Not just a virtue: The evolution of self control

Penny Spikins, James Green

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We rely constantly on self-control in every aspect of our lives. Although it is not an ability unique to humans, our elevated levels of self-control may have played a key role in our evolution. Self-control is likely to have been key to many of the traits such as prosociality, that define modern humans. Despite this, attempts to study the evolution of self control through characteristics of the archaeological record have been few. Studies of related concepts such as inhibitory control have often been vague and do not reflect the whole scope of self-control. Defining self-control as arising from a combination of cognitive abilities including inhibition and the conscious regulation of emotions, this paper sets out a novel approach. We identify links between material culture, behaviours and the cognitive–emotional processes underlying them and produce testable predictions of what increases in these abilities might look like in the archaeological record. Using an example, we consider how late Acheulean handaxes (bifaces) demonstrate five characteristics that can be related to forms of self-control: deliberate practice, forward planning, time and energy investment, hierarchical processing, and distress tolerance. This provides some initial insights and lays the groundwork for future research in this area.
Original languageEnglish
JournalTime and Mind
Early online date3 Apr 2020
Publication statusPublished - 3 Apr 2020

Bibliographical note

© 2020 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group. This is an author-produced version of the published paper. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self-archiving policy. Further copying may not be permitted; contact the publisher for details.


  • Self-control
  • inhibition
  • human evolution
  • self-domestication
  • cognitive evolution
  • biface
  • handaxe

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