Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Self-control in health behaviours
What is self-control, and how can we use it to successfully diet, exercise and limit substance use?
- 1 Overview
- 2 Introduction to Self-Control
- 3 The Strength Model: Self-Control as a Muscle
- 4 The Role of Motivation
- 5 Succeeding at Self-Control
- 6 Conclusion
- 7 See Also
- 8 References
- 9 External Links
Every day, people resist the impulse to go back to sleep, eat unhealthy foods, skip their daily exercise, and take illicit substances. How does one avoid behaviours that feel good in the moment but bear long-term costs? Self-control – the capacity to alter one’s own behaviour in order to pursue personal long-term goals, and adhere to standards such as values and social expectations (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000). This ability underlies a multitude of everyday tasks, and has been empirically linked to success and failure within a wide-range of outcomes throughout the lifespan. The dominant strength model of self-control often depicts self-control as analogous to a muscle – all acts involving self-regulation rely upon one global, yet limited energy, that may be ‘strengthened’ with regular long-term exercise. Alternative research has emphasized self-control as a malleable product of one's beliefs, expectations, and the level and type of motivation. Each of these theories provides different suggestions for how to improve and hinder one's self-control performance. In this chapter, we will discuss the source, nature and processes behind self-control. We will then see how to enhance self-control in order to promote various health behaviours. Firstly, let's take a look at our case study.
Introduction to Self-ControlEdit
Self-control is central to numerous mental and physical abilities, including the delay of gratification, focusing and sustaining attention, regulating emotions, thought suppression, resisting temptations, and overriding automatic, habitual, or impulsive behaviours (for a review, see Hagger et al., 2010). As such, extensive literature has shown that those with higher self-control ratings tend to succeed in a wide range of psychological, occupational, social and health domains (for review, see Tangney et al., 2004). Moffitt and colleagues (2011) discovered that higher self-control within the first decade of life predicted greater income, financial security, occupational prestige, physical and mental health, and reduced risk of substance use and criminal convictions. Whilst self-control is considered a form of intentional control over behaviour, self-control failures are not a loss of this intentional control. On the contrary, Brendan succumbs to the temptation of a cigarette deliberately – he initiates and executes the action whilst being aware of the implications involved. Temptations, by their very definition, present someone with a self-control dilemma – they entice approach behaviours that are contrary to one’s self-control goals (Inzlicht & Schmeichel, 2012). The successful resolution of such conflicts requires one to suppress such behaviours in pursuit of goal-consistent behaviours. Poor self-control has been empirically linked to a variety of problematic health behaviours, particularly the use of alcohol and other substances, disordered eating, and poor nutritional habits. As we can begin to see, self-control is highly generalizable; ratings in one domain are often strong predictors of control in other domains. Could self-control be determined by one global ability or resource? Indeed it is, according to the currently dominant Strength Model of self-control.
The Strength Model: Self-Control as a MuscleEdit
The strength Model of self-control proposes that any act requiring effortful self-regulation depends upon one global, yet limited resource. In the same way that a muscle becomes weakened after repeated exercises, one’s capacity for further self-control can also become depleted and cause subsequent performance even on other self-control tasks to become worse. The term ego-depletion refers to the state of diminished resources following exertion of self-control. Initial evidence for ego-depletion was provided by Muraven and colleagues (1998), who utilized an experimental procedure involving two unrelated self-control tasks, known as the dual-task paradigm. Experimental-group participants were required to perform two consecutive, but unrelated self-control tasks, whilst control participants engaged in a neutral task before performing a self-control task. According to the strength model of self-control, only those who performed the initial self-control task would suffer from depleted resources and perform more poorly on the second task. Indeed, participants required to suppress their emotions whilst watching an emotionally evocative film performed poorer on a subsequent test of physical stamina (using a hand-grip task), as compared to those who were informed they could freely express their emotions (Muraven et al., 1998). This ego-depletion effect has been replicated by numerous other researchers (for review, see Hagger et al., 2010) in various domains of self-control, indicating that results are not due to an artefact of a certain experimental methods, or particular tasks or domains. Fortunately, just as a muscle becomes strengthened by regular exercise in the long term, there is evidence that exerting self-control may also improve one’s capacity for future performance. Australian researchers Oaten and Cheng (2006) found that participants who were able to adhere to a two-month physical exercise program tended to experience improvements in other unrelated areas of self-control, including substance use, eating behaviours, spending habits and study habits.
Despite its robust empirical support and dominance within the self-control literature, the strength model it is not without limitations. A minority of studies have not supported the notion of ego-depletion (Wright, Stewart, & Barnett, 2008). For example, Stillman and colleagues (2009) found that those required to suppress their thoughts did not perform worse on a subsequent word production task compared to controls not previously engaged in thought suppression. Secondly, Ego-depletion has been conceived as an ill-defined internal resource for which no direct measure currently exists. Research has relied heavily on indirect measures, such as persistence on a second self-control task. Thus, this evidence can only make inferences about ego-depletion, and does not actually specify the nature of this resource supposedly underlying self-control. Finally, a major limitation of the strength model is that it ignores the role of cognitive and motivational factors that have been theorised to moderate the relationship between self-control depletion and performance (Muraven & Slessareva, 2003).
The Role of MotivationEdit
What if we succumb to our impulses, not because depletion produces a loss of the ability to exert self-control, but rather it reduces our motivation to do so? This question has been raised by numerous researchers (Wikstrom and Treiber, 2007) who point to evidence indicating that the beliefs, expectations and motivation one has in regards to particular self-control behaviours can influence performance. Increasing internal or external motivation has been shown to encourage an individual to overcome ego-depletion and “tap into” their remaining resources (Baumeister & Vohs, 2007). Muraven and Slessareva (2003) found improved self-control in participants who were informed that persisting may result in enhanced treatments for those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, the same effect was found in those offered monetary incentives, or informed that persistence would improve their skill in a subsequent important task. Persistence in self-control behaviours also appears linked to an individual’s subjective perception of their resources. Clarkson, Hirt, Jia, and Alexander recently (2010) found that perceptions of resource depletion are better predictors of performance on subsequent self-control tasks than actual depletion. Similarly, Job, Dweck, and Walton (2010) found that personal theories about self-control can moderate the ego-depletion effect. Participants who believed that self-control can be continually renewed exerted self-control well into the second task, demonstrating much less depletion than those believed that their self-control was fixed and limited. Could self-control really just be “all in your head”?. It is plausible that those who believed self-control was limited looked for internal signals to suggest fatigue, and when these signals arouse, their motivation decreased and they prematurely abandoned the task. Alternatively, others with the belief that self-control was more flexible and infinite may have interpreted these signs as cues to work harder on the task (Kivetz & Simonson, 2002). As we can see, individuals are often not unable to exert self-control, but instead are unwilling or unmotivated, as to do so is unpleasant or requires too much effort or resources. With this evidence in mind, theories have begun to emerge that incorporate the role of motivation in self-control, which we will now take a look at.
The Process Model: From Restraint to GratificationEdit
How does cognition, affect, and motivation influence self-control depletion? As depicted in Figure 1, the process model of self-control (Inzlicht and Schmeichel, 2012) argues that continual exertions of self-control lead to a shift in motivational orientation away from control and restraint, and towards approaching and gratifying desires. With each act of self-control performed, we become less motivated to engage in further acts of restraint. Simultaneously, we feel more motivated to engage in behaviours that we find rewarding, interesting, and enjoyable. Alternatively, our previous efforts may allow us to feel justified in ‘slacking off’ (Kivetz & Simonson, 2002). Thus, the ego-depletion results often found within the dual-task paradigm are interpreted by the process model as attributable rather to an increase in impulse strength, rather than a reduction in self-control resources. As one becomes more motivated to gratify impulses, their attention also shifts towards cues signalling gratification and reward. As a result, the individual may overlook cognitive and affective cues that signal self-control conflicts and the ensuing need to exert self-control. Recent neurophysiological research has provided intriguing evidence supporting this notion. According to neuroscientific models of mental control, discrepancies between one’s intended goals and actual behaviours are identified through a physiological “conflict-monitoring” system (Inzlicht & Gutzell, 2007). When an error is detected, neural signals (referred to as ERNs) pass information to secondary regulatory systems which suppress the unfavourable behaviour and implement the desired response. Inzlicht and Gutsell found that participants who engaged in an initial emotion-suppression task not only demonstrated poorer attentional control on the second, unrelated self-control task. More crucially, these participants also displayed weaker ERN signals than those who had not previously exerted self-control. Although preliminary, these impressive findings suggest that repeated self-control exertion weaken the one’s monitoring system, reducing goal-orientated attention. Thus, individuals are less likely to realise when self-control is required, and may unintentionally neglect the goal at hand.
The Monitoring Model: Moving Towards One's GoalsEdit
The Monitoring Model (Wan & Sternthal, 2008) emphasises that self-control requires not only effective goal-setting, but continual self-awareness of one's progress towards those goals. Monitoring is the continual process of assessing and adjusting one’s current behaviour in order to minimise any discrepancy between the behaviour and a salient performance standard (Carver, 2004). Under the monitoring model, self-control depletion is a process in which one stops monitoring their performance and instead begins to focus the effort they are exerting. This shift in focus leads the individual to prematurely abandon the persistence task, even though they have the ability to persevere. How could this occur? Intriguingly, depletion may actually alter one’s perception of time during self-control tasks. Vohs and Schmeichel (2003) found that depleted individuals believed they had spent a longer period of time performing a persistence task than did those who were not initially depleted. In fact, the opposite was true. Vohs and Schmeichel (2003) suggested that this elongation of time increases one’s perception of fatigue, prompting a focus on current feelings and impulses and reducing one’s awareness of distal goals. Alternatively, this elongation of time leads one to rely on their current feeling of fatigue to measure performance on the task rather than a salient concrete standard, which usually results in a premature cessation of the task (Wan and Strenthal, 2008). This is not to imply that self-control failure occurs because we temporarily forget about our goals; rather that we intentionally neglected them in the moment. Indeed, depleted individuals are still usually able to articulate their target goals when asked directly (Duncan, 1990). We can see this model applied to Brendan, in Figure 2. The monitoring model asserts that self-control efforts can be sustained by encouraging individuals to constantly monitor their behaviour against a salient standard. Providing ongoing feedback about the amount of time participants have allocated to a persistence task tends to increase performance (Wan and Strenthal, 2008). In addition, Baumeister and colleagues (2005) found that participants persist longer on tasks performed in front of a mirror, which has been shown to enhance the extent to which individuals compare their performance to their standard (Scheier & Carver, 1983). Additional motivators may also enhance the salience of target goals.
The Self in Self-Control MotivationEdit
Where does the motivation to exert self-control come from? From a rational behaviour perspective, self-control is only exerted if it is interpreted within a cognitive and emotional framework that defines restraint as rewarding self-interested behaviour. One element of the self that may heavily influence self-control is the desired and feared conceptions we have of ourselves in the future (Silver & Ulmer, 2012). Markus and Nurius (1986) originally proposed the notion of “possible selves”, which refer to the specific and vivid images, senses, or conceptions we have of our-self in future states or circumstances. These future selves bring into our awareness the end states that we are striving to achieve or avoid, and therefore serve as important long-term motivators that influence our decision to exert self-control across multiple situations. Persisting in his morning exercise regime may be interpreted by Brendan as a rewarding endeavour if he is consciously aspiring towards a vision of a future healthy self. On the other hand, he may engage cigarette smoking because he lacks a vision of the future that would prompt him to exert self-control. Despite the emerging recognition of future selves within current self-control literature, no established self-control theory deals precisely with this issue (Silver & Ulmer, 2012).
Type of Motivation and Level of AutonomyEdit
We’ve all heard the saying that if someone wants to relinquish a bad habit, they “must want to do it for themselves”. In fact, there may be very real truth behind this widely-cited truism. One’s ability to exert self-control is largely determined by the quality or type of motivation experienced. Self-determination theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 1985) suggests that two types of motivation exist, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation involves performing a behaviour purely for enjoyment or interest it entails. In contrast, extrinsic motivation refers to performing an action for external reasons, such as social pressure, to gain rewards, or to avoid punishment. According to SDT, the quality of one’s motivation is essentially linked to one’s level of perceived autonomy, which is the regulation by one's own self (Muraven, Gayne & Rosman, 2008). A lack of autonomy is experienced when our behaviours are extrinsically regulated and motivated. On the other end of the continuum, true autonomy is experienced when we feel our behaviour is purely self-regulated and endorsed, and promotes our values and interests. Researchers Muraven and Baumeister (2000) argue that ego-depletion is partially determined by whether efforts are externally or internally driven. Indeed, it makes intuitive sense that one is more likely to continue exerting self-control if they are doing so for autonomous reasons. The desire to develop a healthier, strong-minded self is more likely to motivate Brendan to resist the temptation of cigarettes than if he was solely motivated by a desire to avoid criticism from others. Empirically, contexts that support autonomy tend to produce greater self-control outcomes than those that force individuals to restrain themselves. Williams and colleagues (1996) found that individuals who diet within an autonomous setting lose more weight and report less feelings of depletion than those within more controlling settings. Such a trend has been replicated in various health-related behaviours, such as smoking cessation and alcohol abstinence (for review, see Muraven, Gayne & Rosman, 2008). Researchers offered two explanations for this finding. Firstly, feeling as though we are the sole agent of our own self-driven regulation is likely to produce a sense of subjective vitality - a positive feeling of aliveness and energy - which may lead to a more rapid recovery of self-control strength. Secondly, ego-depletion effects may be magnified when self-control is exerted in response to external pressures - not only does Brendan have to produce the self-controlled behaviour, but he now must also overcome his own internal resistance. This is not to say that all self-controlled behaviours must be (or can be) intrinsically motivating. Research indicates that identified motivation is a better predictor of engagement for certain tasks that may be less interesting but still important (Koestner and Losier, 2002), such as monitoring alcohol intake. When one is driven by identification motivation, they consciously recognise a behavioural goal as valuable and personally important.
Succeeding at Self-ControlEdit
Find True MotivationEdit
As SDT has shown us, the motivation to exert self-controlled behaviours must truly come from within the individual. Brendan is significantly more likely to succeed at resisting cigarettes if he believes that doing so promotes his best interests. This internal motivation may be stimulated by envisioning his possible selves if he does or does not perform these self-control behaviours. A sense of autonomy is also vital – one must not only set their own goals, but direct how they intend to exert self-control to achieve these goals. Research indicates that social environments which support autonomous self-control tend to reduce depletion (Baumeister et al., 2005), and thus, Brendan should surround himself with others who support his goals and progress.
Focus on One Goal at a TimeEdit
Self-control literature suggests that acts of self-control lead to superior self-control in general. On the other hand, self-control behaviours lead to depletion and reduce one’s performance on such tasks. So where does this leave us? Brendan’s capacity for self-control must be gradually developed over time, beginning with small acts of restraint. Evidence from ego-depletion studies indicates that depletion in one domain can reduce self-control in other domains. Thus, making a list of New Year’s resolutions, and trying to undertake multiple self-control tasks at once is likely to be detrimental to Brendan. Instead, focusing his self-control towards one goal at time may reduce ego-depletion. Research indicates that once Brendan becomes practiced in one domain it is not only likely to improve his general self-control, but that particular behaviour may become an automatic tendency (Baumeister & Vohs, 2007). As this habit eventually becomes routine, Brendan will no longer need to draw on his self-control to perform it, and may move onto the next ‘resolution’. It is important to note that with long-term exertion, Brendan's confidence in his self-control abilities is likely to increase. This will promote the belief that self-control is flexible and replenishing, which in turn, will further improve his motivation and performance.
Set a Standard and Monitor Your ProgressEdit
Before commencing a self-controlled behaviour, it is important to set a concrete standard that may be constantly observed. This ensures that progress is being made towards one’s overarching goals. At the beginning of each week, Brendan should plan the exact time or distance he intends to run each day. In doing so, he avoids relying on internal cues (such as fatigue) to assess persistence. The development and monitoring of a salient standard is also importance for tasks involving resistance to temptation. Brendan may also prospectively plan to reduce his intake by five cigarettes per week, and then track his progress towards this goal on a weekly cigarette consumption chart. Developing a few easy-to-follow rules will also decrease complexity and thus decrease depletion (Job, Dweck, & Walton, 2010). Furthermore, improvements in one’s ability to monitor their performance may eventually generate a monitoring mind-set and increase long-term capacity for self-control (Wan & Sternthal, 2008).
Periods of rest and small rewards has been shown to have a restorative effect on depletion. Importantly, these rewards do not have to be in the same domain as the self-control task – Brendan does not have to replenish the restraint he has exerted avoiding sweets by indulging in an ice-cream. Surrendering self-control in one sphere may improve control within other spheres. Thus, a more productive restorative activity may be to engage in relaxation techniques or meditation in which Brendan allows himself to “switch off” and relinquish control over his thoughts and attention. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to be particularly useful in combating ego-depletion (Friese, Messner & Schaffner, 2012), and involves the process of observing thoughts, emotions, and sensations as they come and go, with an attitude of curiosity and acceptance. In addition, providing one's self with motivators may enhance the salience of target goals. In allowing himself small rewards, Brendan is less likely to abandon his goals and more likely to monitor and improve his progress towards these goals.
Our ability to override or inhibit automatic, habitual, or innate behaviours, urges and emotions is often fundamental to pursuing goal-directed behaviour. Not only can self-control predict life success in a broad variety of spheres, but it is central to both approach (performing exercise) and avoidance (resisting cigarettes) health behaviours. Our theoretical understanding of self-control processes is still limited, and there appears a division within the literature, with some researchers advocating a strength model, whilst others promote a motivation-based explanation. Nonetheless, both perspectives indicate that our capacity to exert self-control improves with long-term practice - either through "strengthening our self-control muscle" or promoting a more flexible, infinite understanding our self-control ability.
Book chapters from Improve your life: Motivation and Emotion (2013)
- Health Behaviours
- Delay of Gratification
- Intrinsic Motivation
- Relaxation Techniques
- Self-tracking and Motivation
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- What You Need to Know About Willpower - From the American Psychological Association's online 'Help Center'.
- Willpower: Self-control, decision fatigue, and energy - Video clip: One of the world's leading researchers in self-control, Roy Baumeister, explaining why self-control is essential to individual and societal wellbeing.
- Self-control: The problem and how to get over it - TED-talk featuring Dan Ariely.