“Thou Shalt Kill”: Practicing self-control supports adherence to personal values when asked to aggress

Thomas F. Denson, Benjamin M. Wilkowski, C. Nathan DeWall, Malte Friese, Wilhelm Hofmann, Elizabeth L. Ferguson, Miriam M. Capper, Michael M. Kasumovic

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Poor self-control is a root cause of aggression and criminality. But people can improve their self-control through repetitive practice. Because self-control involves acting in accordance with personal values, practicing self-control can promote attainment of value-consistent goals. The present research tested the hypothesis that practicing self-control could both decrease and increase obedient aggression. In Experiment 1, relative to the active control group, participants who practiced self-control were more hesitant to engage in mock violence (e.g., “cutting” the experimenter's throat with a rubber knife), especially for participants high in dispositional empathy. In Experiment 2, practicing self-control increased obedience to kill insects, but only among participants who felt little moral responsibility for their actions. There was a trend for decreased killing among participants who felt morally responsible for their actions. Our findings suggest that when asked to behave aggressively, self-control promotes adherence to personal values, which may or may not fuel aggression.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)71-78
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Experimental Social Psychology
StatePublished - Mar 1 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 Elsevier Inc.


  • Aggression
  • Bug killing
  • Empathy
  • Moral responsibility
  • Self-control training

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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