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Across a series of seven experiments including about 3,500 people, a collection of both students and working adults read about or interacted with individuals showcasing varying levels of self-control.

For the purposes of this research, scientists defined self-control as how much people tend to behave in ways aligned with their goals. Across all seven experiments, participants showing more self-control ranked as being more powerful and better suited for powerful roles, than others with low self-control.

During one experiment in particular, working adults had to imagine a scenario in which a colleague, with the goal of getting into shape, either ate a large dessert or abstained from desserts completely. Study authors observed that this fictional person was considered better suited for high-power roles when they abstained from indulging, an indicator of self-control.

“It did not matter whether the colleague seemed to deliberate before acting, or just acted without thinking,” says Pamela Smith, associate professor of management at the Rady School of Management and co-author of the study, in a media release. “What mattered for participants’ judgments was whether the colleague acted in line with their goals. This pattern held across a variety of goals in our experiments, including saving money, being healthy and reading books.”

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Participants showing more self-control ranked as being more powerful and better suited for powerful roles, than others with low self-control. (© Cherries – stock.adobe.com)

Study authors also note that individuals tend to appear less powerful and less suited for powerful roles after failing to meet ambitious goals – even if they perform generally the same as their peers. During one experiment, the team set out to assess how and why self-control often leads to power. To that end, a group of undergraduate students interacted with individuals who set various reading goals. Some people set a very ambitious goal of reading 200 pages each week, while others went with a more moderate goal of reading just 50 pages weekly.

All participants read the same amount (100 pages) but those who failed to meet their goal fell to the perception of being less powerful. Moreover, participants became less interested in having others who didn’t meet their goal serve as the group leader during other tasks.

“To motivate their employees, organizations often want employees to set stretch goals – goals that are challenging and hard-to-reach. However, we found that setting a stretch goal and not meeting it makes someone look less powerful than setting an easy goal and surpassing it,” concludes Rady School PhD student Shuang Wu, the first author of the paper.

The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

About John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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