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UBC Theses and Dissertations

People risk personal harm for interpersonal approval : a self-control perspective Rawn, Catherine Dianne


Self-control often leads to good, healthy, and morally right outcomes for the self and others. Yet self-control is a process—of goal-directed modification or override of an incipient response—that may or may not result in normatively positive, healthy, or moral outcomes. Distinguishing the self-control process from its outcomes exposes a new perspective: Behaviors that appear disinhibited may be performed strategically with the goal of obtaining social rewards. Thus, to the actor, potentially harmful behaviors, such as alcohol, drug, or cigarette use, overeating or sex, may be incentives for obtaining the valued outcome of social acceptance. This dissertation presents four studies. Using questionnaires, Studies 1a and 1b showed that most people can recall a time when they subjugated their personal well-being for social gain. Study 2 used a longitudinal design to examine behavior change in potentially harmful behaviors (i.e., alcohol consumption and sex) resulting from people’s personal attitudes and perceptions of friends’ attitudes toward those behaviors measured 1.5 months earlier. Supporting the hypothesis, over time people overcame a personal aversion to alcohol consumption and drank it regularly, but only if they had initially perceived that their friends approved of doing so. In contrast, people who felt negatively toward sex initially tended to avoid it later, regardless of their friends’ attitudes. Study 3 used an experimental approach. In the “peer pressure” condition, social success was contingent on eating pieces of bitter cocoa. Participants in the peer pressure condition ate significantly more cocoa than did those in the control condition; this effect held only among participants who interacted with the more likeable confederate. To examine whether eating more cocoa required self-control exertion, people in a third condition were depleted of their self-control resources before the peer pressure manipulation. Cocoa consumption did not differ between peer pressure conditions, showing no evidence of self-control exertion. Collectively these studies show that people sometimes subjugate their personal well-being for social gain, but revealed only weak evidence of the proposed self-control process. This work highlights the importance of considering idiosyncratic aversions to, versus appetites for, behaviors when considering whether they stem from exertion or failure of self-control.

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