Sophistication about Self-Control

Melbourne Institute Working Paper No. 16/21

Date: August 2021


Deborah A. Cobb-Clark
Sarah C. Dahmann
Daniel A. Kamhöfer
Hannah Schildberg-Hörisch


We propose a broadly applicable empirical approach to classify individuals as time consistent versus naive or sophisticated regarding their self-control limitations. Operationalizing our approach based on nationally representative data reveals that self-control problems are pervasive and that most people are at least partly aware of their limited self-control. Compared to naïfs, sophisticates have higher IQs, better educated parents, and are more likely to take up commitment devices. Accounting for both the level and awareness of self-control limitations has predictive power beyond one-dimensional notions of self-control that neglect awareness. Importantly, sophistication fully compensates for self-control problems when choices involve immediate costs and later benefits. Raising people's awareness of their own self-control limitations may thus assist them in overcoming any adverse consequences.

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