Self-control enables people to override momentary thoughts, emotions, or impulses in order to pursue long-term goals. Good self-control is a predictor for health, success, and subjective well-being, as bad self-control is for the opposite. Therefore, the question arises why evolution has not endowed us with perfect self-control. In this article, we draw some attention to the hidden benefits of self-control failure and present a new experimental paradigm that captures both costs and benefits of self-control failure. In an experiment, participants worked on three consecutive tasks: 1) In a transcription task, we manipulated how much effortful self-control two groups of participants had to exert. 2) In a number-comparison task, participants of both groups were asked to compare numbers and ignore distracting neutral versus reward-related pictures. 3) After a pause for recreation, participants were confronted with an unannounced recognition task measuring whether they had incidentally encoded the distracting pictures during the previous number-comparison task. The results showed that participants who exerted a high amount of effortful self-control during the first task shifted their priorities and attention toward the distractors during the second self-control demanding task: The cost of self-control failure was reflected in worse performance in the number-comparison task. Moreover, the group which had exerted a high amount of self-control during the first task and showed self-control failure during the second task was better in the unannounced third task. The benefit of self-control failure during number comparison was reflected in better performance during the recognition task. However, costs and benefits were not specific for reward-related distractors but also occurred with neutral pictures. We propose that the hidden benefit of self-control failure lies in the exploration of distractors present during goal pursuit, i.e. the collection of information about the environment and the potential discovery of new sources of reward. Detours increase local knowledge.
ZeitschriftPLoS One
PublikationsstatusVeröffentlicht - 01.10.2021
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ID: 1694301