is described in Ent et al. (2015) and the meta analysis by de Ridder et al. (2012). There are several things we can learn from this recent shift in researchers' perceptions of what the trait self-control scale really measures:

1. Critically reflecting on what psychological scales mean is important even when the scales are extremely popular. New ways of data gathering may shed new light on scales.
2. Leaving the lab and testing things in the real-world can lead to new insights. In the future, we should conduct more behavioural science research in people's real lives.
3. Understanding what leads to temptations is as important as understanding what helps us to resist them. We need to better understand the person-specific and situation-specific factors that lead to temptations, and trait self-control is just one of them. For example, in my 2012 paper I described an economic formalization of how situational factors such as cues can trigger temptations.


Daly, M., Harmon, C. P., & Delaney, L. (2009). Psychological and biological foundations of time preference. Journal of the European Economic Association, 7(2‐3), 659-669.

Daly, M., Baumeister, R. F., Delaney, L., & MacLachlan, M. (2014). Self-control and its relation to emotions and psychobiology: evidence from a Day Reconstruction Method study. Journal of behavioral medicine, 37(1), 81-93.

deRidder, D. T., Lensvelt-Mulders, G., Finkenauer, C., Stok, F. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (2012). Taking stock of self-control a meta-analysis of How trait self-control relates to a wide range of behaviors. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16(1), 76-99.

Ent, M. R., Baumeister, R. F., & Tice, D. M. (2015). Trait self-control and the avoidance of temptation. Personality and Individual Differences, 74, 12-15. 

Hofmann, W., Baumeister, R. F., Förster, G., & Vohs, K. D. (2012). Everyday temptations: an experience sampling study of desire, conflict, and self-control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(6), 1318.

Lades, L. K. (2012). Towards an incentive salience model of intertemporal choice. Journal of Economic Psychology, 33(4), 833-841

Tangney, J. P., Baumeister, R. F., & Boone, A. L. (2004). High self‐control predicts good adjustment, less pathology, better grades, and interpersonal success. Journal of Personality, 72(2), 271-324.

1 comment:

Lindner said...


our recent publication "The dimensionality of the Brief Self-Control Scale—An evaluation of unidimensional and multidimensional applications" fits perfectly to the present topic about "the changing meaning of the Trait Self-Control Scale".

We compared the internal structure but also the content-related meaning of the unidimensional Trait Self-Control Scale as proposed by Tangney et al. (2004) with the scale's two-dimensional conceptualizations as proposed by Maloney et al. (2012) (Restraint vs. Impulsivity), De Ridder et al. (2011) (Inhibiton vs. Initiation) and Ferrari et al. (2009) (Self-discipline vs. Impulse control).

If you are interested, you can get our article here: