2012. Vol.3, No.12, 1074-1083
Published Online December 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1074
Breaking the Rules: Low Trait or State Self-Control Increases
Social Norm Violations
Matthew T. Gailliot1, Seth A. Gitter2, Michael D. Baker3, Roy F. Baumeister4
1Psychology Department, Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, USA
2US Army Research Institute for the Behavioral Sciences, Ft. Benning, USA
3Psychology Department, East Carolina University, Greenville, USA
4Psychology Department, Florida State University, Tallahassee, USA
Received August 15th, 2012; revised September 12th, 2012; accepted October 11th, 2012
Two pilot and six studies indicated that poor self-control causes people to violate social norms and rules
that are effortful to follow. Lower trait self-control was associated with a greater willingness to take ethi-
cal risks and use curse words. Participants who completed an initial self-control task that reduced the ca-
pacity for self-control used more curse words and were more willing to take ethical risks than participants
who completed a neutral task. Poor self-control was also associated with violating explicit rules given by
the experimenter. Depleting self-control resources in a self-control exercise caused participants subse-
quently to talk when they had been instructed to remain silent. Low trait self-control and poor perform-
ance on a behavioral measure of self-control (the Stroop task) predicted poor compliance following ex-
perimental instructions over a 2-week span. Poor self-control thus undermines adherence to some social
rules and regulations, therefore possibly contributing to a broad variety of social ills.
Keywords: Ego Depletion; Social Norms; Self-Control; Self-Regulation; Ethical Behavior; Risk Taking;
The capacity to follow rules and regulations is far more ad-
vanced among humans than among any other species (e.g.,
Baumeister, 2005). Without this vital capacity, modern society
would cease to function in any meaningful form. Adherence to
social regulations (e.g., norms, morals, and laws) seems espe-
cially important, bestowing numerous benefits on members of
society collectively and individually. When society’s members
comply with its regulations, they can expect to experience
healthier, safer, and generally more desirable lives as a result.
People oftentimes violate norms and regulations, however,
sometimes with devastating consequences (e.g., death, rape,
addiction, prison). Understanding why people violate social
regulations thus offers great promise for alleviating numerous
social ills and increasing life satisfaction. The current work
therefore examined one potentially important reason that people
fail to follow social regulations.
Following social regulations is sometimes effortful and de-
manding, and in these situations should therefore require
self-regulation or self-control (i.e., the process of controlling
ones’ thoughts, emotions, or urges, or altering one’s habitual
behaviors). What the individual wants to do (e.g., seek immedi-
ate gratification) sometimes conflicts with what social regula-
tions would recommend (e.g., wait your turn), and so the indi-
vidual must exert self-control so as to bring his or her behavior
into line with societal standards. The main hypothesis of the
current work was therefore that poor or impaired self-control
would make people less likely to abide by social norms and
regulations that involve a conflict between what the individual
wants to do and what the individual ought to do.
Self-Regulation: Trait and State Differences
The current work examined both dispositional and temporary
impairments to self-control. People differ in their dispositional
capacity to self-regulate, such that some people are clearly
more capable of self-regulating than others. The ability to
self-regulate appears to be stable across the lifespan, with indi-
vidual differences during childhood enduring into adulthood
(e.g., Mischel, Shoda, & Peake, 1988). Such differences in
self-control are related to a broad range of desirable outcomes.
People with high (as compared to low) trait self-control show
greater interpersonal popularity and healthier relationships,
superior school performance, and better coping skills and men-
tal heath (e.g., Finkel & Campbell, 2001; Mischel et al., 1988;
Tangney, Baumeister, & Boone, 2004). Trait self-control thus
appears to be highly adaptive and beneficial across numerous
life domains.
Though self-regulation capacity differs as a trait, it also dif-
fers as a state, such that any one individual is more capable of
self-regulating at some times than at others. In particular, the
use of self-control appears to resemble a muscle or limited
stock of energy that becomes depleted with use (for reviews,
see Baumeister, Schmeichel, & Vohs, 2005; Muraven & Bau-
meister, 2000). Performing one task that requires self-control
consumes self-regulatory strength, such that performance on
other, subsequent self-regulatory tasks is impaired. In one study,
for instance, participants who had to resist eating freshly baked
cookies subsequently quit sooner on a task requiring effortful
persistence, compared to participants who did not have to resist
eating cookies, consistent with the idea that their self-regulatory
resources had been depleted by resisting the temptation to eat
cookies (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998).
Indeed, multiple findings demonstrate that people become
less capable of self-regulating after their self-regulatory re-
sources have been depleted (e.g., Finkel & Campbell, 2001;
Richeson & Shelton, 2003; Schmeichel, Vohs, & Baumeister,
2003). When their self-control strength has been depleted, peo-
ple are less capable of refraining from eating (Kahan, Polivy, &
Herman, 2003), limiting their alcohol intake (Muraven, Collins,
& Neinhaus, 2002), and suppressing unwanted thoughts (Gail-
liot, Schmeichel, & Baumeister, 2006).
The capacity for self-control thus differs as a trait and also as
a state, and such differences have been shown to predict
self-regulatory performance in numerous domains. The current
work examined whether low trait self-control and state self-
control depletion would cause failures in following some social
Social Norms and Rules and Self-Regulation
Self-control is powerfully adaptive and might be especially
useful for enabling people to follow social regulations. From an
evolutionary perspective, self-regulation possibly paved the
way for participation in culture, by allowing people to control
their selfish and uncivilized urges for the sake of getting along
with others. As a result, people were better able to cooperate
with one another and work toward long-term goals, thereby
facilitating survival and reproduction. Self-regulation may pos-
sibly have evolved in part to allow people to conform to social
norms and regulations.
Some findings are consistent with the view that self-control
might enable people to follow social norms and rules. For in-
stance, low self-control is one of the leading causes of criminal
behavior (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990; Pratt & Cullen, 2000),
and criminal behavior is by definition a direct violation of soci-
ety’s official rules. Further, low self-control seems to under-
mine sexual restraint, thereby contributing to socially inappro-
priate sexual acts (Gailliot & Baumeister, 2005). Thus, when
people lack self-control, they seem prone to violate norms of
sexuality and lawful behavior.
Research Overview
The current work tested directly whether low self-control
would cause people to violate social norms and other rules in-
volving a conflict between personal desires and external de-
mands. To provide converging evidence, we both assessed and
manipulated self-control. To reduce the possibility that our
results could be attributable to artifact of some particular pro-
cedure, we used a variety of methods, including self-report and
behavioral measures.
To increase the generalizability of the findings, we also used
a variety of methods to assess adherence to social regulations.
The first set of studies examined the role of self-control in fol-
lowing more subtle or implicit norms. Specifically, we first
examined ethical behavior (Study 1), the use of profanity
(Study 2), and social reciprocation (Study 3). We predicted that
impaired self-control (low trait self-control or depletion) would
increase the likelihood that participants would violate social
regulations, such that they would be more likely to behave un-
ethically, use profanity, and violate norms of reciprocity.
The purpose of the second set of studies was to demonstrate
that low self-control causes people to violate social rules even
when these rules are highly salient, explicit, and clearly di-
rected toward the individual. Specifically, participants were
instructed to refrain from talking while being alone with their
current dating partner (Study 5), to change how they normally
spoke (Study 5), or to use their non-dominant hand for a variety
of tasks (Study 6). Low self-control should undermine the abil-
ity to adhere to explicit social regulations, and so those with
low (versus high) self-control should be more likely to fail to
follow instructions to refrain from talking, speak differently, or
use their non-dominant hand.
Study 1
Study 1 examined whether low self-control would increase
the likelihood that people would violate ethical rules of conduct
by engaging in ethical risks. Ethical behavior is by definition
what society has deemed as being good and desirable, and so
behaving unethically can be considered a direct violation of
social regulations. In order to behave ethically, people must
override their selfish or antisocial desires and instead abide by
rules of appropriate conduct. It seems plausible that self-control
enables individuals to override such desires and behave ethi-
cally (Baumeister & Exline, 1999; Gailliot & Baumeister,
2005). If people are less able to self-regulate, then they should
be more likely to give in to their socially inappropriate desires
and engage in unethical behavior.
Two pilot studies demonstrated a link between low self-con-
trol and unethical behavior. In one study, participants com-
pleted the trait Self-Control Scale (Tangney et al., 2004) and
the abbreviated Risk Taking Behaviors Scale (RTBS; Weber,
Blais, & Betz, 2002), which contains 5 items that assess one’s
willingness to take ethical risks (e.g., forging a signature,
cheating on an exam, taking credit for someone else’s work).
Low trait self-control predicted a greater willingness to take
ethical risks, r(42) = .31, p < .05. In the other pilot study, par-
ticipants completed the State Depletion Scale (Twenge, Mu-
raven, & Tice, 2004; for a similar measure, see Finkel &
Campbell, 2001), which assesses perceptions of currently
available self-regulatory resources, and the full version of the
RTBS. Stronger perceptions of depletion predicted a greater
willingness to take ethical risks, r(148) = .21, p < .05. In sum,
two pilot studies suggested that low trait or depleted self-con-
trol might predispose one to engage in unethical behavior.
The correlational nature of the pilot data clearly precludes
drawing any firm causal conclusions, however. The purpose of
Study 1 was therefore to develop a stronger causal conclusion
by manipulating self-regulatory strength and then measuring
subsequent willingness to take ethical risks.
The manipulation of self-regulatory strength was derived
from past research (e.g., Baumeister et al., 1998). For this ma-
nipulation, participants first crossed out letters on a page of text
according to a specific set of instructions so as to establish a
habit or routine of crossing out letters. For participants in the
self-control depletion condition, they were then required to
override this habit by crossing out letters according to a revised,
more complex rule that in some (but not all) cases contradicted
the rule they had learned. Self-control is required to override a
previously established habit, and so following the new routine
is posited to deplete self-regulatory strength. In the no-deple-
tion condition, participants followed the same rule that they
learned initially and thus had to exert little or no self-control
because they were not required to override any habit.
At the end of this task, participants completed the RTBS as a
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1075
measure of ethical risk taking. If low self-control undermines
the likelihood of following social norms, then participants who
had to exert and therefore depleted their self-control during the
crossing out letters task should be more likely to take ethical
risks than those who did not have to exert self-control.
Participants. Participants in this and all subsequent studies
were undergraduate students enrolled in introductory psychol-
ogy courses who received credit toward fulfilling a course re-
quirement. Fifty-five students (34 women) participated in Study
1. They were randomly assigned to a self-control depletion or
no-depletion condition.
Procedure. Participants were run individually or in pairs and
were told that the study wasinvestigating personality. They
received a questionnaire packet that contained all materials for
the study and worked through the packet at their own pace.
First, participants completed a task that required the crossing
out of letters on a page of text, which served as the depletion
manipulation. Specifically, participants were given two copies
of a page of typewritten text taken from a scientific journal
article. On the first page, participants were instructed to cross
out every occurrence of the letter e. The page contained a high
number (337) of es and so participants should have established
a well-practiced routine of crossing out es. For the second page
of text, participants assigned to the no-depletion condition were
asked to follow the same rule as before by crossing out all oc-
currences of the letter e. This task required a high number of
responses and so was somewhat demanding for these partici-
pants. Participants in the depletion condition, however, were
asked to follow a different rule than before by crossing out all
occurrences of the letter e except for es that were followed by a
vowel or es that appeared in a word with a vowel appearing two
letters before the e. Thus, this task demanded fewer responses
but more overriding of incipient responses.
Next, participants completed the Brief Mood Introspection
Scale (BMIS; Mayer & Gaschke, 1988) as a measure of mood
valence and arousal. The BMIS contains 20 items indicative of
mood (e.g., happy, sad) and arousal (e.g., peppy, drowsy). Par-
ticipants were asked to rate each item on the extent to which
that item described how they were feeling at the present mo-
ment on a scale from 1 (definitely do not feel) to 7 (definitely
The following pages in the packet contained the final de-
pendent measure of ethical risk taking, the full version of the
RTBS (Weber et al., 2002), and two filler questionnaires (the
order of which was counterbalanced across participants). The
full version of the RTBS contains 8 items pertaining to ethical
risks and 32 items pertaining to non-ethical risks. Afterward,
participants completed a single item measure of self-efficacy
(“How well do you feel like you did on the crossing out es
task?”) and demographic information. Last, participants were
thanked and debriefed.
Results and Discussion
Depletion and Risk-Taking Behavior. We predicted and con-
firmed that self-control depletion would cause participants to
break social norms such that depletion would increase ethical
risk taking. Depleted participants indicated that they were more
likely to take ethical risks (M = 1.70, SD = .55) than did nonde-
pleted participants (M = 1.42, SD = .34), t (43) = 2.03, p < .05.
The difference between the two conditions was medium in size,
d = .64. Thus, when participants’ self-regulatory strength had
been depleted by a prior self-regulatory task, they indicated
being more likely to violate social norms by taking ethical risks,
such as forging a signature or taking credit for another’s work.
We also examined whether depletion influenced willingness
to engage in risks more generally, as assessed by the 32-item
measure of non-ethical risks on the RTBS. Depleted and
non-depleted participants did not differ in the perceived likeli-
hood of engaging in non-ethical risks, t < 1, ns. This provides
some evidence that the effect of low self-control upon risk tak-
ing may have been specific to ethical risk taking rather than to
risk taking in general.
Mood, Arousal, and Self-Efficacy. We also assessed whether
the difference in ethical risk taking between depleted and non-
depleted participants was attributable to or mediated by mood
valence or arousal (as assessed by the BMIS immediately after
the es task) or how well participants thought they did on the es
task (assessed at the end of the experiment). Tests of mediation
require that a mediator be significantly related to both the in-
dependent and dependent variables (Baron & Kenny, 1986).
Analyses indicated that these criteria were not met for mood,
arousal, or self-efficacy. For instance, none of these factors was
significantly related to ethical risk taking, all rs < .19. These
results suggest that the relationship between depletion and
ethical risk taking was probably not attributable to mood,
arousal, or self-efficacy.
Study 2
Norms surrounding ethical risk taking might be closely tied
with self-control because unethical behavior is strongly dis-
couraged, such that people are highly attuned toward detecting
cheaters and unethical behavior (e.g., Cosmides & Tooby,
2004). Study 2 therefore sought to build upon the results of
Study 1 by examining whether low trait self-control and deple-
tion would be related to violations of a norm not directly related
to ethical behavior—avoiding the use of curse words. Social
norms typically discourage the use of curse words, especially in
public settings (e.g., Rubens, 1981), and so we considered the
use of curse words as an appropriate measure of following so-
cial norms.
Specifically, as in Study 1, we assessed self-control using the
trait measure and manipulated self-control strength using the es
task. To assess the likelihood of violating social norms, we
used a behavioral measure in which participants completed
word puzzles that could be solved with either curse or non-
curse (neutral) words. We predicted that low self-control would
increase the tendency to violate social norms. Therefore, par-
ticipants with low or depleted self-control should respond with
more curse words than participants with higher self-control.
Participants. Participants were 86 undergraduates (65
women). Participants were randomly assigned to a self-control
depletion or no-depletion condition.
Procedure. Assessment of trait self-control: Participants
completed the brief 13-item measure of trait self-control
(Tangney et al., 2004) during a mass testing session at the start
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
of the semester. One item from the self-control scale (i.e., “I
say inappropriate things”) was in principle related to the de-
pendent measure. To avoid being tautological, we therefore
excluded responses to this item from the final measure of trait
self-control (though the results remained relatively unchanged
when including responses to this item). Eighteen participants
did not complete the mass testing session. They were therefore
excluded from all analyses involving trait self-control.
Experimental session: Participants completed the main phase
of the experiment approximately 3 months after the mass test-
ing session. They were run in a classroom setting and were told
that the study was investigating attitudes and opinions. They
received a questionnaire packet that contained all materials for
the study and worked through the packet at their own pace.
First, participants completed the same crossing out es task
used in Study 1b. At the end of the task, participants completed
a rough check of the self-regulatory demand of the task by in-
dicating how difficult the task was on a scale from 1 (not at all
difficult) to 7 (very difficult). Next, participants completed some
filler questionnaires and demographic information.
Last, participants completed a list of 31 word fragments and
4 anagrams, all of which had multiple, non-curse word solu-
HITCH, HITS). For the target items, two word fragments (i.e.,
_ U C K, _ I T C H) and one anagram (HSIT) could also be
solved with a curse word. The number of target items solved
with curse words constituted the dependent measure of violat-
ing social norms. Responding with more (rather than fewer)
curse words indicated violating social norms to a greater extent.
Results and Discussion
Self-Control Depletion and Curse Words. We predicted and
confirmed that depletion would increase the number of target
word puzzles solved with curse words. Gender was included as
a factor in the analysis because of the common assumption that
men curse more than women. A 2 (depletion condition) X 2
(gender) analysis of variance (ANOVA) indicated that depleted
participants responded with more curse words (M = 1.07, SD
= .88) than did non-depleted participants (M = .66, SD = .71), F
(1, 82) = 4.70, p < .05, d = .51. This suggests that depletion
increased the likelihood of violating social norms, such that
temporarily depleted self-control was associated with respond-
ing with more curse words.
Further, men responded with more curse words (M = 1.19,
SD = .93) than did women (M = .75, SD = .79), F (1, 82) = 5.36,
p < .05, d = .54. The interaction between depletion condition
and gender did not approach significance, F < 1, ns. Thus, de-
pletion increased the propensity to respond with curse words
equally among male and female participants.
Trait Self-Control and Curse Words. Another prediction was
that participants low in trait self-control would respond with
more curse words than those high in trait self-control. This
prediction was confirmed. Trait self-control was negatively and
significantly related to the number of target items solved with
curse words, r (68) = .29, p < .051. Thus, dispositionally poor
self-control, like self-control depletion, also contributed to vio-
lating social norms. Both experimental manipulations of self-
control and dispositional differences in self-control thus con-
verged on the conclusion that less self-control leads to more
violations of social norms.
Study 3
Study 3 examined the effect of self-control depletion on fol-
lowing norms of reciprocity. Norms of reciprocity are among
the most widely documented and strongest of social norms,
even across many different cultures (e.g., Fisher, DePaulo, &
Nadler, 1981; Gouldner, 1960; Greenberg, 1980). When some-
one performs a favor for another, the reciprocity norm entails
some obligation on the recipient to return the favor. Reciprocity
may also entail that someone should not do a favor for a person
who has refused to do a favor for that person.
In Study 3, participants completed the same crossing out es
task used in the previous studies and thus either did or did not
have to exert self-control. After this task, participants in the
favor condition received a favor (being allowed to leave early
from the experiment) from the experimenter, whereas those in
the no-favor condition did not. Last, participants were given the
opportunity to reciprocate by doing or not doing a favor for the
experimenter by volunteering at a local homeless shelter.
Research on the norm of reciprocity suggests that partici-
pants should be more likely to do a favor for the experimenter
when the experimenter does a favor for them, and less likely to
do a favor when the experimenter does not do a favor for them.
If low self-control causes people to fail at following social
norms, then low self-control should reduce compliance with
norms of reciprocity.
Participants. Participants were 86 undergraduates (47
women). Two participants indicated suspicion about the final
dependent measure (see below) and therefore were excluded
from all analyses, leaving a final sample of 84 (45 women).
Participants were randomly assigned to condition.
Procedure. Participants were run individually and were told
the study was investigating the relationship between editing
papers and social interactions. As part of a cover story, partici-
pants were also told that they would be working with another
participant during the latter part of the experiment.
First, participants completed the same crossing out es task
used in the previous studies. To bolster the cover story, the
experimenter stated prior to the start of this task that the other
participant had not yet arrived but that the participant could
The next part of the study constituted the manipulation of
social norms (modified from Regan, 1971). Specifically, par-
ticipants were told that they were supposed to have an interac-
tion with the other participant but that this person had not
shown up. To establish a norm of giving favors, those in the
favor condition were told that the experimenter would allow
them to leave early and would give them full credit despite their
not having completed the latter half of the experiment. To es-
tablish a norm of not giving favors, those in the no-favor condi-
tion were not told that they would be given credit for the ex-
periment at that point. Instead, they were told that they had to
work on another task for the next 30 minutes in order to receive
full credit. (For ethical purposes, however, the consent form
stated that participants were allowed to leave at any point dur-
ing the experiment and would still receive the appropriate
1A regression analysis indicated that this effect was not moderated by de-
pletioncondition. This finding is consistent with other research (Gailliot &
Baumeister, 2005) showing that self-control depletion and trait self-control
each contribute to self-regulation but that the two do not interact.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1077
amount of credit.)
Immediately after the manipulation of favor norms, partici-
pants were given the opportunity to do a favor for the experi-
menter. Specifically, the experimenter stated that he or she
worked at a local homeless shelter and was hoping that the
participant would do a favor for him or her by volunteering at
the shelter. Participants then completed a bogus volunteer sheet
on which they indicated whether they would be willing to vol-
unteer and for how many hours. The number of hours consti-
tuted the dependent measure of following social norms. In the
favor condition, volunteering for more hours indicated follow-
ing the norm of giving. In the no-favor condition, however,
volunteering for fewer hours indicated following the norm of
not giving. Hence, in the no-favor condition, we reverse scored
the number of hours for which participants volunteered.
Results and Discussion
We predicted that depletion would reduce the likelihood that
participants would follow social norms of reciprocation. A 2
(Depletion condition: Depletion vs. no-depletion) × 2 (Favor
condition: Favor vs. no-favor) analysis of variance (ANOVA)
confirmed this prediction. The analysis indicated a significant
main effect of depletion condition, F(1, 80) = 4.25, p < .05, d
= .46. Participants in the depletion condition (M = 1.55, SD =
2.18) reciprocated to a lesser extent than did participants in the
no-depletion condition (M = 2.60, SD = 2.39). This result un-
derscores the notion that low self-control causes violations of
social norms. Depleted participants failed to follow norms of
The main effect of favor condition and its interaction with
depletion condition were not significant, both Fs < .02, ns.
Thus, depletion reduced reciprocity regardless of whether the
norm was to perform or not perform a favor.
Study 42
Studies 1-3 demonstrated that following social norms re-
quires self-control, such that low self-control caused people to
violate established social norms (ethics, profanity, reciprocity).
Rather than examine established, implicit social norms, Studies
4-6 sought to build upon the previous studies by devising new
regulations and making it explicitly clear to participants that
they were supposed to follow these rules. If low self-control
causes violations of social regulations, then people with low
(state or trait) self-control should be relatively more likely to
disobey explicit instructions from the situational authority fig-
ure, in this case the experimenter.
In Study 4, participants were asked to refrain from talking
during part of the experiment, and we examined whether
self-control depletion would cause participants to break this
rule. Specifically, participants first watched a video of a woman
talking as words (unrelated to the woman’s talking) appeared
below. Participants in the self-control depletion condition were
asked to focus only on the woman and to ignore the words on
the screen. Attention automatically orients toward novel stimuli
appearing in the environment (e.g., Shiffrin & Schneider, 1977),
and so the task required these participants to exert self-control
by overriding pre-potent orienting of attention to the words and
maintain attention instead only on the woman. We expected
that this initial act of self-regulation would deplete participants’
self-regulatory strength, as in prior research (e.g., Schmeichel et
al., 2003). Participants in the no-depletion condition were asked
to watch the video as they would normally and hence were not
required to control their attention or exert active self-control.
Participants then completed a task with their current dating
partner. For this task, each partner was explicitly instructed to
avoid talking with his or her partner. If low self-control causes
people to violate social rules and regulations, even those re-
cently formed, then depleted participants should be more likely
to talk than non-depleted participants.
Participants. Undergraduates currently dating someone with
whom they would be comfortable engaging in some sort of
physical intimacy (e.g., holding hands) were invited to partici-
pate. Participants were 21 male-female romantic couples that
chose to sign up for the study in connection with course re-
quirements for one or both members of the couple. Each couple
was randomly assigned to a self-control depletion or no-deple-
tion condition.
Procedure. Participants arrived at the study with their current
romantic partner and were seated in separate rooms. Partici-
pants were told the study was examining the relationship be-
tween task performance and intimacy in relationships. The first
task served as the manipulation of self-regulatory resources.
Specifically, participants watched a 6 minute video (without
sound) of a woman talking. In the bottom corner of the screen,
words (e.g., hair, hat, pulse) appeared individually for 10 sec-
onds (modified from Gilbert, Krull, & Pelham, 1988). Partici-
pants in the depletion condition were instructed to focus their
attention only on the woman’s face and to refrain from looking
at the words. If they happened to look at the words, they were
to re-focus their attention on the woman as quickly as possible.
Participants in theno-depletion cond-itionwere instructed to
watch the video as they would normally (i.e., as if they were
sitting at home watching television). Upon finishing their re-
spective tasks, participants completed amanipulation check and
the BMIS to assess mood and arousal (Mayer & Gaschke,
Next, participants were instructed that they would complete a
task to assess how people express physical intimacy in their
relationships. Participants were asked to express some sort of
physical intimacy (e.g., holding hands, hugging) with their
dating partner and that it was entirely up to them as to what
they did (provided that both partners consented to the behavior).
Participants were told that they would have complete privacy
and were given 3 minutes to complete this task.
Most importantly for current concerns, participants were ex-
plicitly instructed to not talk during this task. At the end of the
task, participants were taken to separate rooms and were given
a questionnaire on which they were to indicate whether (yes or
no) they had talked during the task, and thus violated experi-
mental instructions. To increase the likelihood that participants
would respond honestly, they were reminded to answer truth-
fully and that it was okay if they did talk—we simply wanted to
2Studies 4-6 were conducted to test other hypotheses irrelevant to the pre-
sent investigation, and those results (using measures other than what is
reported here) have in some cases been written up in other works. Hence
the data reported here represent secondary reanalyses of existing data. The
specific findings reported here have not been reported elsewhere, however.
We included them here because they presented a very helpful opportunity to
investigate whether low self-control would affect whether participants
followed an assortment of explicit, specific instructions.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
know the truth. Couples for whom at least one dating partner
indicated having talked were considered as having talked and
thereby having breached the experimental rule. Last, partici-
pants were thanked and debriefed.
Results and Discussion
We predicted and confirmed that depletion would increase
the likelihood that participants would violate the experimental
rule to refrain from talking. Depleted couples were more likely
to indicate having talked than were non-depleted couples, χ2 (1,
N = 21) = 3.83, p = .05. Whereas 70% of depleted couples in-
dicated that they had talked, only 27% of non-depleted couples
indicated that they had talked3. Thus, self-control depletion
caused participants to violate a social rule—not talking—given
to them by the experimenter.
Study 5
If low self-control causes people to fail at following novel
social rules, then trait self-control (in addition to depletion)
should be related to the extent to which people abide by others’
rules. Study 5 therefore assessed trait self-control and examined
whether participants with low trait self-control would adhere
less faithfully to experimental instructions than those with high
trait self-control.
For the experimental instructions, participants were asked to
alter their customary mode of speaking for 2 weeks. We pre-
dicted that participants low in trait self-control would more
poorly follow these instructions, compared to those high in trait
Participants. Participants were 48 undergraduates (32
women). Three participants did not return for the second ex-
perimental session. Their data therefore were excluded from all
analyses, leaving a final sample of 45 (29 women).
Procedure. Participants were run individually and told that
the study was examining how different aspects of people’s
personality (e.g., attitudes and verbal abilities) are related.
During an initial experimental session, they completed tasks
(e.g., solving anagrams) in the exploration of other issues.
At the end of the session, participants were given journals
that stated that they were to modify their manner of speaking
for the next 2 weeks (borrowed from Oaten, Cheng, & Bau-
meister, 2004). Specifically, they were asked to only say “yes”
and “no” instead of using similar colloquialisms (e.g., yeah,
yup, nope, nah), to speak only in full and complete sentences,
to avoid using sentences that began with “I”, and to not use
slang or swear words. Participants were also asked to record in
the journals how well they had followed the instructions. At the
end of each day, participants were to record how often they
complied with each of the different requirements, using a scale
from 1 (never) to 9 (all the time). These responses were aver-
aged to create the final dependent measure of how well partici-
pants followed the instructions.
The journals stressed the importance of remembering to fol-
low the instructions each day. However, they also made it ex-
plicitly clear that it was essential for participants to be honest in
reporting how well they followed the instructions and that their
receiving credit for the study was in no way contingent upon
their responses.
At the end of the 2 weeks, participants returned for a second
experimental session and returned their completed journals.
After completing some activities similar to those in the first
session, participants completed the full version of the Trait
Self-Control Scale (Tangney et al., 2004). The Self-Control
Scale contains 36 items (e.g., “I have a hard time breaking bad
habits”, “I am good at resisting temptation”) answered on a
scale from 1 (not at all like me) to 5 (very much like me). Par-
ticipants were last thanked and debriefed.
Results and Discussion
Trait self-control correlated positively and moderately strong
with following the instructions, r (45) = .53, p < .001. Partici-
pants high in trait self-control reported having followed the
speech modification exercises more faithfully than those low in
self-control. Self-control thus seems to enable people to follow
artificial rules, such as those given by an experimenter, as well
as pre-existing social norms.
One might wonder whether the results are circular or trivial
in the sense that items on the trait self-control scale may have
been directly related to participants’ willingness to follow the
experimental instructions. Inspection of the scale revealed no
such items. The self-control scale is based on behavioral meas-
ures (e.g., “I spend too much money”, “I lose my temper too
easily”) that are not directly related to the experimental instruc-
tions used in the current study. It therefore seems likely that
low self-control lends itself to a personal disposition toward
breaking social rules and other regulations, rather than simply a
disregard for only experimental instructions.
Study 6
Study 6 constituted a conceptual replication of Study 5 that
used a different operationalization of trait self-control and a
different instructional task (i.e., using one’s nondominant hand).
We also added a no-exercise control condition to determine
whether self-control was related to the exercises we used even
when participants were not instructed to complete the exercises.
Specifically, as a measure of trait self-control, participants
completed the Stroop color word interference task. The Stroop
task is one of the most frequently used measures of self-control
(see MacLeod, 1991). For this task, participants had to indicate
the color ink of color words (e.g., red). On some trials, the
color ink and meaning of the word were different (e.g., red
appeared in blue ink), and these trials required self-control be-
cause participants had to inhibit the tendency to read the words
and instead respond according to the color ink. Responding
faster on these trials and with fewer errors indicated superior
performance and hence higher self-control. This approach thus
complements our use of standard self-report trait scales in the
other studies by providing a behavioral measure. In essence,
this study assessed self-control by seeing how people would
actually control their behavior, as opposed to asking them to
report on their general tendencies to control their behavior.
3For three couples, one partner indicated that the couple had talked, whereas
the other
artner indicated that they had not. Excluding these couples from
the analyses produced the same result. More couples in the depletion condi-
tion (66.7%) indicated having talked than did those in the no-depletion
condition (11.1%), χ2 (1, N = 18) = 5.84, p < .05. Similarly, considering
each of these three couples as having either talked or not talked produced
the same result, both ps< .05.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1079
After completing this task, participants received one of two
sets of instructions. Those in the exercise instructions condition
were asked to use their non-dominant hand for a variety of
tasks for the next 2 weeks, whereas those in the no-exercise
instructions condition were asked to record the frequency with
which they used their non-dominant hand for the same tasks. If
self-control enables people to more effectively follow rules and
regulations, then participants who perform better on the Stroop
task (indicative of higher trait self-control) should follow the
exercise instructions more faithfully than those who perform
Participants. Participants were 81 undergraduates (66
women) who participated in exchange for course credit and
$10.00. Two participants did not understand the Stroop task
instructions. Their data therefore were excluded from all analy-
ses, leaving a final sample of 79 (64 women). Participants were
randomly assigned to an exercise or no-exercise instructions
Procedure. Participants were run individually and were told
that the study was examining how different aspects of people’s
personality (e.g., attitudes and verbal abilities) are related.
During an initial laboratory session, participants completed the
Stroop task on the computer and some filler measures unrelated
to the current investigation.
For the Stroop task, participants completed 3 blocks of trials.
The first block consisted of practice trials to familiarize par-
ticipants with how to respond on the keyboard. Specifically,
participants completed 30 trials in which a string of Xs
(“XXXXX”) appeared on the computer screen in either red,
blue, or green colored font. Participants were to indicate the
color of the Xs by pressing one of three computer keys (the R,
G, or B key) as quickly as possible. Following each response,
the next string of Xs appeared immediately.
For the next two blocks, participants completed trials in
which the word red, blue, or green appeared on the computer
screen in either red, blue, or green colored font. Participants
were to indicate the font color by pressing one of three com-
puter keys and were asked to respond as quickly and accurately
as possible. The first block consisted of 30 congruent trials in
which the meaning and font color of the word were the same.
The second block consisted of 30 incongruent trials in which
the meaning and font color of the word were different.
At the end of the session, participants were given journals
similar to those used in Study 5. For participants in the exercise
instructions condition, the journals instructed them to use their
non-dominant hand (e.g., their left-hand if they were right-
handed) for a variety of tasks (i.e., brushing their teeth, opening
doors, eating with utensils, using tools, carrying and holding
items, using a computer mouse, and stirring drinks). Partici-
pants in the no-exercise instructions condition were asked only
to complete the journals. At the end of each day, participants
were to record how often they had used their non-dominant
hand for each of the different behaviors, using a scale from 1
(never) to 9 (every chance I had). These responses were aver-
aged to create the final dependent measure of how often par-
ticipants used their non-dominant hand. For those in the exer-
cise instructions condition, this measure therefore indicated the
extent to which they had followed the handedness exercise
To increase participants’ motivation to complete the journals
and follow the instructions, the experimenter stressed to each
participant the importance of following the instructions. This
message was also reiterated in the journals. Further, participants
were reminded that they would receive $10.00 as an additional
incentive to follow the instructions. Thus, participants should
have been highly motivated to follow the instructions. However,
we also made it explicitly clear that it was important for them to
be honest and accurate in reporting how well they followed the
instructions and that their receiving credit and payment for the
study was in no way contingent upon their responses in the
journals. Participants returned their completed journals at the
end of the two weeks.
Results and Discussion
For the Stroop task, participants were asked to respond as
quickly and accurately as possible. We therefore standardized
average reaction times (reverse scored) and percent of correct
responses for congruent and incongruent trials, respectively,
and then we combined these two measures to create two de-
pendent measures of Stroop task performance—one for con-
gruent trials and one for incongruent trials.
To the extent that Stroop performance (on incongruent trials)
is indicative of trait self-control, participants who performed
better on the Stroop task should have more faithfully followed
the exercise instructions. This prediction was confirmed. In the
exercise instructions condition, performance on incongruent
trials was positively and significantly related to the extent to
which participants used their non-dominant hand, r(31) = .40, p
< .05 (for accuracy, r = .36, p < .05; for speed, r = .33, p = .07).
Those who performed better on incongruent trials did a better
job of following the handedness instructions.
This relationship was not significant in the no-exercise in-
structions condition, r < .12, ns. Thus, when participants were
not instructed to use their non-dominant hand, the frequency
with which they used their non-dominant hand was not related
to performance on incongruent trials. Likewise, performance on
congruent trials was not related to the frequency with which
participants used their non-dominant hand in either exercise
instruction condition, both rs< .20, ns. Thus, only performance
on trials that required self-control (incongruent trials) was sig-
nificantly related to following the handedness instructions.
These results thus provide converging evidence that low
self-control reduces the likelihood of following social norms
and other rules. Participants low in self-control, as defined by
performance on incongruent trials on the Stroop task, followed
their exercise instructions less faithfully than participants high
in self-control, over the two weeks. Once again, those low in
self-control apparently lacked the capacity or willingness to
adhere to the experimental instructions.
General Discussion
Self-regulation can be regarded as a vital social trait. Al-
though it probably offers some benefits even to creatures who
live solitary lives and interact mainly with their physical envi-
ronments, it is much more widely useful to social beings, be-
cause it enables them to override their responses and impulses,
especially antisocial ones. Human social life requires people to
subdue a broad variety of selfish and otherwise disruptive im-
pulses so as to avoid conflict, live together harmoniously, and
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
sustain the high level of interactive activity that makes up hu-
man culture. In particular, people must alter their behavior to
conform to a great many rules, ranging from laws and morals to
implicit and informal norms.
In a nutshell, human social life is full of rules and depends on
them, and self-regulation is a vital trait for enabling people to
bring their behavior into line with those rules. The present in-
vestigation elaborated this view of self-regulation by testing the
hypothesis that low or depleted self-control would increase
violations of social norms and rules that involve a conflict be-
tween personal desires or habitual tendencies and situational
requirements. Given the generality of the hypothesis, we sought
to test it in a rather widely assorted set of spheres, using differ-
ent forms of low self-control (state and trait), different social
rules, and different means of measurement.
The link between low self-control and high tendency to vio-
late social rules was found consistently across these studies
despite the different procedures. In Study 1 and two pilot stud-
ies, a higher willingness to take ethical risks was associated
with low trait self-control, manipulated depletion of self-control,
and self-reported states of low (depleted) self-control. In Study
2, usage of socially disapproved (curse) words was linked to
low trait self-control and was increased by a manipulated state
of self-control depletion. Study 3 showed that self-control de-
pletion increased the likelihood that people would violate one
of the most basic and universal social norms, namely reciproc-
ity (here in the sense of doing or not doing a favor for someone
in return for receiving or not receiving a favor, respectively). In
Study 4, an induced state of self-control depletion rendered
people more likely to violate specific instructions from the
situational authority figure (the experimenter) to remain silent.
Study 5 linked low trait self-control to lower compliance with
experimenter instructions regarding speech exercises over a
two-week period. Last, Study 6 showed that low self-control on
a laboratory, behavioral measure (the Stroop task) significantly
predicted poorer compliance with instructions to alter one’s
method of performing various simple motor tasks (i.e., switch-
ing to use the other hand) in one’s everyday life for two weeks.
Confidence in the generality of the conclusion, that low
self-control predicts and promotes various violations of social
rules, is strengthened by the convergence across these different
methods. We found rule violations to be higher among people
who scored low on a questionnaire measure of trait self-control,
among people whose laboratory performance on a behavioral
measure indicated poor trait self-control, among people whose
state self-reports indicated feeling temporarily less capable of
self-control, and among people whose current (state) capacity
for self-control had been diminished by exercises designed to
deplete their resources. Even more important, we found that
low self-control contributed to quite different kinds of rule
violations, including engaging in risky behavior that included
serious violations of ethical rules, relatively minor flouting of
norms for polite speech, disregarding one of the most basic and
universal norms for reciprocating favors, and disobeying spe-
cific instructions from the situational authority figure (the ex-
perimenter). The increase in rule violations was found on ob-
jective behavioral measures, subjective rated willingness to
perform hypothetical behaviors, and self-reported actual be-
havior, and they encompassed behavior limited to the specific
laboratory session, as well as behavior performed at home over
the course of a two-week longitudinal study. It included viola-
tions of implicit, consensually understood, highly general rules
about social behavior, widely recognized and explicitly illegal
behaviors (e.g., forging signatures), and highly specific and
explicitly stated behavioral instructions.
Implications, Alternative Explanations, and Future
The convergence across different methods speaks against
some alternative explanations that might be advanced for cer-
tain specific findings. For instance, it might be suggested that
scoring low on the trait self-control scale bespeaks only a will-
ingness to admit to misdeeds rather than actually lacking
self-control (see Vohs, Baumeister, & Ciarocco, 2004). That
interpretation cannot however account for the findings based on
manipulated low levels of self-control (depletion), nor for the
directly observed (rather than self-reported) norm violations in
Studies 2 and 3, nor with Study 6’s finding that a behavioral
index of trait self-control (Stroop performance) worked as well
as the self-report trait scale for predicting failure to follow the
experimenter’s instructions.
The link between low self-control and ethical violation ap-
peared to be direct, as far as we investigated other potentially
contributing factors. That is, it was not related to gender, mood
valence, emotional arousal, or perceived self-efficacy. And
although some of our findings were correlational, others were
based on experimental manipulations and therefore do permit
causal interpretation.
One implication of the current work concerns the risk factors
for violations of social rules and regulations. People who dem-
onstrate a broad pattern of poor self-control (e.g., poor money
management) can be considered at risk for violating norms and
rules, and situations that place high self-regulatory demands on
the individual are another risk factor. For example, after re-
fraining from yelling at a co-worker, an employee should be
especially likely to misreport his or her corporate expenses. Or,
after paying effortful attention to a boring lecture, college stu-
dents should be especially likely to push and shove as they exit
the classroom, rather than exit politely and orderly. Social rules
and regulations pertain to many aspects of life, and so low or
depleted self-control can be considered risk factors for inap-
propriate or harmful behavior across a broad variety of contexts
(e.g., perhaps especially in situations that require following
explicit instructions that one does not want to follow, as in
Studies 4-6).
Of course, we did not examine all types of social norms and
regulations. Hence, it would be premature to conclude that low
self-control contributes to all types of social norm and rule
violations. Indeed, we posit that low self-control should cause
people to violate norms that require the individual to override
desires that conflict with socially appropriate standards. We
would predict that low self-control does not impair following
norms or rules that do not involve a conflict between internal
and external desires, especially norms or rules that might be
over learned or automatic.
One worthwhile avenue for future research would be to in-
vestigate whether low or depleted self-control reflects primarily
an inability or rather an unwillingness to exert self-control. In
the current studies, for instance, it seems reasonable that par-
ticipants could have refrained from breaking social norms and
rules (e.g., talking, using curse words) had they been suffi-
ciently motivated. Still, the fact that increased motivation might
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1081
compensate for low self-control does not necessarily mean that
low self-control reflects a lack of motivation.
Concluding Remarks
Human social life is saturated with rules to an extent that is
unthinkable in any other known species. In that sense, the suc-
cessful functioning of human culture depends on people having
a relatively powerful inner mechanism that helps them alter
their behavior and override their impulses so as to conform to
all manner of rules—tax laws, religious commandments, traf-
fic regulations, etiquette, dress codes, moral pressures against
discrimination and prejudicial speech, and the like. Moreover, it
is essential that people follow rules even in the absence of so-
cietal enforcers able to threaten immediate punishment to rule
The present investigation was based on the assumption that
self-regulation is the centrally important inner mechanism that
enables people to alter their behavior so as to conform to rules.
Consistent with that, we found that relative deficiencies in
self-control were linked to or a direct cause of violations of
assorted social rules.
To be sure, not all rule following is good. Psychologists have
recognized for decades that obedience can produce hurtful be-
havior (e.g., Milgram, 1963), and human history has provided
many examples of groups whose rules promoted destructive,
violent, and costly actions by the members who followed those
rules most closely (e.g., organized crime, intolerant religions,
repressive governments, terrorist groups, professional torturers).
On the whole, however, obeying norms and rules is highly de-
sirable. Without obedience, it is hard to see how corporations,
military units, or even families could function successfully.
Economic marketplaces, scientific research, medical care, edu-
cation, and other systems that enable societies to thrive depend
on having rules. In fact, recent work has shown that the rule of
law is positively associated with higher levels of societal hap-
piness (Veenhoven, 2003).
Rules can however confer their benefits only if people obey
them. Self-control isapparently vital for that, at least in some
cases. A weakening of self-control among members of society
may therefore contribute to a weakening of the social fabric
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