Why Self-Discipline Is Overrated:
The (Troubling) Theory and Practice of Control from Within
To inquire into what underlies the idea of self-discipline is to uncover serious misconceptions about motivation and personality, controversial assumptions about human nature, and disturbing implications regarding how things are arranged in a classroom or a society.
|by Alfie Kohn
Regular contributor to the Gazette
Reprinted from Phi Delta Kappan, 2008 with the author's permission.
February 1, 2009
If there is one character trait whose benefits are endorsed by traditional and progressive educators alike, it may well be self-discipline. Just about everyone wants students to override their unconstructive impulses, resist temptation, and do what needs to be done. True, this disposition is commended to us with particular fervor by the sort of folks who sneer at any mention of self-esteem and deplore what they insist are today’s lax standards. But even people who don’t describe themselves as conservative agree that imposing discipline on children (either to improve their behavior or so they’ll apply themselves to their studies) isn’t nearly as desirable as having children discipline themselves. It’s appealing to teachers – indeed, to anyone in a position of relative power – if the people over whom they have authority will do what they’re supposed to do on their own. The only question is how best to accomplish this.
Self-discipline might be defined as marshalling one’s willpower to accomplish things that are generally regarded as desirable, and self-control as using that same sort of willpower to prevent oneself from doing what is seen to be undesirable or to delay gratification. In practice, these often function as two aspects of the same machinery of self-regulation, so I’ll use the two terms more or less interchangeably. Do a search for them in indexes of published books, scholarly articles, or Internet sites, and you’ll quickly discover how rare it is to find a discouraging word, or even a penetrating question, about their value.
While I readily admit that it’s good to be able to persevere at worthwhile tasks -- and that some students seem to lack this capacity -- I want to suggest that the concept is actually problematic in three fundamental ways. To inquire into what underlies the idea of self-discipline is to uncover serious misconceptions about motivation and personality, controversial assumptions about human nature, and disturbing implications regarding how things are arranged in a classroom or a society. Let’s call these challenges psychological, philosophical, and political, respectively. All of them apply to self-discipline in general, but they’re particularly relevant to what happens in our schools.
I. PSYCHOLOGICAL ISSUES: Critical Distinctions
If our main goal for students is just to get them to complete whatever tasks, and obey whatever rules, they’re given, then self-discipline is undeniably a useful trait. But if we’re interested in the whole child – if, for example, we’d like our students to be psychologically healthy – then it’s not at all clear that self-discipline should enjoy a privileged status compared to other attributes. In some contexts, it may not be desirable at all.
Several decades ago, the eminent research psychologist Jack Block described people in terms of their level of “ego control” – that is, the extent to which impulses and feelings are expressed or suppressed. Those who are undercontrolled are impulsive and distractible; those who are overcontrolled are compulsive and joyless. The fact that educators are more irritated by the former, and thus more likely to define it as a problem, doesn’t mean the latter is any less troubling. Nor should we favor “the replacement of unbridled impulsivity with categorical, pervasive, rigid impulse control,” Block warned. It’s not just that self-control isn’t always good; it’s that a lack of self-control isn’t always bad because it may “provide the basis for spontaneity, flexibility, expressions of interpersonal warmth, openness to experience, and creative recognitions.” So what does it say about our society that “the idea of self-control is generally praised” even though it may sometimes be “maladaptive and spoil the experience and savorings of life”?
The idea that either extreme can be unwise shouldn’t be particularly controversial, yet the possibility of unhealthy overcontrol is explicitly rejected by some researchers who double as cheerleaders for self-discipline. Moreover, a reluctance to acknowledge this important caution is apparent in the array of published materials on the subject. Such discussions typically contain unqualified assertions such as “The promotion of self-discipline is an important goal for all schools” or “Teaching self discipline to students should be something all teachers strive for.”
It’s hard to square those statements with research that finds “disciplined and directed behavior, which can be advantageous in some situations . . . . is likely to be detrimental” in others. Not only has it been shown that “the consequences of impulsivity are not always negative,” but a high degree of self-control tends to go hand-in-hand with less spontaneity and a blander emotional life -- and, in some cases, with more serious psychological problems. “Overcontrollers tend to be complete abstainers from drug use, but they are less well-adjusted than individuals who have lower ego control and may have experimented briefly with drugs, [while] a tendency toward overcontrol puts young women (but not young men) at risk for the development of depression.” A preoccupation with self-control is also a key feature of anorexia.
Consider a student who always starts her homework the moment it’s assigned. What might look like an admirable display of self-discipline, given that there are other things she’d rather be doing, may actually be due to an acute discomfort with having anything unfinished. She wants – or, more accurately, needs – to get the assignment out of the way in order to stave off anxiety. (The fact that something resembling self-discipline is required to complete a task doesn’t bode well for the likelihood of deriving any intellectual benefit from it. Learning, after all, depends not on what students do so much as on how they regard and construe what they do. To assume otherwise is to revert to a crude behaviorism long since repudiated by serious scholars.)
More generally, self-discipline can be less a sign of health than of vulnerability. It may reflect a fear of being overwhelmed by external forces, or by one’s own desires, that must be suppressed through continual effort. In effect, such individuals suffer from a fear of being out of control. In his classic work Neurotic Styles, David Shapiro described how someone might function as “his own overseer, issuing commands, directives, reminders, warnings, and admonitions concerning not only what is to be done and what is not to be done, but also what is to be wanted, felt, and even thought.” Secure, healthy people can be playful, flexible, open to new experiences and self-discovery, deriving satisfaction from the process rather than always focused on the product. An extremely self-disciplined student, by contrast, may see reading or problem-solving purely as a means to the end of a good test score or a high grade. In Shapiro’s more general formulation, such people “do not feel comfortable with any activity that lacks an aim or a purpose beyond its own pleasure, and usually they do not recognize the possibility of finding life satisfying without a continuous sense of purpose and effort.”
A couple of interesting paradoxes follow from this analysis. One is that while self-discipline implies an exercise of the will, and therefore a free choice, many such people are actually not free at all, psychologically speaking. It’s not that they’ve disciplined themselves so much as that they can’t allow themselves to be undisciplined. Likewise for the deferral of gratification, as one researcher observed: Those who put off the payoff “were not just ‘better’ at self-control, but in a sense they seemed to be unable to avoid it.”
A second paradox is that impressive self-discipline may contain the seeds of its own undoing: an explosive failure of control, which psychologists call “disinhibition.” From one unhealthy extreme (even if it’s not always recognized as such), people may suddenly find themselves at the other: The compliant student abruptly acts out in appalling fashion; the pious teetotaler goes on a dangerous drinking binge or shifts from absolute abstinence to reckless, unprotected sex. Moreover, making an effort to inhibit potentially undesirable behaviors can have other negative effects. A detailed review of research concerning all sorts of attempts to suppress feelings and behaviors concludes that the results often include “negative affect (discomfort or distress) [and] cognitive disruption (including distractibility and intrusive, obsessive thoughts about the proscribed behavior).”
In short, we shouldn’t always be reassured to learn that a student is remarkably self-disciplined, or apt to delay gratification (since delayers “tend to be somewhat overcontrolled and unnecessarily inhibited”), or always inclined to persist at a task even when he or she is unsuccessful. The last of these tendencies, commonly romanticized as tenacity or “grit,” may actually reflect a “refusal to disengage” that stems from an unhealthy and often counterproductive need to continue with something even when it clearly doesn’t make sense to do so.
Of course, not every child who exhibits self-discipline, or something similar, is doing so in a worrisome way. So what distinguishes the healthy and adaptive kind? Moderation, perhaps, but also flexibility, which Block calls “adaptively responsive variability.” What counts is the capacity to choose whether and when to persevere, to control oneself, to follow the rules – rather than the simple tendency to do these things in every situation. This, rather than self-discipline or self-control per se, is what children would benefit from developing. But such a formulation is very different from the uncritical celebration of self-discipline that we find in the field of education and throughout our culture.