Why has evolution not selected for perfect self-control?

Benjamin Y. Hayden

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Self-control refers to the ability to deliberately reject tempting options and instead select ones that produce greater long-term benefits. Although some apparent failures of self-control are, on closer inspection, reward maximizing, at least some self-control failures are clearly disadvantageous and non-strategic. The existence of poor self-control presents an important evolutionary puzzle because there is no obvious reason why good self-control should be more costly than poor self-control. After all, a rock is infinitely patient. I propose that self-control failures result from cases in which well-learned (and thus routinized) decision-making strategies yield suboptimal choices. These mappings persist in the decision-makers' repertoire because they result from learning processes that are adaptive in the broader context, either on the timescale of learning or of evolution. Self-control, then, is a form of cognitive control and the subjective feeling of effort likely reflects the true costs of cognitive control. Poor self-control, in this view, is ultimately a result of bounded optimality. This article is part of the theme issue 'Risk taking and impulsive behaviour: fundamental discoveries, theoretical perspectives and clinical implications.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Number of pages1
JournalPhilosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences
Issue number1766
StatePublished - Feb 18 2019


  • cognitive control
  • economic choice
  • evolution
  • intertemporal choice
  • self-control

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural


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