Sometimes getting along with people is an exercise in knowing what not to say. If you always say or do the first thing that comes to mind, you might find yourself losing a lot of friends.

Based on what they called these “interpersonal functions of self-control,” a pair of researchers from the Netherlands and Austria recently decided to explore the relationship between people’s self-control, their agreeableness and their social desirability – that is, their likelihood of responding to various situations in ways that are likely to meet with social approval.

The researchers set up a longitudinal study, designed to track how people’s self-control changed over time. As you might guess, they found that self-control was associated with social desirability – people who were higher in self-control also tended to respond to situations in more socially desirable ways.

On top of that, when people’s self-control increased over time, so did their social desirability. And when their self-control fell, their scores on social desirability did too.

So why was self-control linked to social desirability? The researchers approached this question by looking at a personality trait agreeableness. People who score higher on this trait tend to be friendlier and easier to get along with.

It turned out that the connection between self-control and social desirability was stronger in people who scored higher on agreeableness. That is, people who were predisposed to be more agreeable tended to behave in more socially desirable ways when they had more self-control. For less agreeable people, though, having more self-control had less effect on whether they gave socially desirable responses.

The researchers gave this study the somewhat sad title Struggling to Be Liked, highlighting the finding that how motivated people are to get along with others influences how people channel cognitive resources like self-control. In particular, people who care more about getting along with others tend to use their self-control to act in a socially desirable manner.

Ultimately, it looks like there are at least two necessary ingredients to behaving in a socially appropriate way: the motivation to behave in a socially appropriate way in the first place, and the self-control to follow through on that motivation.

Image: Flickr/Boss Art