Self-Control: Only All Good for the Privileged

Whether it’s getting an education, improving your dietary habits, getting some exercise or going for improved efficiency, altering your life begins and ends with self-control. But for some, this comes at a steep price.

For life hackers, it’s about making the changes as efficient as possible: reaping maximum benefits for minimum efforts. For members of the quantified self movement, it’s about monitoring yourself in order to create a scheme of self-improvement tailored to your body and your needs. For the average reader of the self-help article in a magazine, it might just be about quitting smoking or getting the laundry done.

Self-help gurus agree that the best way to change one’s life is the one that doesn’t require more self-control than necessary. Indeed, many have grown to view self-control as a finite resource, and the phenomenon of “running out of it” has a term of its own: ego depletion. For this reason, habit formation is encouraged: once you’re accustomed to a certain way of acting, you no longer need to push yourself to do it. It gets easy. One caveat though – for that habit to be formed, it’s that much more important that self-control is maintained during the first three(ish) weeks that it takes to instil a new habit.

But while most address self-control as an internal property of people – one that can be learned and cultivated, but a property of the person, nonetheless – there’s a factor to it that is often overlooked: money.

While self-control in young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds has been shown to facilitate academic success and to correlate with less aggression, substance use, and depression, for those at the bottom of the social ladder, there is a high price to it: they age faster.

In a study fresh of the press, Gregory E. Miller et al. show that unlike their better-off peers, young people from lower socioeconomical backgrounds age faster if they have good self-control. Their study looked into the DNA methylation profiles of the test subjects, which showed that higher self-control predicted faster rates of epigenetic aging in subjects with a low socioeconomical status – while among better-off youth, self-control predicted favourable methylation outcomes.

In short, whether self-control benefits or undermines your health is affected by your class. The privileged only reap benefits from a high self-control, whereas for the lower classes, self-control is a double-edged sword.

The finding that high self-control predicts faster rates of epigenetic aging in people at the bottom of the social ladder, but not in those higher up on it, raises important questions about the self-help industry, especially insofar as it concerns health. Skipping that chocolate bar or maintaining a rigorous exercise routine for improved health might work for the middle and upper classes, but for those from lower classes, developing your self-control to lead a healthy lifestyle might not result in the promised health and longevity, after all. Self-help coaches and life hackers alike would benefit from recognising and articulating the ways privilege factors into their methods.


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Doing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Turku. My interests lie at the intersections of ability, agency, and ethics: what kinds of agents ought we to be? Is there anything normative to be said about abilities? More specifically, I'm currently interested in autonomy and self-control, disability, and human enhancement.

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