Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2017 Feb 7;114(6):1299-1304.

An experimental analysis of acquired impulse control among adult humans intolerant to alcohol.

Wang J1, Rao Y1, Houser DE2,3.

1School of Business, Central South University, Changsha 410083, People’s Republic of China.
2Department of Economics, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 22030;
3Interdisciplinary Center for Economic Science, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 22030.



The ability to control tempting impulses impacts health, education, and general socioeconomic outcomes among people at all ages. Consequently, whether and how impulse control develops in adult populations is a topic of enduring interest. Although past research has shed important light on this question using controlled intervention studies, here we take advantage of a natural experiment in China, where males but not females encounter substantial social pressure to consume alcohol. One-third of our sample, all of whom are Han Chinese, is intolerant to alcohol, whereas the remaining control sample is observationally identical but alcohol tolerant. Consistent with previous literature, we find that intolerant males are significantly more likely to exercise willpower to limit their alcohol consumption than alcohol-tolerant males. In view of the strength model of self-control, we hypothesize that this enables improved impulse control in other contexts as well. To investigate this hypothesis, we compare decisions in laboratory games of self-control between the tolerant and intolerant groups. We find that males intolerant to alcohol and who regularly encounter drinking environments control their selfish impulses significantly better than their tolerant counterparts. On the other hand, we find that female Han Chinese intolerant to alcohol do not use self-control to limit alcohol consumption more than tolerant females, nor do the tolerant and intolerant females exhibit differences in self-control behaviors. Our research indicates that impulse control can be developed in adult populations as a result of self-control behaviors in natural environments, and shows that this skill has generalizable benefits across behavioral domains.


alcohol intolerance; cheating; natural experiment; self-control; strength model