The essential characteristic of a self-control problem is failure to do what you want to do, even though you have sufficient knowledge, skill and opportunity. If you opt to have an additional glass of wine after weighing up the short term pleasure against the longer term pain that might result, that doesn't qualify as a self-control problem. But if after choosing to deny yourself the additional glass you often give in to an impulse and have it anyhow, you may have a self-control problem.
Opinions differ about the extent that individuals can exercise will-power to deal with self-control problems, with support from their families, friends and professional advisors. For many thousands of years self-control problems were often viewed as evidence of possession by evil spirits. More recently, the observation that action precedes thought has brought into question the concept of free will and provided many people with a pseudo-scientific reason to doubt their own capacity to exercise will-power. This has been accompanied by a tendency for many people to re-define individual self-control problems as social problems. For example, individual health problems associated with nicotine addictions, alcoholism and obesity are frequently referred to as public health problems.
The advent of behavioural economics and happiness economics has unfortunately contributed to the view that individual self-control problems are social problems that should be dealt with by public policies. In my view, the efforts of economists to move beyond MaxU, the profession's conventional assumption that individuals maximize their utility, should be welcomed. It has become increasingly difficult to defend MaxU in many contexts in the face of evidence (e.g. a paper by Alois Stutzer and Bruno Frey) that people who are experiencing self-control problems tend to be relatively unhappy.
However, practitioners of behavioural and happiness economics take a step too far when they imply that identification of self-control problems is sufficient justification for government intervention to control people's lives, or remove temptations from them. I have presented my views on why that is so in Free to Flourish. In brief, the nature of humans is such that individuals need to exercise their capacity to make choices and to accept responsibility for them if they are to realise their potential. In other words, humans need to be in control their own lives if they are to flourish. It is also in the nature of humans to make mistakes, but the experience of learning from mistakes has potential to make individuals more competent in making decisions. By contrast, attempts by governments to protect people from themselves run the risk of making them increasingly dependent on government.
One possible objection to the view that people should be free to flourish is that this would be likely to result in worse outcomes for those who have had self-control problems from an early age. The famous marshmallow experiment, conducted at Stanford by psychologist Walter Mischel, suggests that children who have difficulty in deferring gratification to obtain greater reward at four years of age are likely to be prone to self-control problems throughout their lives. Findings of the Dunedin longitudinal study, reported byTerrie Moffitt et al, suggest that childhood self-control predicts such things as physical health, substance dependence and personal ﬁnances later in life (at age 32) about as well as intelligence and social class origins.
The findings of the Dunedin study also suggest, however, that it is possible for people to learn to exercise greater self-control. Some children moved up in self-control rank over the years of the study and this had a positive impact on their well-being as adults.
There has been previous discussion on this blog of research findings relating to ways in which people can learn to exercise greater self-control. For example, on the basis of extensive psychological research, Roy Baumeister argues strongly that individuals have the potential to exercise a great deal of self-control if they know how and want to do so.
Research by another psychologist, Tim Wilson, suggests that autonomy support can be helpful. This involves helping young people understand the value of different alternatives facing them and conveying a sense that they are responsible for choosing which path to follow.
Another relevant area of research, that I have recently begun to read about, concerns the role of construal. Research by Kentaro Fujita et al suggests that self-control is enhanced by high-level construal (the use of cognitive abstraction to extract the essential and goal-relevant features common across a class of events) rather than low-level construal (the process of highlighting the incidental and idiosyncratic features that render a particular event unique). What that means is that I would be more likely to maintain my resolve to have only one glass of wine with dinner (except for special occasions) if I construe the second glass as a bunch of calories that will require me to make greater sacrifices later to achieve my BMI target, rather than construing it as an immediate pleasure and entitlement.
If high level construal can help people to manage their self-control problems, that suggests to me that it is important for individuals to find ways to inspire themselves to pursue higher level goals. Techniques such as mBraining, discussed on this blog a few weeks ago, could help.