That decadent piece of chocolate smells delicious.
It makes your mouth water and stimulates a memory of the last time something so delightful touched your tongue.
Yet, you choose to resist the urge to indulge in the impulse because you have a goal of cutting back on sugar.
You are also aiming to run a half-marathon before the end of the year. You try to force yourself out of bed in the morning to go for a run, yet the urge to savor your warm duvet wins instead.
We all face moments in life where high or low self-control comes into focus. As it’s been a topic of interest for decades, let’s explore the psychology of self-control.
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What Is Self-Control Theory? A Definition
The benefits of self-control are plentiful and essential for successful lives. Effective self-control has been linked to success in academics and occupations, as well as social wellness. Good mental and physical health, reduction in crime, and longer life spans are also linked to self-control.
Self-control serves as an executive function necessary for individual goal attainment. It is a cognitive process for self-regulating behavior in pursuit of personal goals. This advanced executive process allows us to inhibit ourselves from impulsive responses in behavior, favoring more appropriate, context-specific behavior.
The study of cybernetics laid the groundwork for exploration in self-control and communication (Wiener, 1948). The theory centers around the basic unit of the negative feedback loop. An environmental stimulus creates reactions, resulting in behaviors that are compared to a reference value that either leads to goal attainment, or without control, leads us away from it.
From cybernetics, the general systems theory was developed in sociology (Buckley, 1968) and created a framework around self-control. It is theorized that abstract goals are attained over longer periods than concrete goals. The goals are hierarchically integrated into behavioral decisions.
Behavioral decisions are implicitly categorized into the situation. Based on previous knowledge of the physical and social environment (Neisser, 1976), decisions are theorized to be made first for lower-level decisions that lead to more abstract goal attainment. A person’s focus determines which level of goal is achieved.
Making moral and ethical decisions that are considered to be more abstract, or higher level, requires self-control decisions that are integrated within the intricate maze of implicit choices that we make daily.
The theories have developed over time, and in recent years, research on self-control, morality, and human strength has been an intriguing area of focus. When we know more about how the self can alter its own state to achieve adaptive success, more flourishing lives can be forged.
Self-control theory has developed into a much broader concept. It has become more than the effortful inhibition of impulses than the previous models have described (Fujita, 2011). A deeper understanding of avoidance and other action-based cognitions among people who score high on self-control scales helps to connect the importance of self-regulation in all areas of life.
4 Elements and Examples of Self-Control Theory
The social control theory (Hirschi, 1969) outlines the social forces that deter someone from participating in deviant behavior. It explains in detail how a minor might end up engaged in delinquent behavior. It’s helpful to know when we might have a lack of self-control.
However, it is more impactful to know how to build self-control, as it is like a muscle. The more it is practiced, the stronger it becomes. Through the lens of juvenile delinquency, let’s take a look at how positive psychology interventions might be great examples of how to broaden and build from the theories in criminology.
One key element in self-control is deferring gratification. By utilizing the character strengths of savoring and self-regulation, self-control can improve. Teaching children how to appreciate and effectively distract themselves from gratification will serve them into adulthood. Adults who have not learned these strengths or how to harness them can also benefit from practice.
Another key element is the ability to be cautious. The character strength of prudence can be utilized here to improve self-control. Teaching children how to think, rather than merely reacting to an impulse, is where this character strength can be nurtured. With practice, better decisions can be made in real time.
Another key element is cognitive ability. Taking the time to explore options before being impulsive in decision making is a strong example of self-control. The character strengths of curiosity and love of learning are areas of growth in building self-control.
Another element of self-control is the ability to see alternative perspectives effectively. Social intelligence is a character strength that can be strengthened to improve self-control. Rather than reacting impulsively to another person’s behavior, someone with enhanced social intelligence can more easily respond with compassion and empathy.
Less violent outbursts will occur when someone can slow their response to react to a perceived threat appropriately.
For more information, read our post on Character Strength Examples and worksheets.
A Look at the Psychology
Since the 1940s, psychologists have studied self-control theory.
Researchers have explored why humans make the decisions that they do, especially the ones that lead to incarceration. Our personal experiences are theorized to implicitly create new decision making based on those experiences. Let’s explore a little more about the psychology behind self-control.
The ability to control our impulses is based in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This part of the human brain is rich with complex neural connections, allowing us to plan, exert willpower, and achieve our goals. In a world filled with competing stimuli, asserting self-control is a depleting process that reduces human vitality. In other words, it takes a lot of energy to inhibit our impulses effectively.
An interesting explanation of willpower was done at Columbia University (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999). It described hot vs. cool systems as a framework for describing delayed gratification. The cool, cognitive “know” system is the emotionally neutral and strategic system and the seat of self-control. The hot, emotional “go” system is the highly emotionally driven system that typically undermines attempts at self-control.
At Carnegie Mellon, research on visceral vs. rational decision making (Loewenstein, 1996) shed light on how emotional response impacts self-control behavior. Visceral factors are described as intense cravings, such as hunger, thirst, desire, moods, and emotions, that are drive states for behavior. Rational decisions are made when overriding the visceral reactions.
Dual-system paradigms, like the two previous examples, were used to explain health behavior (Hofmann, Friese, & Wiers, 2008) further. Like any other decision, health behaviors can be either impulsive or reflective.
Self-control behavior utilizes a distal goal orientation in decision making in all scenarios, but it is of particular interest in health behavior. The hedonic pull of impulse can result in adverse outcomes in overall health. A deeper understanding of the ability to strengthen the reflective side of this paradigm allows for improved health behavior.
Another dual-system paradigm describes the paradox of behavior as seen through implicit vs. explicit cognitions (Stacy & Wiers, 2010). In this interesting research, it is explained that people participating in addictive behavior are quite aware of the pros and cons of the consequences of their choices. The more influential cognitions are those that are not taken through reflective means. Offered in this work are interventions to aid adolescents.
The “marshmallow test” is a famous, although sometimes highly debated, piece of research (Mischel & Grusec, 1967) into the innate ability to resist urges. The experiment measured children’s ability to resist eating marshmallows for a set time, in favor of receiving more marshmallows later. The results of this experiment were thought to predict academic performance and success in later life.
The interpretation of this research was called into question by a study done at the University of Rochester (Kidd, Palmeri, & Aslin, 2013). The original experiment was altered, with broken promises becoming a factor in the decision making of the groups involved in the experiment. This new research showed the importance of environmental reliability on children’s decision-making capabilities.
A great deal of research on self-control has been done through a lens that predates positive psychology. The bulk of self-control theory has focused on the inhibition of impulses as control and the resulting behaviors from that inhibition. Criminology theories about the “lack” of elements that keep people out of trouble are abundant.
A new focus in psychology erupted in 1998. Since then, the theories around self-control have supported the notion that increasing self-control is possible. Besides, it is suggested that you cannot over-strengthen the control of the impulses of the self. Though even that view has been called into question when considering opportunities for spontaneity and the benefits of fun.
Theories on self-control have influenced policies in education, addiction treatment, criminology, and many other areas. Vast amounts of research have supported the notion that improvement in self-control improves humans. A longitudinal study (Moffitt et al., 2011) showed that childhood self-control abilities predicted adult success across various domains.
The Self-Control Scale (Tangney, Baumeister, & Boone 2004) is used to assess people’s ability to control their impulses, alter their emotions and thoughts, halt undesired behavioral tendencies, and refrain from acting on them. Using this scale, an interesting study (Ent, Baumeister, & Tice, 2015) showed that trait self-control is linked more with avoiding temptation than resisting impulses.
This is an area of interest in self-control research showing that avoidance may be a more powerful predictor of behavior than willpower. Creating an environment where you don’t need to practice effortful impulse inhibition (Fujita, 2011), but rather avoid situations where that self-control will be tested, is highly beneficial. This type of decision making allows for distal goals to be in focus, rather than more immediate goals.
Ego depletion plays an essential role in the successful deployment of self-control strategies (Baumeister, 2014). People do not have an unlimited capacity to test themselves in the face of instant gratification. This process is cognitively taxing, and with consistent depletion throughout one’s day, self-control abilities become weakened.
Someone who can effectively multitask across goal domains creates a cognitive framework that allows for new associations to undesirable temptations (Fishbach, Friedman, & Kruglanski, 2003).
With practice, people can re-associate temptations that are at first considered desirable into negative cues. This practice allows distal goals to be reached more readily in the face of temptations that would otherwise derail progress toward those goals.
Behavior requires choice. Allowing for growth in the connection between the higher level or distal goal achievement and choice in the immediate decision-making needs is where self-control behavior improves. Slowing reactions and allowing self-reflection before decisions are made gives room for strengths to build.
How Does the Theory Differ from the Control Theory of Self-Regulation?
Self-control theory focuses on the inhibition of strong impulses. Self-regulation is reducing the intensity and/or the frequency of those impulses by self-managing stress and negative environmental impact. Self-control is possible because of practices in self-regulation.
Theories of self-control can be described within the theory of self-regulation theory. The process of self-regulation creates various challenges. Self-control is one of them.
For self-regulation to be successful, the following must occur:
- A person must decide which goals to pursue.
- A plan for the pursuit of that goal must be created.
- That plan must then be implemented.
- Decisions to continue or abandon that goal pursuit must be decided with success or failure feedback.
In the brain, the limbic system is in charge of the impulses to which human beings react. When this system is in action, the prefrontal cortex is shut down. Logical and rational thought are carried out by the prefrontal cortex. These parts of the brain do not work simultaneously. Reducing stress allows the prefrontal cortex to get into action.
Self-regulation through increased abilities in various cognitive capacities allows self-control behaviors to take more routes to goal achievement than impulse inhibition.
When stress is allowed to continue, our limbic system takes over, inducing more impulsive responses. When stress is managed correctly, it opens the door for reflective and higher level goal attainment.
Self-regulation theory proposes the notion that we do not have a constant supply of resources to inhibit strong impulses. Throughout any given day, these resources are depleted through decision making and various forms of stress.
Improvements in conscious self-regulation (Baumeister & Vohs, 2007) improve our ability to recognize and alter reactions in self-control.
The role of self-determination theory within the realm of self-regulation is important to note. Personal decisions in behavior change are vital to improvement. “Autonomous self-regulation of behavior does not deplete vitality as readily as the use of self-controlling regulation” (Ryan & Deci, 2008).
A Look at Low Self-Control in the Theory
Low self-control can result in undesirable behaviors. Addiction, poor academic performance, deviant sexual behavior, obesity, and criminal activity are a few of the well-documented areas where low self-control is evident. Low self-control leads to actions that put people at risk.
In one theory (Nofziger, 2008), low self-control is said to come from ineffective child rearing. When a parent fails to recognize and correct deviant behavior, low self-control is likely to predict behavior that will become problematic into adulthood. Parents who lack self-control are less likely to identify and correct undesirable behavior in their children.
This theory can prove to be somewhat problematic, however, when viewing self-control theory in adulthood. As self-regulation can grow like a muscle, so too can self-control, improving overall behavior. It won’t matter at age 30, how your mom corrected or failed to correct your behavior when you were young. Adults have the responsibility to halt the cycle of impulsive behavior, or it will continue.
Raising levels of self-control in adults will, in turn, raise levels of self-control in children. Adults who hold themselves accountable for their behavior show children parameters in which to begin to thrive. This is an enormous area of growth in psychology for education, families, and any space where children can learn improvements in the elements that may lead to dangerous and high-risk behaviors.
A Take-Home Message
Delaying the gratification of consuming that delicious piece of chocolate is not easy for most. Pleasurable experiences are cued in our brains to repeat themselves in the face of decadence. Self-control overrides the impulse to devour that chocolate in favor of higher level goals.
The alarming levels of obesity, addiction, and violence in the world tell us that intentional improvement in self-control practices is warranted. With continuing research in the field, more and more information will become available to learn how to improve self-control behavior. The more successful people become at reducing impulsive behavior, the better their lives and the lives around them can become.
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