Self-control and the Sinister Side

This article from BBC Global News by David Robson explores the sinister side of people with great willpower. September 2020.

A few years ago, 80 Parisians were given the chance to take part in the pilot of a new gameshow, called La Zone Xtrême. The producer greeted each participant at the studio and told them that they would appear in pairs – one as a “questioner”, and one as the “contestant”.

It was only once the participants arrived on stage, and the host explained the rules, that things got decidedly dark. The questioner was told to punish the contestant for any wrong answers with a sharp electric shock. They would have to increase the intensity each time, up to a total of 460 volts – more than twice the voltage of a European power outlet. If the pair made it through 27 rounds, they would win the show. The contestant was then taken into a chamber and strapped into a chair, while the questioner sat centre stage, and the game commenced.

Since it was simply a pilot show, the participants were told there was no monetary prize for winning the game – yet the vast majority of the questioners continued to administer the shocks, even after they could hear the screams of pain emanating from the chamber.

Thankfully, these cries for help were just an act – there was no electric shock. The questioners were unknowingly participating in elaborate experiment that allowed scientists to explore the way various personality traits could influence moral behaviour. You might expect the worst offenders to have been impulsive and antisocial – or, at the very least, with no strength of character. Yet the French scientists found the exact opposite. It was the participants who scored highest on conscientiousness – a trait normally associated with careful, disciplined and moral behaviour – who were willing to administer the greatest shocks.

“The people who are accustomed to being agreeable and organised, and whose social integration is good, find it more difficult to disobey,” explains Laurent Bègue, a behavioural scientist at the University of Grenoble-Alpes who analysed the participants’ behaviour. And in this case, that personality profile meant they were willing to torture another human being.

These findings join a spate of new studies showing that people with high self-control and discipline have a surprising dark side. This research can help us understand why model citizens sometimes turn toxic, with important implications for our understanding of unethical behaviour in the workplace and beyond.

Overcoming impulses

For decades, self-control had been seen as an unalloyed advantage. It can be assessed in various ways – from the questionnaires studying conscientiousness (which considers someone’s preference for self-discipline and organisation) to experimental measures of willpower (such as the famous “Marshmallow Test”).

In each case, people with high self-control were seen to perform better at school and work and to adopt healthier lifestyles; they are less likely to overeat or take drugs, and more likely to exercise. Their ability to overcome their baser urges meant that people with higher self-control were also less likely to act aggressively or violently, and were less likely to have a criminal record. For these reasons, self-control was believed to contribute to the strength of someone’s “character”; some scientists even went as far as to argue that it comprises a kind of “moral muscle” determining our capacity to act ethically.

In the mid-2010s, however, Liad Uziel at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University began to investigate whether context might play an important role in determining the consequences of our self-control. He speculated that the trait was just a useful tool that allows people to achieve any goal – both good and bad. In many situations, our social norms reward people cooperating with others, and so people with high self-control happily toe the line. And if we change those social norms, then people with high self-control might turn out to be less than scrupulous in their treatment of others.

To test the idea, Uziel turned to a standard psychological experiment called the “dictator game” in which one participant is given a sum of money, and offered the chance to share it with a partner. Thanks to our social norms to be cooperative, people are often quite generous. “Rationally, there is no reason to give the second player any sum,” explains Uziel, “but people often give about a third of the endowment to others.” The researchers found that the people with high self-control were generous if they feared that they would be judged for their stingy behaviour. If their actions were private, however, without the fear of judgement from others, then they were much more selfish than people with low self-control– choosing to further their own self-interests rather than help others. In these circumstances, they kept almost all the sum to themselves.

People high in self-control also appear to be more careful about when they commit an anti-social act and avoid getting caught. David Lane and colleagues at Western Illinois University in the US recently questioned people about certain dubious behaviours and whether they had suffered the consequences of their actions. Sure enough, they found that people with high self-control were more likely to avoid punishment for dangerous driving and cheating on tests, compared to people with poorer self-control. Once again, they seem to be carefully judging the social norms of what is acceptable behaviour, and adhering to them when the misdeed is more likely to affect their reputation.

Extermination machines

These are dubious moral acts, but if the social norms allow it, strong willpower can contribute to acts of cruelty. In one macabre study, psychologist Thomas Denson at the University of New South Wales in Australia invited participants into the lab with an unusual task – to feed bugs into a coffee grinder. Unbeknown to the participants, the “extermination machine” was rigged to allow the bugs to escape before they were killed – but the grinder still made an unnerving crunching sound as the insects worked their way through machine. The aim of the experiment, the participants were told, was to better understand certain “human-animal interactions” – a justification for the task that should have rendered the act more socially acceptable to the participants.

The effects of self-control, it turned out, depended on people’s sense of moral responsibility. For people who were particularly concerned about the ethical consequences of their actions, increased self-control made little difference to the outcome. They killed a moderate number of bugs, but their greater self-control didn’t seem to make it any easier to obey the orders. For the rest of the participants, however, greater self-control significantly increased the number of bugs they were willing to crush. They seemed keener to carry out the scientists’ request, and they were better able to override any feelings of aversion to the task – turning them into more efficient killers.

The “players” of La Zone Xtrême showed a very similar pattern of behaviours – only on a much larger scale. The experiment was inspired by Stanley Milgram’s controversial experiments in the 1960s, which had tested whether participants would be willing to torture another person with electric shocks in the name of science. Milgram’s experiment was taken to show people’s unflinching obedience to authority – but the French researchers wanted to know which kinds of personalities were most susceptible. They found that the participants with higher self-control (as measured through a test of conscientiousness) were willing to dish out around 100 volts more to their partner in the game – to the point that their partner fell silent, feigning unconsciousness or death.

Interestingly, high agreeableness – the desire to please others – was the only other personality trait to increase this callous behaviour. “They tended to electrocute the victim more, probably to avoid an unpleasant conflict with the TV presenter,” says Bègue. “They wished to be reliable people and to keep their commitment.”

In their paper, Bègue’s team contrast the discoveries with 20th Century philosopher Hannah Arendt’s assessment of high-ranking Nazi Adolf Eichmann. Arendt famously coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe how mundane people, like Eichmann, can commit acts of great cruelty. According to Bègue’s research, the traits that lead people to act immorally may not just be mundane – but actually desirable – in other situations. People with high conscientious and agreeableness are the people we would normally choose to be our employees or our spouses.

Toxic workplace

Bègue emphasises that this research needs to be replicated before we can draw general conclusions about human nature, but it is interesting to speculate whether traits like high self-control could predict someone’s involvement in many everyday acts of immorality – large and small.

It would all depend on the strength of the social norms, says Lane. “I do think these results could generalise to other behaviours if people could convince themselves they were victimless crimes that others already do,” says Lane. There is some evidence, for instance, that tax avoidance increases with conscientiousness – which would fit these findings. In the workplace, meanwhile, the model employees may also be the people who steal from the company “under the perception ‘they won’t even miss that money’,” says Lane.

Uziel, meanwhile, suspects that someone with high self-control is more likely to act ruthlessly when group cohesion starts to fall apart, including times when their own sense of power or authority is threatened, or when they feel in competition with others. They could proverbially stab you in the back to gain a new promotion, for instance – or kowtow to a boss while disregarding how their behaviour will affect others.

If so, we might start to appreciate the people around us who are a little bit less disciplined and agreeable than the rest. They may frustrate us with their unreliability, but in La Zone Xtrême, at least, they are the ones you would want to decide your fate.

David Robson is the author of The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things (WW Norton/Hodder & Stoughton), which examines the cutting-edge psychology of irrational thinking and the best ways to make wiser decisions. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.

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