What Makes Some People So Motivated and Self-Controlled?

Focus is key to conscientiousness—shaped by nature, nurture, culture and habit.

Posted Jun 20, 2019

Stefan Dahl | Dreamstime
Source: Stefan Dahl | Dreamstime

Self-control, willpower, self-discipline, motivation, purposefulness, goal-directedness, productivity. Most of us wish we were capable of more of these attributes.

Are you a high control or low control person?

Some people have a higher capacity for self-control. Such people often also have a stronger need to feel in control and have a higher expectation of control. These kinds of people tend to be focused, organized, planful, goal-directed, attentive to detail, careful, responsible, patient, persistent, and highly motivated. They tend to follow norms and rules. They have strong self-discipline and willpower. They can delay gratification and work toward longer-term goals.

In the five-factor model (FFM) of personality dimension theory, this set of traits is referred to as conscientiousness. It can be recognized in fairly young children as a higher capacity for impulse control, emotional self-regulation and the ability to apply themselves to tasks requiring sustained effortful control (famously demonstrated in the “marshmallow test,” in which children were rewarded with two marshmallows if they could delay eating one marshmallow placed in front of them). High conscientiousness is associated with better school performance, better health outcomes as an adult (due to more careful attention to health), more stable relationships and greater occupational success. But if it is too intense, it can impair functioning. Those people may be perfectionists and can be compulsive, rigid, controlling, demanding, judgmental, and excessively self-critical.

Laid-back

People at the other end of the conscientiousness scale have all the opposite characteristics, including a relatively lower capacity for self-control and a lower self-expectation of control. Although these low-control or low-conscientiousness people have many disadvantageous traits (more so if they are on the far low end of the conscientiousness spectrum), they have a number of advantageous characteristics too. These include flexibility, adaptability, spontaneity, creativity, and lower levels of stress and anxiety. Of course, people have complex combinations of traits, so not all of this may apply to a single individual—for example, some low-control people may, in fact, be quite anxious rather than relaxed. But people at this end of the spectrum are generally easy-going, ‘laid-back,’ ‘go-with-the-flow’ types, in contrast to the tense, ‘go-getter’, ‘control-freaks’ at the other end of the spectrum.

I see these contrasts in my wife and myself. I am probably somewhere on the moderately high end of the spectrum for focus and conscientiousness, while she is probably on the moderately low end of that scale. I notice the strands of lint on the house carpet and stoop to pick them up, whereas she steps right over her shoes strewn haphazardly in the middle of the floor, apparently not even noticing them. But she’s calmer than I am, more flexible, creative, and a better out-of-the-box problem-solver—I sometimes get too fixated on the details.

A bell curve

So, personality types toward both ends of the conscientiousness scale have their strengths and weaknesses. As with all major dimensions of personality, most people's traits fall somewhere in the middle of this bell-curve.

Ralph Lewis
Source: Ralph Lewis

Conscientiousness might be determined by attention span

The cognitive capacity underlying conscientiousness might be a longer attention span or greater attentional control. The ability to focus attention and maintain it is a key element in what is referred to as effortful control, which is a major dimension of child temperament,1 and this aspect of early temperament correlates with the development of conscientiousness in older children and adults.

Dopamine

The neurotransmitter dopamine plays a key role in the brain’s attention and motivation circuitry. When dopamine is stimulated in the brain, it marks a stimulus as important and attention-worthy and reinforces whatever behavior is being carried out at that moment. Dopamine activation thereby directs our attention and motivates us to persist in a behavior. Dopamine activation levels differ between people, partly influenced by genetics.

An evolutionary perspective on why there is such diversity of traits in humans

In the environment in which our species evolved for most of its history (think hunter-gatherers), longer or shorter attention spans would both have been advantageous in different situations. All types of individuals were needed for the group to survive and thrive. Paleolithic groups would have needed careful, cautious types as well as exploratory risk-takers. They would have needed individuals who spent time meticulously attending to details, such as analyzing hoof prints while tracking prey, as well as individuals who swiftly got the gist of the big picture of their surroundings and made snap decisions. Different environmental circumstances favor different types of people. It takes all types of individuals to increase the chances for a population as a whole to survive in unpredictable, ever-changing environments. In some circumstances, careful attention to detail would have been less adaptive than impulsively following the herds and migrating to new territory.2

Modern society

Modern societies have created an environment that no longer resembles the environment in which our species evolved for most of its history. Modern societies are highly structured, organized and specialized, tending to favor people who can sustain effortful focus, attention to detail, organization, patience, self-discipline and the ability to work toward very delayed or abstract rewards.

ADHD

People with shorter attention spans who need more varied stimulation to keep them engaged, and who are more interested in the ‘big picture’ of their surroundings than the small details in front of them, tend to struggle to maintain effortful focus and to sustain motivation for ‘boring’ tasks.

People with especially short attention spans and who have greater difficulty with cognitive control are often diagnosed with ‘Attention Deficit Disorder’. ADD/ADHD is perhaps better understood as part of the normal diversity of traits in a human population, rather than a ‘disorder’ as such. Still, having an attention span toward the left-hand side of this bell curve is more often disadvantageous in meeting the demands of our skewed modern environment.

Excessive focus and excessive need for control is maladaptive too

People who are excessively focused (at the far right end of the curve) have difficulties too. They tend to be finicky, obsessive, inflexible and perfectionistic, and may have difficulty ‘seeing the forest for the trees.’ Psychiatric disorders like anorexia nervosa, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder are characterized by fixated focus, excessive need for control, and rigid perfectionism.

Tolerating uncertainty and accepting randomness

People with a high need for control struggle to tolerate uncertainty in life. They have a particularly difficult time accepting that many fundamental aspects of life are random, and may become consumed with anguish in their futile attempts to control things that cannot be controlled, often blaming themselves for failing to do so, and feeling responsible for things for which they are not responsible (I discuss the difficulties coming to terms with the randomness of life, and the challenges of living life with a strong sense of purpose in a purposeless universe, in my book3)

Nature and nurture

Twin studies have shown that about half of the variance of major dimensions of personality across the population is accounted for by heritable ‘nature.’ But that also means that about half the variance is due to non-heritable influences, such as parenting, cultural norms, practice effects, and life experience.

Conscientiousness and the focus it depends on is not a completely fixed trait beyond childhood. It is partially malleable and can be further shaped in adulthood. It can be deliberately honed by practice and habit formation, in much the same way as athletic ability (the catch, however, is that cultivating such habits requires motivation and willpower, which itself is heavily dependent on the very trait we are trying to strengthen).

Tight vs. loose cultures

Entire societies and nations differ significantly from each other along similar lines to the conscientiousness dimension of individual personalities. These cultural differences between groups are referred to as tightness and looseness.4 Tight societies (“rule makers”) have tight social norms and a culture of close adherence to their many written and unwritten rules. They value self-control and collectivism and are characterized by greater conformity and synchronization (even their clocks are better synchronized…). Loose societies (“rule breakers”), on the other hand, value individual expression and openness. They are more permissive and laid-back. Tight societies tend to be more orderly and better organized (with some exceptions), whereas loose societies may foster more innovation and creativity. Societies that are too tight may be restrictive or even oppressive. Societies that are too loose may be chaotic.

The cause of tight versus loose cultures may be found in their history, ecology and demographics: tight societies tend to have endured more threat (including natural disasters) and a greater sense of vulnerability and tend to be more densely populated. Loose societies tend to have experienced less threat, tend to have more demographic diversity and lower population density.

There is a tendency for tight societies to have higher proportions of conscientious individuals within them, whereas loose societies tend to have a greater preponderance of impulsive personalities. This is presumably due to the (non-heritable) effects of culture in shaping personality.

The Goldilocks Principle (Avoiding Extremes)

So, for cultures as well as for individuals, too much tightness, too much conscientiousness, too much focus or even too much motivation, is usually maladaptive—just as too little is. The sweet spot is the ‘Goldilocks zone’4—not too hot, not too cold, just right.5

References

1. Mary K. Rothbart, Becoming Who We Are: Temperament and Personality in Development (New York: Guilford Press, 2011).

2. You might wonder why extreme traits exist at all.  While extremes of a trait might seldom be advantageous, they are an inevitable result of genetic diversity. Statistically, some individuals in every generation will inherit more extreme versions of traits at either end of the spectrum. You can’t have a bell curve distribution of traits without the two extremes or “tails” of the curve. Diversity of traits is essential for a species to survive and evolve.

3. Ralph Lewis, Finding Purpose in a Godless World: Why We Care Even If The Universe Doesn’t (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018).

[CLICK 'MORE' TO VIEW FOOTNOTES 4-5]

4. Michele J. Gelfand, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World (New York: Scribner, 2018).

5. However, as I've said, modern society with all its highly structured, specialized and time-pressured characteristics no longer resembles the natural environment in which our species evolved its natural diversity, and is therefore skewed in such a way as to favor higher focus and higher conscientiousness. So perhaps an argument can be made that the curve depicted above should be similarly skewed and asymmetrical in such a way as to reflect the reality that in modern society it is now more often advantageous and adaptive to be on the moderately high focus and conscientiousness side of the spectrum than to be on the moderately low focus and conscientiousness side. In other words, the 'sweet spot' for optimal functioning is actually to the right of the median, and the areas to the right and left of the curve denoting dysfunction / disorder are not actually symmetrical and equal in extent, in today's highly focused, competitive world.