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Self control

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Sometimes, individuals experience strong impulses, emotions, or thoughts to enact behaviors that diverge from their personal goals or social norms. They might, for example, want to save money, consume healthy food, work diligently, fulfill their promises, and suppress their anger. They often need to suppress or control impulses that deviate from these goals. The capacity to inhibit these impulses, emotions, thoughts, or behaviors is called self control (e.g., Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994).

Self control predicts success in many domains of life (for a meta-analysis, see de Ridder, Lensvelt-Mulders, Finkenauer, Stok, & Baumeister, 2013). Self control is related to excellent academic performance, limited likelihood of psychiatric problems, and strong relationships (Tangney, Baumeister, & Boone, 2004). Several studies have also examined the antecedents to self control. Firming or flexing muscles, for example, enhances self control. Positive fantasies, however, curb self control.

Theories that explain self-control

de Ridder, Lensvelt-Mulders, Finkenauer, Stok, and Baumeister (2013) outlined three theories to explain the role and consequences of self-control. First, one set of theories, epitomized by the discounting model of impulsiveness (Ainslie, 1975), delay of gratification (Mischel, 1974) and self-control theory (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990), assume that self-control is needed to override behaviors that attract immediate rewards but future adversities, such as drug use or crime. Second, another set of theories, epitomized by the distinction between hot and cold systems (Loewenstein, 1996& Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999), is that self-control is needed to activate or depend on the cold system, in which individuals consider their options rationally and carefully rather than depend on strong impulses, feelings, or habits. Finally, ego-depletion theories conceptualize self-control as the mobilization of a limited supply of resources or mental effort (see ego-depletion theory).

Correlates and consequences of self control

As Tangney, Baumeister, and Boone (2004) showed, self control is correlated with many positive features. For example, individuals who report elevated levels of self control are more likely to have achieved excellent academic grades, as gauged by measures of grade point average.

When self control is elevated, people are also not as likely to experience various personal problems. They are not as likely to exhibit the symptoms of eating disorders or entertain the thoughts that provoke eating disorders, such as a desire to be thin (Tangney, Baumeister, & Boone, 2004). They are also not as likely to exhibit problems with alcohol, such as binging (Tangney, Baumeister, & Boone, 2004). Indeed, they show fewer symptoms of psychiatric problems in general, including obsessive compulsive patterns, depression, anxiety, anger, paranoid ideation, and psychoticism (Tangney, Baumeister, & Boone, 2004)& self esteem tends to be elevated. Self control is positively associated with social variables, such as family cohesion, secure attachment, empathy, and forgiveness (Tangney, Baumeister, & Boone, 2004).

Tangney, Baumeister, and Boone (2004) uncovered no curvilinear relationships in their study. That is, very high levels of self control were even more beneficial than moderately high levels. Furthermore, most of these findings persisted even after social desirability was controlled.


de Ridder, Lensvelt-Mulders, Finkenauer, Stok, and Baumeister (2013) conducted a meta-analysis to clarify the consequences of self-control and the factors that moderate the relationship between self-control and various outcomes. In this paper, 102 studies were subjected to this meta-analysis. These studies all examined whether the self-control scale, the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale, or the low self-control scale were related to various consequences.

Self-control was indeed to associated with a diverse range of behaviors--negatively related to speeding fines or infringements, delinquency, alcohol use, and binge eating as well as positively associated with happiness, academic grades, and relationship commitment. The effect size was small to medium.

Some researchers have assume that self-control enables people to inhibit undesirable behavior, such as excessive food or alcohol, rather than encourage desirable behavior, such as academic grades. Yet, the meta-analysis did not support this contention. If anything, self-control was associated more strongly with desirable behaviors that undesirable behaviors. Arguably, self-control is not highly related to unhealthy eating and dieting, merely because such attempts tend to be unsuccessful, diminishing statistical power.

Furthermore, self-control was inversely associated with behaviors that tend to be habitual or addictive, such as smoking. Self-control was not as strongly associated with behaviors that demand greater deliberation, such as forming plans. In these instances, attitudes rather than self-control may be a more important determinant. Unsurprisingly, the relationships were stronger when the measure of self-control and the measure of some outcome were close in time and format.

Cognitive factors

As the study conducted by Hofmann, Friese, and Roefs (2009) implies, several factors correlate with the capacity to demonstrate self control. Specifically, Hofmann, Friese, and Roefs (2009) uncovered three factors: executive attention, inhibitory control, and affect regulation. In particular, they examined which factors predict the capacity to abstain from candy.

First, they discovered that executive attention correlates with this capacity to refrain from temptations. Participants completed a difficult mathematics exercise. They received four to eight simple equations, one at a time. After the equations had vanished, participants needed to type all the answers in order. Participants who performed this task proficiently, while also completing a related secondary activity, demonstrated excellent self control.

Second, these authors highlighted that inhibitory control was correlated with this capacity to refrain from temptations. Participants completed a go-no go task. That is, one most trials, participants needed to move a joystick towards a figure that appeared on a screen. However, on some trials, when a tone was presented, they needed to refrain from this task. Performance on this activity also correlated with abstention from candy.

Finally, affective regulation was correlated with abstention from these temptations. Specifically, in some participants, negative emotions seemed to dissipate rapidly, within the period of 1000 ms. These participants abstained from candy.

Presumably, executive attention might correlate with the capacity to maintain and modify several intentions to inhibit temptations simultaneously. Inhibitory control might, more specifically, represent the capacity to form intentions that suppress dominant impulses. Finally, affective regulation might reduce the intensity of these dominant impulses. Nevertheless, the role of these factors has not been established definitively.

Crime and aggression

A variety of studies highlight that variations in self control are associated with criminal behavior. According to the general theory of crime (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990), individuals with a limited capacity to regulate their behavior engage in acts that offer immediate rewards. They cannot suppress these tendencies to align with broader social norms, culminating in substance abuse, physical aggression, tardiness, reckless driving, social difficulties, and so forth.

Furthermore, after individuals engage in activities that improve self control, they are not as likely to become aggressive when provoked. In one study, conducted by Denson, Capper, Oaten, Friese, and Schofield (2011), some but not all participants completed an intervention that is intended to improve self control. They were instructed to use their non-preferred hand during the day as often as possible for two weeks?-while, for example, brushing their teeth, opening doors, operating a computer mouse, stirring a cup of coffee, or carrying items.

Later, the extent to which these individuals become aggressive after a provocation was assessed. Specifically, participants prepared and presented a speech to someone in a videoconference and received unfavourable feedback. Later, in the context of a game with this person, participants were granted an opportunity to emit a loud blast to that individual?-a measure of aggression, called the Taylor Aggression Paradigm (see measures of aggression). Specifically, as soon as a stimulus appeared on the screen, both individuals were supposedly granted the opportunity to press a button as rapidly as possible. The person who did not win would receive a loud noise. Participants were permitted to set the intensity and duration of this noise. Loud, long noises represent an aggressive reaction.

After two weeks of training in self control, participants exhibited less aggression in response to provocations. They set the intensity and duration of the noise to a lower level. They were also not as likely to experience anger, as revealed by a self report instrument afterwards. The training was especially effective in participants who tend to be aggressive in general.


After individuals engage in a task that demands self control, they are more likely to experience, and even to embrace, feelings of anger (Gal, & Liu, 2011). Furthermore, this effect of self control on anger cannot be ascribed entirely to ego depletion. That is, this effect persists even in contexts in which individuals do not need to suppress or regulate their anger.

Conceivably, individuals tend to associate self control with anger. For example, in some instances, individuals cannot pursue one of their needs or desires, evoking anger. Furthermore, self control tends to be mobilized in these contexts. Over time, individuals learn that anger often coincides with self control. When individuals mobilize their self control, they anticipate or experience feelings of anger.

Gal and Liu (2011) undertook a series of studies that confirm this proposition. In one study, participants needed to decide whether to choose an apple or chocolate. Participants who chose the apple presumably mobilized self control. In addition, participants were asked to indicate which of several movies they would like to watch.

If participants chose the movie after selecting an apple, reflecting self control, they tended to prefer films in which anger was a key theme, such as Anger Management or Hamlet. In contrast, if participants chose the movie after selecting an apple, they did not necessarily prefer these movies. Thus, after exerting self control, participants gravitated towards experiences that revolve around anger. Similarly, in another study, after exerting self control, participants were especially likely to perceive angry faces as more interesting than fearful faces.

A third study showed that such restraint also increases irritation. Some participants were exposed to a speech that could evoke irritation, because the speaker uttered forceful words such as ought or should (see psychological reactance theory). Other participants were exposed to a speech that did not include these terms. After participants chose an apple instead of a chocolate, they became more likely to perceive the speech that included these forceful words as irritating.

This findings cannot be ascribed to the principle that restraint at one time diminishes the capacity of individuals to inhibit impulses later. In these studies, participants did not need to inhibit their impulses. That is, their motivation to experience anger was not inappropriate in these contexts and, therefore, did not need to be inhibited.

Physiological measures

Some studies have shown the capacity to maintain self control is correlated with some physiological indices. One of the most informative indices is tonic heart rate variability. This index represents the extent to which the heart rate varies across beats. When variability is elevated, individuals tend to demonstrate a greater capacity to inhibit unsuitable inclinations or impulses (e.g., Hansen, Johnson, & Thayer, 2003)& anger is suppressed rather than expressed (Dorr, Brosschot, Sollers, & Thayer, 2007) and repetitive thoughts are thwarted (Brosschot, Van Dijk, & Thayer, 2006), for example.

To illustrate, Geisler and Kubiak (2009) conducted a study that substantiates the relationship between heart rate variability and self control in the pursuit of goals. In this study, participants completed a series of verbal analogies--an alleged test of intelligence. They had to choose one answer from five alternatives. The actual questions, however, were all unsolvable. Some participants, nevertheless, were informed they performed well& other participants were informed they had not performed proficiently, answering only two of the ten questions correctly.

To assess whether this feedback provoked rumination, participants next completed a lexical decision task. That is, strings of letters appeared in sequence. Participants specified whether or not these strings were legitimate words. Some of these strings were words that related to intelligence. If participants recognize these words rapidly, they were most likely ruminating over the concept of intelligence, perhaps to resolve anxieties that were elicited by the feedback.

Then, participants completed some questions that more explicitly assessed rumination. Finally, they were informed they would be instructed to complete the intelligence task again. Before attempting this task again, they received questions that assess their confidence on this activity, such as "I feel self conscious" or "I feel confident".

When heart rate variability was elevated, rather than limited, participants were less likely to exhibit signs of rumination in response to adverse feedback. That is, if variability was pronounced, negative instead of positive feedback did not significantly improve the capacity of individuals to recognize words associated with intelligence. In addition, heart rate variability was positively associated with self confidence. Negative feedback on one task did not appreciably impair self confidence on a subsequent attempt, but only if heart rate variability was elevated.

These findings indicate that heart rate variability is associated with at least two facets of self control. First, variability is positively related to the capacity to commit to actions, despite frustrations and obstacles, as represented by self confidence despite adverse feedback. Second, variability is positively related to the capacity to override rumination after failures.


Some people feel satiated after they consume small amounts of unhealthy food. That is, they need to consume only small amounts of unhealthy food, but large amounts of healthy food, before they feel satiated or satisfied. This tendency to feel satiated after consuming small amounts of unhealthy food coincides with a capacity to resist temptations, called self-control. Arguably, people who feel motivated to resist temptations, such as unhealthy food, may somehow develop the tendency to feel satiated after small amounts of unhealthy food.

This possibility was posited, and then corroborated, by Redden and Haws (2013). In one study, participants were granted the opportunity to graze on some healthy food, such as raisins, or some unhealthy food, such as M&Ms, while watching a video. Before and after watching the video, participants indicated the degree to which they enjoy the snack and feel like eating more of this snack. Finally, participants completed a questionnaire that gauges the degree to which they feel they can resist temptations in general.

Compared to other participants, the individuals who feel they can resist temptations satiated quickly on the unhealthy food. That is, both their enjoyment of this food and the degree to which they coveted more of this food diminished rapidly while watching the video. In the second study, merely informing participants that a snack is healthy increased the rate of satiation, but only in the individuals who feel they can resist temptations.

In the third study, some participants were also instructed to count the number of times they swallowed while eating the snack. When this instruction was imposed, even people who do not usually resist temptations satiated rapidly after eating unhealthy food. This finding provides insight into how people who resist temptations satiate rapidly. Arguably, these individuals direct more of their attention to this food. That is, they monitor their consumption of unhealthy food. This awareness may facilitate satiation. As a fourth study showed, the relationship between resistance of temptations and rapid satiation was mediated by the degree to which participants felt they devoted attention to this food and not by guilt or regret.

In short, people who resist temptations may, over time, learn to monitor themselves more closely when they engage in unhealthy behaviors. This attention increases the perceived extent to which people feel they have engaged in these behaviors, facilitating satiation. Conversely, partly to conserve mental energy, these individuals do not monitor healthy behaviors to the same degree.

Antecedents to self control

Many studies have examined the antecedents or determinants of self control. Most of these studies assume that self control depends on the availability of some limited mental resource. When this resource is depleted, self control diminishes. In contrast, if individuals experience positive emotions, recuperate sufficiently, or consume glucose, this resource is replenished and self control increases (for a comprehensive discussion of this theory and the corresponding findings, see ego depletion). Nevertheless, some studies have examined self control from other perspectives.


Research has shown that practicing tasks that demand self-control, over two or so weeks, actually enhances self-control. A typical study was conducted by Muraven (2010). Some participants, across the course of two weeks, refrained from sweets all day. Some participants squeezed a handgrip for as long as possible each day. In the control conditions, some participants instead practiced mathematics or recorded behaviors of self-control in a diary. To assess improvements in self-control, participants completed a stop signal task in which, on 25% of trials, a tone sounded, and the usual response to stimuli had to be suppressed. Both avoiding sweets and squeezing a handgrip enhanced self-control relative to the other two conditions.

Hui, Wright, Stewart, Simmons, Eaton, and Nolte (2009) also showed that relevant training can enhance self-control. In this study, over two weeks, some participants completed 5 minutes of the Stroop interference task--in which they needed to name the font color of words that represented a different color, such as "red" written in green font. Next, they swished a stinging mouthwash for 30 seconds. In the control condition, participants were not told to undertake these activities.

Compared to participants in the control condition, participants who engaged in the training demonstrated greater self-control in the future. For example, they were able to dunk their hand in cold water for an extended period. In addition, they performed better on a task that demands careful mental concentration. Finally, they were more likely to floss their teeth as well. Nevertheless, they actually utilized less toothpaste, perhaps because they flossed more vigorously.

Firming muscles

After individuals flex or firm their muscles, their capacity to demonstrate willpower and resolve improves (Hung & Labroo, 2011). Specifically, according to the concept of embodied cognition most memories entail a vast array of cognitive, sensory, and motor features. For example, when individuals consider occasions in which they worked diligently, these experiences do not entail only concepts like "work" and "diligence" but also include sensory cues and motor responses. Any of these concepts, sensory cues, or motor responses can evoke the memory.

To illustrate, when individuals flex their muscles, they are usually undertaking a task that demands willpower. They might, for example, firm their abdomen before they are punched. They might flex their arms to awaken themselves, and so forth. Therefore, flexed or firm muscles tend to be represented in memories of willpower and self control. Flexed muscles, therefore, should evoke these memories and thus elicit concepts like willpower and self control. These activated concepts should then enhance the willpower and self control of individuals.

Hung and Labroo (2011) undertook a series of five studies that substantiates this argument. In the first study, some participants were asked to grasp a pen in their fists, firming their hand and wrist muscles in the process. Other participants, in the control condition, were asked to hold the pen between their index and middle fingers. Then, participants evaluated an appeal from the Red Cross to donate money to a cause. Relative to the other participants, participants who clenched their fists were more likely to donate money. Donations often represent self control?-a capacity to override the inclination to save money.

In the second study, participants who clenched their fist could more readily maintain their other hand in icy water over an extended time. A feeling of willpower, epitomized by questions like "I tried to be mentally strong", mediated this association (Hung & Labroo, 2011). This finding indicates that a feeling of willpower and a sense of resolve, and not alternative mechanisms like arousal or distraction, underpins this benefit.

The other studies also supported the propositions that firming muscles enhances self control. These studies showed that other forms of firming muscles, such as stretching fingers, flexing biceps, or contracting leg muscles, were also effective.

In particular, the third study showed that flexing muscles increased the likelihood that participants could demonstrate enough willpower to fulfill accessible future goals. That is, in this study, if participants firmed their muscles, they were more likely to consume food that was healthy but aversive. Nevertheless, this effect was observed only if the importance of health was activated in the course of a sentence unscrambling task. Presumably, flexing muscles only increases the willpower that is needed to pursue activated goals and does not elicit responsible behavior in general (Hung & Labroo, 2011).

Firming muscles does not seem to replenish mental energy but mobilizes these resources. That is, flexing at one time actually impairs self control later, indicating that mental energy had been depleted.

Positive fantasies

Positive affect tends to replenish reserves of energy and overcome ego depletion. Positive fantasies, in contrast, seem to curb the level of energy that people mobilize. Specifically, when people imagine an idyllic situation in the future, such as a perfect relationship, perfect appearance, or an exemplary grade at university, they feel, on some level, their needs or goals have been fulfilled. Consequently, they do not feel the need to mobilize energy or effort. They feel lethargic instead of energized& their blood pressure tends to dissipate (Kappes & Oettingen, 2011). In contrast, if they imagine a positive future, but also consider the complications they need to resolve, this problem does not arise.

Kappes and Oettingen (2011) undertook a series of studies to validate this argument. In one study, for example, some female university students were asked to imagine that, in the future, they could look very elegant and stylish wearing high heal students. They imagine they are admired by men and women, representing a positive fantasy. Other female students formed the same image, but also reflected upon some complications with heals. Positive fantasies without any awareness of complications actually decreased the systolic blood pressure of individuals. The second study was similar, except the scenario was different: Participants imagined either the benefits of winning $200 or considered some complications. After considering only the positive benefits, instead of the complications, they reported feeling less energized and enthusiastic.

In Study 3, some participants were instructed to imagine that every event in the next week will unfold really well, representing a positive fantasy. Other participants just wrote their thoughts about the next week instead. A week later, participants were asked to indicate the extent to which they felt they achieved their goals over the last seven days, answering questions including "How well did the past week go for you?". Positive fantasies reduced the likelihood that participants felt they achieved their goals.

The final study showed that only positive fantasies about current needs reduced effort and energy. For example, positive fantasies about school achievement reduced energy in university students, unless these individuals felt thirsty--in which case, drinking instead of their studies was their main motivation. Similarly, positive fantasies about a wonderful drink reduced energy if these individuals were thirsty but did not reduce energy if they were not thirsty.


When individuals feel happy, they tend to demonstrate more self-control, especially over their finances. That is, while happy, people are more inclined to save money and control or inhibit their expenditure. In particular, happiness increases the likelihood that individuals feel they will live a long life and, therefore, orients their attention to future needs rather than more immediate temptations (Guven, 2012).

This possibility was verified by Guven (2012). In particular, Guven (2012) examined the responses to an annual household survey, administered in Holland since 1993, and then related the results to the level of sunshine that day. Some important patterns emerged. First, if the day was sunnier than usual for that time of year, people tended to feel happier, as gauged by self-report questions. This happiness, derived from sunshine, was positively associated with the capability of individuals to save, rather than spend, money. Furthermore, this happiness was positively related to estimated longevity, thoughtful decisions, and expectation of low inflation. Presumably, when happy, people embrace the future, rather than yield to immediate temptations.


When individuals experience a sense of pride?-for example, after they are praised-?they often, but not always, become more indulgent. That is, they frequently select immediate temptations over more responsible pursuits (Wilcox, Kramer, & Sen, 2011).

Specifically, this sense of pride is associated with accomplishment or achievement. Therefore, when individuals experience these feelings, they assume, usually unconsciously, their goals have been accomplished. They no longer feel the need to pursue some goal, and therefore become more likely to behave indulgently (Wilcox, Kramer, & Sen, 2011).

Nevertheless, pride can also increase self awareness. If individuals become more aware of themselves, they are more inclined to pursue their enduring values, reducing the likelihood of indulgent behavior (Wilcox, Kramer, & Sen, 2011).

In short, feelings of pride could either increase or decrease indulgence. To illustrate, in contrast to self awareness, the sense of achievement demands more complex cognitive processes. If individuals are distracted, this sense of achievement is thus impeded& pride becomes more likely to evoke self awareness, reducing indulgence, instead of a sense of achievement. Therefore, various conditions could affect the impact of pride on indulgence (Wilcox, Kramer, & Sen, 2011).

Wilcox, Kramer, and Sen (2011) undertook a series of studies to explore these arguments. In Study 1, to evoke pride, some participants wrote about one of their accomplishments that fostered a feeling of pride. In the control condition, participants wrote about a typical day. Next, some participants were distracted by a memory task, whereas other participants were not distracted. Finally, participants chose between an indulgent alternative?-a voucher for entertainment products?-or a more responsible alternative?-a voucher for education products. If individuals experienced pride, they were more likely to choose the indulgent alternative, unless they were distracted by another task. If not distracted, pride is especially likely to foster a sense of achievement, which can foster complacency and indulgence.

Study 2 was similar, except some participants were asked to reflect upon whether their essay may have influenced their feelings. This question reduced the likelihood that pride evoked indulgence. Specifically, when individuals realize their pride can be ascribed to another task, they are not as likely to feel they have achieved their goals. That is, they recognize the pride is not a signal they have realized their targets. Without this sense of achievement, indulgence is not as likely.

Study 3 was also similar, except participants wrote about the importance of health or money. In addition, some participants were asked to decide whether they want to purchase fries or salad. Other participants were asked to decide whether they prefer entertainment or school products. If individuals experienced pride, they were more likely to abandon the salient goal--that is, the goal about which they wrote. For example, proud participants who wrote about health were more inclined to prefer fries over salad but not entertainment over school. In contrast, proud participants who wrote about money were more inclined to prefer entertainment over school but not fries over salad. Thus, pride seems to evoke complacency towards salient goals but not other objectives.

Finally, Study 4 showed that self awareness, evoked by informing participants they will be videotaped, moderatex the effect of pride on indulgence. In particular, if participants felt proud, they were less indulgent if videotaped. The videotape, presumably, amplified the importance of self awareness instead of achievement. Self awareness focussed attention on enduring values, curbing indulgence.

Hopefulness and other positive emotions about the future

In contrast to pride, some emotions correspond to positive feelings about the future. To illustrate, when individuals feel hopeful?-after reading about an exciting job prospect, for example-?they experience these positive feelings about the future. Winterich and Haws (2011) argue that positive feelings about the future tend to enhance self control.

Conceivably, when individuals experience positive emotions about the future, they become more aware of the desirable opportunities that could unfold. They become more willing to sacrifice their immediate state now to pursue these future possibilities.

Winterich and Haws (2011) conducted four studies that confirm the benefits of positive feelings towards the future. In one study, some participants wrote about three times in which they felt hopeful, representing a positive feelings about the future. Other participants wrote about three times in which they felt happy, representing a positive feelings about the immediate context. During this session, either M&Ms or raisins were available to participants. Relative to participants who wrote about happiness, participants wrote about hopeful experiences were more inclined to resist the M&MS but not the raisins

The second study was similar, except that some participants instead wrote about times that evoked feelings of pride or no emotions at all. Furthermore, all participants completed a scale that assesses the extent to which they tend to focus their attention on the future. A typical question is "I think about what my future has in store". Again, participants who were hopeful showed more restraint that did the other participants. This effect of emotions, however, was observed only if the individuals often reflect upon the future. Perhaps, feelings of hope did not orient attention to the future in the other individuals.

In the third and fourth studies, whether or not individuals focus on the future, or the more recent past, was manipulated. When participants reflected upon the future, as well as experienced positive emotions, they showed greater restraint. In contrast, if participants reflected upon the past, or experienced negative emotions, restraint diminished.

Visceral states

When visceral states are activated, individuals tend to value more immediate needs, curbing self control. In contrast, when visceral states are not activated, individuals tend to value their future goals, facilitating self control.

A series of studies, undertaken by Nordgren and Chou (2011), illustrate this tendency. In the first study, all the participants were heterosexual males in committed relationships. First, to evoke a visceral state, some of these men watched an erotic video. In the control condition, the men did not watch an erotic video. Second, a series of attractive females appeared on a screen.

If a sexual visceral state had been elicited, men observed these females for a longer period. Their immediate needs were prioritized. If a sexual visceral state had not been elicited, the men did not observe these females over a long period. Their future goals, such as to be faithful, were prioritized. As a later study showed, this finding is observed only when the visceral state is similar to the immediate temptation.

Distraction and visceral states

In some instances, when individuals are distracted, they actually show more self-control& that is, they are more inclined to resist temptations. In particular, when individuals feel strong visceral drives, such as the urge to smoke or eat, distracting tasks can promote self-control. Individuals can refrain from cigarettes or food, for example. In contrast, when individuals do not experience these drives, distracting tasks diminish self-control.

This possibility was confirmed by Nordgren and Chou (2013). In one study, smokers were asked to decide how long they would like to delay the opportunity to smoke. They would be rewarded more money in response to longer delays. While reflecting upon this decision, they were instructed to memorize a number with either 3 digits or 8 digits.

If the smokers had been asked to abstain from cigarettes for three hours before the study, and thus experienced a strong urge to smoke now, they were more willing to delay the next cigarette if distracted by the need to remember an 8 digit, rather than 3 digit, number. That is, a very distracting task enhanced self-control. In contrast, if the smokers had not been asked to abstain from cigarettes before the study, and thus did not experience a strong urged to smoke now, they were less willing to delay the next cigarette if distracted by the need to remember an 8 digit, rather than 3 digit, number. The distracting task diminished self-control.

These findings are consistent with the elaborated intrusion theory of desire (Kavanagh, Andrade, & May, 2005). According to this model, strong visceral drives, such as urges to smoke or eat, activate many intrusive thoughts and images about how to satisfy these desires. These thoughts elicit tendencies to engage in behaviors, such as smoking a cigarette. Distracting tasks diminish the likelihood of these thoughts and thus curb the corresponding behaviors. In contrast, when visceral drives are weak, individuals are more concerned about their future. Their thoughts, for example, may revolve around the need to be healthy. Distracting tasks diminish the likelihood of these thoughts and thus may impede the capacity of people to control unhealthy habits, such as smoking.

A sense of belonging or feelings accepted by other people

According to Blackhart, Nelson, Winter, and Rockney (2012), when people experience a sense of belonging in a group, or feel accepted by other individuals, they are more likely to exert self-control. Arguably, if people feel they belong to a community or group, they often sacrifice their own needs to satisfy the expectations of group members. Over time, they begin to associate this sense of belonging with inhibition of personal needs and self-control.

Blackhart, Nelson, Winter, and Rockney (2012) conducted a series of studies that attest to this association between a sense of belonging or acceptance and self-control. In the first study, participants answered questions that gauge the extent to which they exercise self-control, such as "I am good at resisting temptation." In addition, to measure the degree to which they feel a sense of belonging and acceptance, they completed the perceived acceptance scale, epitomized by items like "My friends frequently show me that they care." Self-control was positively related to the extent to which people felt accepted by both family and friends.

In the second study, participants listed the name of five close friends, to evoke a feeling of belonging, or five friends of their closest friend, to diminish this sense of belonging. Participants then completed a task that, purportedly, is designed to gauge taste perception. They were told to evaluate various cookies. If participants had transcribed the name of five friends, they ate fewer cookies during the taste test, even after controlling measures of mood. A subsequent study showed that a sense of belonging also fostered delayed gratification. That is, if participants had written the name of five friends, they preferred a job with a low salary now but opportunities for advancement later.

Religious symbols and words

When individuals are exposed to religious symbols or words, they are more likely to exhibit self-control (Rounding, Lee, Jacobson, & Ji, 2012). They are more inclined, for example, to complete an unpleasant, but important task or maintain their effort over time. Arguably, religious symbols increase the likelihood that people feel they may be monitored or observed by some divine entity. Alternatively, these symbols increase the motivation of people to comply with the norms of some community, and this compliance demands self-control.

Rounding, Lee, Jacobson, and Ji (2012) conducted a series of four studies to demonstrate the effect of religious words on self-control. In each study, participants completed the sentence unscrambling task, in which they needed to rearrange words to construct sentences. For some participants, embedded in most of these sentences were religious words like god, divine, and spirit. Other participants were not exposed to religious words.

As the first study showed, if participants were exposed to religious words, they were more willing to consume many cups of an unpleasant liquid to earn money. Similarly, as the second study showed, they were also more willing to delay gratification: They often chose to earn $6 tomorrow rather than $5 now.

Similarly, exposure to religious words restored depleted resources (see ego depletion). That is, in one study, participants needed to type an extract. Some participants, however, were told to omit every e, s, and space--a task that depletes resources. Next, they completed the sentence unscrambling task. Finally, they attempted a puzzle that was actually impossible. if participants had been exposed to religious words, resource depletion did not reduce persistence on this puzzle. However, if participants had not been exposed to religious words, resource depletion did reduce persistence on this puzzle.

Justifications to indulge

People often justify their indulgences. For example, as Taylor, Webb, and Sheeran (2014) showed, to justify eating unhealthy food, people will claim they deserve the food after a hard time (e.g., "I've had a rubbish week, I deserve it"), they were merely curious to try the food (e.g., "It's new and I want to try it"), their behavior now is an exception to their usual restraint (e.g., "I'm quite a healthy person, this will not hurt"), their behavior now can be compensated later (e.g., "I can burn it off later"), the food is available now but not always (e.g., "I always finish what's on my plate"), and the food is especially irresistible (e.g., "It's too tempting"). In particular, a factor analysis reduced 54 justifications into 6 factors.

Unsurprisingly, when individuals embraced these justifications, strong intentions to resist a temptation were not as likely to translate into practice. Individuals who justified unhealthy food but had intended not to consume this food were not as likely to fulfill these intentions. In this study, participants indicated how many bars of chocolate, packets of chips, or slices of cake they consume in a typical week. Next, they indicated how often they invoke the 54 justifications that were examined in the previous study. Finally, they indicated the degree to which they intend to diminish their consumption of this unhealthy food. A month later, they estimated their actual consumption of this unhealthy food. Intentions to resist were positively associated with decrease in actual consumption of this food, but this relationship was not as pronounced in people who often invoke the justifications.

In the final study, the salience of justifications was manipulated experimentally. In one condition, participants read about a student who choose to holiday with friends instead of with her boyfriend. Participants imagined they were this girl and needed to justify the decision. Sample justifications were included, such as "Just this once won't hurt". In the control condition, no references to justifications were included. When justifications were primed, intentions to resist were not as likely to translate into action.

Measures of self control

Tangney, Baumeister, and Boone (2004) developed a measure of self control. Two variants were constructed, comprising 36 and 13 items respectively. Typical items included "I am good at resisting temptations" and "I have a hard time breaking bad habits (reversed)". This scale correlates with academic performance, interpersonal skills, eating disorders, alcohol abuse, and many other problems. For the brief scale, Cronbach's alpha ranged from .83 to .85. Test retest reliability three weeks later ranged from .87 to .89.

Maloney, Grawitch, and Barber (2012), however, showed the brief variant comprises two subscales. The first subscale primarily gauges impulsivity, and includes items such as "I do certain things that are bad for me, if they are fun", "Pleasure and fun sometimes keep me from getting work done", "Sometimes I can't stop myself from doing something, even if I know it is wrong", and "I often act without thinking through all the alternatives". The second subscale primarily gauges restraint and includes items such as "I am good at resisting temptation", "I have a hard time breaking bad habits" (reverse scored), "I wish I had more self-discipline" (reverse scored), and "People would say that I have iron self-discipline".

Both exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses verified this factor structure. Across two samples, CFI ranged from .89 to 97. A final study showed that impulsivity was positively related to counterproductive behaviors at work--and seems to relate to the tendency to yield to temptations. Restraint was negatively related to exhaustion and counterproductive behaviors towards individuals in particular--and, therefore, seems to reflect the capacity to maintain self-control without undue effort.

Controversies about self control

Habits versus temptations

Researchers do not often differentiate the variants of self-control. To illustrate, the capacity of individuals to inhibit temptations, such as to avoid unhealthy food, may not always equate to the capacity of individuals to overcome habits, such as biting their nails. Conceivably, these distinct variants of self-control may not demand the same cognitive processes. Approaches that facilitate one variant of self-control may not always facilitate other variants of self-control.

This subtly was discussed and illustrated by Quinn, Pascoe, Wood, and Neal (2010). In particular, to resist temptations, people are often discouraged from monitoring and inhibiting some action but are instead encouraged to consider alternative behaviors. Rather than remind themselves to refrain from unhealthy food, for example, they may be told to consider healthy options instead. Reminders to abstain from unhealthy food may simply increase the salience of these unhealthy options (cf ironic rebound) and impair self-control.

In contrast, to overcome habits, a different approach may be recommended. Individuals cannot merely consider better alternatives to overcome a habit, because the habitual response is still going to prevail. Furthermore, monitoring and inhibiting these habits should not execrate this problem. These habits are already entrenched or salient. Further attention to these habits, therefore, should not increase their salience anymore.

Indeed, as Quinn, Pascoe, Wood, and Neal (2010) showed, individuals who were instructed to monitor and avoid some habit were more successful in their attempt to change than individuals who were encouraged to consider better alternatives. That is, after they monitored and avoided some habit, individuals associated the habit with inhibitory tendencies. These habits, although salient, initiated attempts to suppress the behavior.

Related concepts

Locus of control

The notion of locus of control was first proposed by Rotter (1966). Individuals who exhibit a high locus of control, often called an internal locus of control, feel the consequences they experience can primarily be ascribed to their own behaviors. Although often conceptualized as a trait, some research indicates that daily hassles and anxiety diminish levels of control (Ryon & Gleason, 2014). These decreases in control diminish the likelihood that people initiate behaviors that improve their health (Ryon & Gleason, 2014) as well as coincide with other adverse consequences.

To ascertain the antecedents to locus of control, Ryon and Gleason (2014) undertook a diary study. The participants were 78 couples, soon to give birth to a child. Each day, over a week, they completed a range of measures such as locus of control (e.g., "I feel that I have control over the things that happen to me"), anxiety, a checklist of daily hassles, execution of health behaviors, and adverse health symptoms. Anxiety and hassles one day diminished a sense of control the same day and the next day. This decrease in locus of control coincided with fewer health behaviors and more adverse symptoms.

Counteractive control theory

According to counteractive control theory (Fishbach & Trope, 2007), people can more readily inhibit temptations if they anticipate the need to suppress these behaviors in advance. For example, in one study, some participants received subtle primes about fatty foods, such as chocolate. After they received these primes, they expressed a greater intention to abstain from unhealthy foods. So, awareness of temptations can actually activate self-control mechanisms (Fishbach et al., 2003)

Sheldon and Fishbach (2015) also highlighted the role of anticipations. In one study, participants completed a simulated business negotiation. To reach an agreement, buyers needed to lie to the seller, highlighting an ethical dilemma. Before the negotiation, some but not all the participants were asked to recall a previous time in which they needed to consider whether or not to yield to a temptation to bend the rules. These participants were not as likely to lie during the following negotiation.

Presumably, when people remembered past temptations, they anticipated they might also experience the temptation to lie during the following negotiation. This anticipation most likely primed self-control mechanisms, intended to override these temptations.

As Sheldon and Fishbach (2015) also showed, people are especially likely to inhibit the temptation to lie when they feel connected to the future. When connected to the future, people feel that all their decisions are related to each other rather than isolated from each other. Consequently, they recognize that yielding to one temptation could increase the tendency to yield to other temptations in the future. Their decisions, therefore, seem more consequential.


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