Does Self-Discipline Have a Dark Side?

Self-discipline and strong willpower are seen as admirable qualities that lead to success. But can having too much of them unleash your dark side?

Self-discipline is a quality usually sought after by employers, and many of us wish we had more of it. Strong willpower helps us overcome obstacles and achieve goals. People with self-control are also generally harder working as they realise the importance of sticking to the task at hand. They're better able to maintain healthy habits such as regular exercise and a nutritious diet, and they're less likely to fall into negative behaviours such as alcohol abuse. Knowing all this, how could self-control become a less than desirable quality?

Surprisingly, under certain circumstances, the trait that makes a person a model employee and citizen can also lead them to behaving cruelly and ignoring the moral implications of their actions. One experiment that took place in France asked people to play the role of 'questioners' and to give an electric shock to subjects who gave wrong answers. Participants with high self-control were more willing to give high levels of electric shock even when they heard the subjects scream in pain (the subjects were acting and the shocks weren't real). In addition, in other experiments, those with more self-control have been shown to be more selfish, especially if they knew their selfish acts would not be seen by others.

In real life situations, highly self-disciplined people are more likely to behave badly in an already toxic work environment. In a healthy environment, they'll be diligent and driven, but in the wrong circumstances, they may not question authority when asked to do something unethical. In a tight situation, they'd also be more willing to throw their colleagues under the bus to hold on to power.

While self-discipline has its benefits, other qualities are equally valuable. Those who may be a bit less reliable can make valuable contributions to a team with their compassion and a less conformist outlook.


The benefits of self-control
The surprising negative effects
Potential problems in the workplace
Value other qualities