Social maturity and self-control

In my last post I touched upon Robert Kegan’s Social Maturity theory whereby as humans develop they become more and more objective and loose more and more of their subjectivity. Today I read a blog post on PsyBlog about self-control and how the techniques for self-control relies on becoming more and more abstract and more and more objective. But first the importance of self-control.

One of humanity’s most useful skills, without which advanced civilizations would not exist, is being able to engage our higher cognitive functions, our self-control, to resist these temptations. Psychologists have found that self-control is strongly associated with what we label success: higher self-esteem, better interpersonal skills, better emotional responses and, perhaps surprisingly, few drawbacks at even very high levels of self-control.

Now how raising self-control is akin to becoming more objective or more socially mature. (emphasis mine)

It’s not hard to see the convergence between the idea of ‘psychological distance’ and high-level construal. Both emphasise the idea that the more psychological or conceptual distance we can put between ourselves and the particular decision or event, the more we are able to think about it in an abstract way, and therefore the more self-control we can exert. It’s all about developing a special type of objectivity.

Now for the ways in which self-control can be enhanced. Jeremy provides three ways in which we can raise our self-control (emphasis mine):

Fujita et al.’s (2006) studies, along with other similar findings reported by Fujita (2008), suggest that self-control can be increased by these related ways of thinking:

  • Global processing. This means trying to focus on the wood rather than the trees: seeing the big picture and our specific actions as just one part of a major plan or purpose. For example, someone trying to eat healthily should focus on the ultimate goal and how each individual decision about what to eat contributes (or detracts) from that goal.
  • Abstract reasoning. This means trying to avoid considering the specific details of the situation at hand in favour of thinking about how actions fit into an overall framework – being philosophical. Someone trying to add more self-control to their exercise regime might try to think less about the details of the exercise, and instead focus on an abstract vision of the ideal physical self, or how exercise provides a time to re-connect mind and body.
  • High-level categorisation. This means thinking about high-level concepts rather than specific instances. Any long-term project, whether in business, academia or elsewhere can easily get bogged down by focusing too much on the minutiae of everyday processes and forgetting the ultimate goal. Categorising tasks or project stages conceptually may help an individual or group maintain their focus and achieve greater self-discipline.

These are just some examples of specific instances, but with a little creativity the same principles can be applied to many situations in which self-control is required. Ultimately these three ways of thinking are different ways of saying much the same thing: avoid thinking locally and specifically and practice thinking globally, objectively and abstractly, and increased self-control should follow.

To me, this looks like a very apt illustration of why developing social maturity is important. It helps in increased self control and thus better behavioral outcomes.

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One thought on “Social maturity and self-control

  1. lamont189

    I agree with your comments Sandy. I work directly with drug addicted youth in a drug rehab in california and I find many of the points in this article parallel with successful actions we do with our clients. The individual must increase their overall social maturity and self control if they ever will start making better informed decisions. I believe more cognitive processes should be used to help increase social maturity.

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