Self-control has been defined as the capacity that individuals have to exert control over their own thoughts, emotions, impulses, and performance. A central component of this definition is that self-control involves overriding or inhibiting something that would otherwise occur. A wide variety of concepts related to self-control have been studied in the field of psychology. These include self-regulation, willpower, and delay of gratification.
Many scholars have used the terms self-control and self-regulation interchangeably. Self-regulation can be defined as the self-governing process by which individuals monitor, evaluate, and modify their behavior in regard to standards. In this process behavior is evaluated in terms of standards or reference values. After the evaluation phase, an operation phase ensues. During this phase, individuals’ current behavior is compared to a desired or undesired end state. If a discrepancy is noticed between one’s self and standard, the results are negative and imply that individuals should change their behavior in a way that brings them more in line with their standards. If no discrepancy is noticed, the results are positive and imply that individuals should maintain their present course of behavior. The process of exerting self-control is often thought to parallel that of self-regulation. Exerting self-control is probably best viewed as a particular case of self-regulation in which overriding or suppression of an undesired response occurs. Hence any event that requires self-control occurs in the larger framework of self-regulation. However, it is not the case that any event that involves self-regulation could be described as requiring self-control.
The predominant view of self-control has been as a personality characteristic. This trait is influenced by temperament, parental factors such as socialization, attachment, and warmth, and demographic factors such as neighborhood safety and family socioeconomic status. In adults personality characteristics related to self-control include impulsivity, sensation seeking, conscientiousness, and emotional stability. Impulsivity and sensation seeking are negatively correlated with self-control, whereas conscientiousness and emotional stability are positively correlated with self-control.
As a trait, self-control is connected with a wide variety of behaviors and problems. In their 2004 work the researchers June Tangney, Roy Baumeister, and Angie Boone showed convincingly that high levels of self-control are associated with better adjustment whereas low levels of self-control are associated with poorer adjustment and interpersonal problems. In their research high self-control was associated with lower levels of alcoholism, higher grade point averages, less eating disorder symptomatology, and less aggression. Other research has shown that poor self-control skills are related to problems with weight control and overeating, alcohol misuse and drug addiction, impulsive consumer purchasing and behavior, and crime and delinquency. In fact self-control is a central component of the general theory of crime proposed in 1990 by Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi. In this theory self-control is related to crime because individuals with varying levels of self-control consider the consequences of their behavior to different extents. Individuals with high self-control consider the long-term consequences of their behavior, while individuals with low self-control do not.
A different line of research on self-control has focused on the differences between attending to short-term and long-term benefits of behavior. Delay of gratification is a particular type of impulse control in which individuals opt to wait for more preferred rewards in lieu of taking a less preferred reward immediately. In 1988 Walter Mischel showed that the ability to delay gratification is one that increases with age. Additionally his research on delay of gratification supports viewing self-control as a personality variable. In one 1990 study Mischel and his colleagues Yuichi Shoda and Phillip Peake showed that children who waited for longer periods of time to earn rewards became adolescents with better overall adjustment and had higher SAT scores. David Funder, Jeanne Block, and Jack Block provided evidence in the 1980s that the ability to delay gratification is related to a variety of positive outcomes. Children who were better at delaying gratification tended to be calmer, less irritable, less easily frustrated, and less aggressive. They were also better at concentrating and received higher grades then children who were lower in self-control.
Models of self-control vary in the extent to which they view self-control as a skill, as knowledge, or as strength. The largest body of support exists for viewing self-control through a strength model, where self-control is compared to a muscle. In this model individuals have limited regulatory resources or resources available to exert self-control. Individuals who exert self-control suffer a cost in that they may be less able to exert self-control on a subsequent task. In their 1998 work Mark Muraven, Diane Tice, and Roy Baumeister showed that when individuals exert self-control, their regulatory resources become depleted and individuals’ performance on simultaneous activities requiring self-control is impaired. Furthermore exerting self-control on an activity impairs performance on consecutive tasks. This resource for self-control is used for tasks related to regulating affect, behavior, and cognition. Activities that require an individual to exert self-control in one domain can lead to deficits in performance in another domain. For example, individuals who are asked to regulate their emotions by refraining from feeling or expressing them while they watch a sad film clip persist for a shorter period of time at a physical task than individuals who watch the same sad film clip without regulating their emotions. Other tasks that deplete individuals’ resources to exert self-control include making personally relevant and important choices, ostracizing liked others, refraining from temptations, and overriding habits. Individuals can practice exerting self-control and strengthen this “muscle” so that at later times engaging in the practiced activity does not lead to as much resource depletion.
Although the traditional view of self-control is a response to an unwanted event, individuals may exert self-control by avoiding situations that may contain temptations or distractions. This type of self-control is referred to as counteractive self-control. In 1997 Peter Gollwitzer and Veronika Brandstatter provided evidence that implementation intentions can increase the success of goal pursuit, even in the face of obstacles or temptations. An implementation can best be construed in terms of a “when, then” statement. An example might be “when my alarm clock goes off in the morning, then I will get out of bed to exercise.” These intentions connect the desired behavior with the context in which that behavior is expected to occur.
The economist Thomas Schelling defined a similar construct of precommitment. Individuals may exert self-control in this way by planning activities that will preclude, or limit, their potential behaviors. A classic example of this would be a general who commands the army to burn the bridges after it crosses them, thereby limiting the army’s likelihood of retreat. The relationship between intentions, planning, and behavior has sparked other research in self-control. Specifically Judy Fitch and Elizabeth Ravlin studied willpower as it relates to the role of the self in motivation and goal pursuit. Their 2005 work approaches willpower as a subfactor of the personality trait of conscientiousness. Willpower is defined as persistency and determination, or the ability to exert extra effort to attain a desired goal. In their research Fitch and Ravlin found that willpower moderated the relationship between intention and behavior. In other words, individuals who have stronger willpower are more likely to engage in behaviors that reflect their intentions.
Temptations may not always act as obstacles to successful self-control. In 2003 Ayelet Fishbach, Ronald Friedman, and Arie Kruglanski found that the presence of temptations is automatically associated with relevant goal pursuit. Individuals who were primed with temptations that might distract them from their goal were more likely to engage in choices and activities related to that goal. When individuals perceived the goal they were pursuing to be important, they were even more likely to associate temptations with goal pursuit. It should be noted that the priming manipulation in this study occurred at a nonconscious level. That is, temptations were not actually present when the goal pursuit of individuals was being assessed. In regard to self-control, this research implies that thinking about temptations ahead of time may increase an individual’s ability to resist them when they are physically present.
In summary, understanding self-control requires viewing it as a function of both the person and the environment. Like many psychological phenomena, both individual and situational factors influence the ways that self-control occurs. Researchers know that individuals vary across personality factors and in their ability to exert self-control and that these differences are attached to meaningful outcomes. They also know that contextual factors such as the presence of temptations lead to fluctuations in how individuals control their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Indeed individuals can even influence their own later ability to exert self-control through detailed planning.
Fishbach, Ayelet, Ronald S. Friedman, and Arie W. Kruglanski. 2003. Leading Us Not into Temptation: Momentary Allurements Elicit Overriding Goal Activation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84: 296–309.
Fitch, J. L., and E. C. Ravlin. 2005. Willpower and Perceived Behavioral Control: Influences on the Intention-Behavior Relationship and Postbehavior Attributions. Social Behavior and Personality 33: 105–124.
Funder, David C., Jeanne H. Block, and Jack Block. 1983. Delay of Gratification: Some Longitudinal Personality Correlates. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 44: 1198–1213.
Gollwitzer, Peter M., and Veronika Brandstatter. 1997. Implementation Intentions and Effective Goal Pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84: 296–309.
Gottfredson, Michael R., and Travis Hirschi. 1990. A General Theory of Crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Mischel, Walter, Yuichi Shoda, and Phillip K. Peake. 1988. The Nature of Adolescent Competencies Predicted by Preschool Delay of Gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54: 687–696.
Muraven, Mark, Roy F. Baumeister, and Diane M. Tice. 1998. Ego-Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74: 1252–1265.
Schelling, T. C. 1985. Choice and Consequence: Perspectives of an Errant Economist. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Tangney, June P., Roy F. Baumeister, and Angie K. Boone. 2004. High Self-Control Predicts Good Adjustment, Less Pathology, Better Grades, and Interpersonal Success. Journal of Personality 72: 271–322.