Self-imposed constraint or restraint has typically been defined in terms of willpower or other personal attributes assumed to be completely within the control of the individual, such as abstinence from pleasurable (sex) or unpleasurable (pain/illness) behaviors and conditions and the ability to cope with stress and dysfunction in one’s life. For the vast majority of students of self-restraint, there are significant moral and social features of the behavior, and much research has attempted to address and even control these conditions. Featured below are some examples of what is known or believed about personal self-restraint from this research.
Research on self-restraint runs the gamut from the most basic (e.g., monitoring of food intake) to a middle range of investigations of control over sexual promiscuity or aggressive impulses, to the most serious forms of behavior, such as drug addiction or child abuse. Most research in food intake has addressed dieting behaviors and disorders, such as obesity or anorexia nervosa/bulimia, and these have largely been studied through genetics or other biological conditions. Much less work has been done on the most severe forms of problem restraint, with the exception of addictive disorders, where often an imprisoned or similarly institutionalized population is more readily available to be studied. The heaviest concentration of studies have been in the area in the middle, which tries to understand the triggers—personal, psychosocial, and environmental—that lead to initiation, maintenance of, or abstinence from risky or healthy behaviors. Most research links the problems to interventions to help solve them.
Additional work has addressed the efforts of individuals and their professional “helpers” to regulate their potentially excessive behavior. In the medical field, it is increasingly common for patients to ask their doctors to impose constraints by limiting or removing the opportunity for pain relief. For example, women who fear harmful side effects of anesthesia will preemptively insist that their doctors not administer drugs. Identified as “anticipatory self-command” and associated with rational choice theory, this behavior highlights the tension between individual preference and professional responsibility. The doctor is charged with minimizing discomfort and maximizing healthy outcomes. But it is, after all, not the doctor’s body that is in question. In this case, both parties must or choose to administer self-constraints in order to ensure a desirable outcome. Lest this example seem isolated, think of how often people ask family or close friends to help them not do something, such as smoking (“you hold my cigarettes”), overspending (“hide my credit card from me”), or eating badly (“if you bring those into the house, don’t tell me where they are”). Similar work has emphasized the need to acknowledge past behaviors and choices and build a present around this knowledge—that is, to constrain choices mostly by better understanding the self.
There is a vast literature about youth aggression and violence, much of it around sport, leisure, and play, which tries to understand adolescent impulses toward healthy or risky behaviors. Generally researchers agree that a combination of personal factors, including gender and age, and social factors, including home/family environment, school setting, and peer relationships, affect youth participation in aggression/violence, delinquency, drug or alcohol use, sexual behavior, and the like. Studies show strong connections between personal qualities, such as a resilient personality, adaptive learning, and coping/resistance skills, and higher achievement in school, less problem behavior, and lifelong success. Many of these same studies show strong associations between social-environmental influences, such as strong bonds to healthy community institutions (e.g., school, family, neighborhood) and positive life outcomes. This research has led to a number of strong programs for youth that help build skills and strengthen the social environment, including Life Skills Training, All Stars, and Family Strengthening. Critical to the success of these programs is the skills building and environmental strengthening they combine with information sharing—information alone does not help and may actually hurt the people it is aimed at.
Another significant body of literature shows connections between personal (including DNA) and social-environmental forces and the most severe problem behaviors, such as eating disorders, HIV/AIDS, and drug addiction. Much of the genetic research that has been done on animals focuses on individual stimulus-response (Skinnerian) behaviors. For instance, scientists have been able to decrease desires for a substance (something as simple as sugar) by combining it with an unpleasant one (such as morphine). Many studies have shown that releasing addicts or criminals from prisons back to their unhealthy environments arouses the same “cravings” in them and is likely to lead to re-offending or re-abusing substances; some of these cravings can be controlled with “safe” stimulation and personal control practices that help internalize the value of abstinence. Research on dopamine, naturally produced by the body, suggests it can be regulated to affect drug and eating disorders and may hold a key to reducing problems of obesity and addiction. Similar studies point to the importance of serotonin, or seroconversion, in HIV/AIDS intravenous drug users. Even heavily individual and biological studies, however, point to the glut of social and environmental forces that are beyond the control of the individual and suggest the need to improve this environment. For instance, two cardinal features of human eating disorders are binge eating and body weight/body image, so understanding the social norms around a healthy body, controlling the availability of unhealthy eating patterns (e.g., “Supersize me”), and providing mechanisms to control behavioral and neuro-chemical abnormalities are critical.
SEE ALSO Choice in Psychology; Obesity; Optimizing Behavior; Overeating; Rationality; Self-Monitoring; Undereating
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