Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Self control

Self control refers to the ability to control human behavior through the exertion of will. Self-control is required in order to inhibit impulsivity, and has been a recurrent theme throughout history, culture, and philosophy, where it is considered a key to volition (psychology) and free will.

In contemporary psychology it is sometimes referred to as self-regulation, and exerting self-control through the executive functions in decision making is thought to deplete a resource in the ego.[1]


People demonstrate great differences in the level of self-control. It can be affected because of illness and past experiences and it can be improved through the course of life. Many religions have teachings about self control. In the Christian context, Paul describes self control in the epistle to the Galatians (5:22-23), as one of the fruits of the Spirit. In the epistle addressed to Titus (2:5-6) he instructs to 'Urge the younger men to be self controlled.' The Apostle Peter describes an increase in self control as fundamental to the salvation of a Christian (2 Peter 1:5-8).

"A man without self-control is as defenseless as a city with broken-down walls" (Proverbs 25:28).

Self-control in Behavior with Analysis

Another view is that self-control represents the locus of two conflicting contingencies of reinforcement, which then make a controlling response reinforcing when it causes changes in the controlled response.[2][3]

The importance of using self control for patience

In the 1960s, Walter Mischel tested four year old children for self control in "The Marshmallow Test": the children were each given a marshmallow and told that they can eat it anytime they want, but if they waited 15 minutes, they would receive another marshmallow. Follow up studies showed that the results correlated well with these children's success levels in later life.[4][5]

Self-control research

In the experimental analysis of behavior, research on self-control exists with rats, humans and pigeons. This work is based on the Assumption of generality.

Rat self-control

Rats are impulsive with regards to food rewards in the laboratory, even when the impulsiveness results in them receiving less food [6].

Pigeon self-control

Pigeon self-control research is typically done in a delay-reduction paradigm innovated in the early 1970s.[7][8] In this model of research two responses are made available simultaneously. Each response leads to a different outcome. One response typically leads to a smaller-reinforcement with a small or no delay from the selection of that response to the onset of the consequence. The other response is typically a larger-reinforcement which has some element of delay. In pigeons a common level of delay is as little as 6 seconds to qualify as "large". A typical small-reinforcer, small delay response might be a red key that produces 2 seconds of food access with no delay. A typical larger-reinforcer response might produce 6 seconds of food access, but only after 6 seconds of delay from that selection. To ensure that the delayed response represents an overall superior choice a delay of several seconds usually follows the smaller-reinforcement choice.

Pigeon research replicates Mischel paradigm

Largely replicating the work of Mischel using pigeons instead of children, Grosch and Neuringer (1981) were able to affirm generality in pigeon and human self-control research [9] by showing that the behavior of human children was accurately represented by pigeons presented with the same conditions.

Human self-control

Human self-control research is typically modeled by using a token economy system in which human participants choose between tokens for one choice and usually more tokens for a delayed choice. Different results were being obtained for humans and non-humans, with the latter appearing to maximize their overall reinforcement despite delays, with the former being sensitive to changes in delay. The difference in research methodologies with humans - using tokens or conditioned reinforcers - and non-humans using sub-primary reinforcers suggested procedural artifacts as a possible suspect. One aspect of these procedural differences was the delay to the exchange period (Hyten et al 1994).[10] Non-human subjects can, and would, access their reinforcement immediately. The human subjects had to wait for an "exchange period" in which they could exchange their tokens for money, usually at the end of the experiment. When this was done with pigeons they responded much like humans in which males have less control than females (Jackson & Hackenberg 1996).[11] However, Logue, (1995),who is discussed more below, points out that in her study done on self-control it was male children that responded with less self control than female children. She then states, that in adulthood, for the most part, the sexes equalize on their ability to exhibit self control. This could suggest a human being's ability to exert more self control as they mature and become more aware of the consequences associated with impulsivity. This suggestion is furthered examined below.

Most of the research in the field of self control assumes that self control is in general better than impulsiveness. Some developmental psychologists argue that this is normal, and people age from infants, who have no ability to think of the future, and hence no self control or delayed gratification, to adults. As a result almost all research done on this topic is from this standpoint and very rarely is impulsiveness the more adaptive response in experimental design.

More recently some in the field of developmental psychology have begun to think of self control in a more complicated way that takes into account that sometimes impulsiveness is the more adaptive response. In their view, a normal individual should have the capacity to be either impulsive or controlled depending on which is the most adaptive. However, this is a recent shift in paradigm and there is little research conducted along these lines. [6]

The Function of Culture

According to Logue, it is possible to examine the differences between individuals development of self-control by examining it as a function of culture. “By definition, cultures vary in terms of the experiences provided the people who are a part of these cultures. It is possible, therefore, that during development, people in different cultures acquire different degrees or types of self-control” [6].

Western Society

These differing degrees of self-control can be seen when comparing Western and Eastern cultures. In the United States, there appear to be strong tendencies for self-control and impulsivity. Western societies typically describe self control as, “goal-oriented productivity, assertiveness and instrumental doing”. Logue [6] further states that, “self-control and resistance to temptation has long been part of Americans’ Judeo-Christian heritage. However, in recent decades, there has been concern that this early emphasis on self control may be dissipating”. This dissipation has been attributed to the baby boom or, “me” generation of the 70’s & 80’s and the decreasing rate of savings by current members of this age. This decline in self-control has additionally been noted by Kelly Brownells’ research stating that in modern society, “the degree to which someone is judged as possessing self-control is significantly affected by the degree to which the person has a fit, thin body”(Brownell, 1991)[12].

Eastern Society

With regard to Eastern culture, societies have described self-control as “yielding, letting go, acceptance, and nonattachment” [6]. This difference between the descriptions of self-control from those in Western society are not due to differences in definition, but rather the difference in what is considered a large outcome worth exhibiting self-control for. Emphasis must be made on the importance placed on self-control by the two societies. In Japanese culture, “individual gratification is valued much less than is advancement of the fortunes of the group. This requires individuals to set aside their personal interests in order to work for the long-term goals of society” [6]. The samurai code, or ‘The Code of the Warriors’ also known as bushido, is a clear example of this. This can also be seen in the extreme self-control exhibited by high-school students in Japan preparing for college entrance examinations. Logue states that, “many Japanese organizations put more emphasis on the college examination score rather than on performance during college” [6].


Just as self-control (in terms of money and savings mainly due to easier credit in recent times) in Western society seems to be decreasing (particularly in America), recent findings relating to a decrease in the rate of savings in Japan suggests that a similar trend may be surfacing. Looking at the rate of savings can provide insight into the long-term planning strategies of the cultures. With growing technology and globalization, previous differences between the two cultures may be disappearing.

Outcomes as determining whether a self-control choice is made

Alexandra W. Logue is interested in how outcomes change the possibilities of a self-control choice being made. Logue identifies three possible outcome effects: outcome delays, outcome size, and outcome contingencies [6]. The delay of an outcome results in the perception that the outcome is less valuable than an outcome which is more readily achieved. The devaluing of the delayed outcome can cause less self-control. A way to increase self-control in situations of a delayed outcome is to pre-expose an outcome. Pre-exposure reduces the frustrations related to the delay of the outcome. An example of this is signing bonuses.

Outcome size deals with the relative, perceived size of possible outcomes. There tends to be a relationship between the value of the incentive and the desired outcome; the larger the desired outcome, the larger the value. Some factors that decrease value include delay, effort/cost, and uncertainty. The decision tends to be based off the option with the higher value at the time of the decision.

Finally, Logue defines the relationship between responses and outcomes as outcome contingencies [6]. Outcome contingencies also impact the degree of self-control that an person exercises. For instance, if an person is able to change his choice after the initial choice is made, the person is far more likely to take the impulsive, rather than self-controlled, choice. Additionally, it is possible for people to make precommitment action. A precommitment action is an action meant to lead to a self-controlled action at a later period in time. When a person sets an alarm clock, they are making a precommitted response to wake up early in the morning. Hence, that person is more likely to exercise the self-controlled decision to wake up, rather than to fall back in bed for a little more sleep.

Self control as a limited resource

For more details see Ego depletion

Research by Roy Baumeister and others shows that the ability to self-control oneself relies on a power source that diminishes after exertion.

Subjects that were given a task that involves self-control were later less able for self-control even in entirely different areas. This result was replicated in over a hundred experiments [13]

Self control was also shown to improve upon exercise. Exercise in these experiments varied. Taking care on posture, doing regular exercise, and other forms of self-control improved over time the self-control ability in seemingly unrelated areas.

The Function of Age: Structural Development

Self control increases with age due to the development of our sensory system. The sensory system develops and allows a person's perceptual abilities to expand. As children we do not have a concept of time; in other words we live in the present. As we age and develop into adults we gain the ability to perceive that our actions now bring about consequences in the future. Alexandra Logue points out that there are two key components of our perceptual ability that develop with age. They include our ability to estimate time and the ability to direct our attention away from certain events. No longer, as adults, are we stuck making decisions based upon the immediate outcome, but instead we can make our decision based upon any future consequences also. Being able to direct our attention away from certain events allows for a clearer interpretation of the situation, which allows for us to make better decisions. Both of these components of perceptual ability allow for adults (the majority) to have more self-control than children.

According to Logue, several studies have been done concerning the age of children with respect to self-control. It is evident that when children get older, they develop increased self-control. Essentially, they develop the understanding that it is beneficial to delay certain outcomes. They also learn to weigh the consequences of their options & figure out which is more worthwhile than the other’s; “they learn it is not always advantageous to wait for the more preferred outcome” (pg.36). This suggests that as every normal human being gets older, they would develop heightened level of self-control.

In addition to physical exercise, self-control has been shown to be increased through the training of the individual to accept the time-delay usually associated with the larger reward, and also to change the individual's perception of the time delay. To increase the individual's willingness to accept a longer delay before receiving a reward, Donal Logue (1984) used a fading procedure wherein subjects were initially presented with two choices with differing rewards -one small and one large- both having the same large delay. Gradually, the delay for the smaller reward was reduced, with the subjects now more likely to choose the larger reward despite the longer delay. In addition to conditioning subjects to accept longer delays, it has also been shown by Mischel and Ebbessen (1970) that the perception of a delay can be reduced through distraction, particularly by an entertaining task. Given the assumption that self-control is a limited mental resource, it could be argued that the above research has given insight as to how such a resource may be more efficiently used by the individual.

Self control and the quality of life

Reviews concluded that self control is correlated with various positive life outcomes, such as happiness, adjustment and various positive psychological factors.

Impulse control

Self Control as defined here is also known as impulse control or self regulation. Some psychologists prefer the term impulse control because it may be more precise. The term Self regulation is used to refer to the many processes individuals use to manage drives and emotions. Therefore, self regulation also embodies the concept of will power. Self Regulation is an extremely important executive function of the brain. Deficits in self control/regulation are found in a large number of psychological disorders including ADHD, Antisocial Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, addiction, eating disorders and impulse control disorders[3].

Self control and personality

Self control is found to be related to the Big Five personality traits, specifically neuroticism and conscientiousness. Those with high conscientiousness are shown to have less problems with self control. This is because they are described as capable and effective at planning and managing problems, responsible, and not likely to act quickly or impulsively. They are deliberate and think carefully before acting. [14]

The Self in Behavior Analysis

A self in behavior analysis refers to a repertoire of behaviors [15] typically under the control of a set of contingencies of reinforcement. One self may be of strong biological origin - for example our eating self. Another self may be of social origin, for example one that punishes us for over-eating. These two selves may contend in controlling the same response - eating - thus setting the stage for self-control.

Skinner's Exhaustive Survey of Self-Control Techniques

In B.F. Skinner's Science and Human Behavior he provides a survey of nine categories of self control methods.[16]

Physical Restraint and physical aid

The manipulation of the environment to make some response easier to physically execute and others physically more difficult illustrates this principle. Clapping one's hand over your own mouth, placing your hands in your pockets to prevent fidgeting, using a 'bridge' hand position to steady a pool shot all represent physical methods to affect behavior.[17]

Changing the stimulus

Manipulating the occasion for behavior may change behavior as well. Removing distractions that induce undesired actions or adding a prompt to induce it are examples. Hiding temptation and reminders are two more.[18]

Depriving and satiating

One may manipulate one's own behavior by affecting states of deprivation or satiation. By skipping a meal before a free dinner one may more effectively capitalize on the free meal. By eating a healthy snack beforehand the temptation to eat free "junk food" is reduced.[19]

Manipulating emotional conditions

Going for a 'change of scene' may remove emotional stimuli, as may rehearsing injustice to motivate a strong response later.[20]

Using aversive stimulation

Setting an alarm clock to awake ourselves later is a form of aversive control. By doing this we arrange something that will only be escapable by awakening ourselves.[20]


The use of self-administered drugs allows us to simulate changes in our conditioning history. The ingestion of caffeine allows us to simulate a state of wakefulness which may be useful for various reasons.[21]

Operant conditioning

The use of a token economy, or other methods or techniques unique to operant conditioning may be seen as a special form of self-control.


Self-punishment of responses would include the arranging of punishment contingent upon undesired responses. This might be seen in the behavior of whipping oneself which some monks and religious persons do. This is different from aversive stimulation in that, for example, the alarm clock generates escape from the alarm, while self-punishment presents stimulation after the fact to reduce the probability of future behavior.[21]

Punishment: is more like conformity than self control because with self control there needs to be an internal drive, not an external source of punishment that makes the person want to do something. There is external locus of control which is similar to determinism and there is internal locus of control which is similar to free will. With a learning system of punishment the person does not make their decision based upon what they want, rather they base it on the external factors. When you use a negative reinforcement you are more likely to influence their internal decisions and allow them to make the choice on their own where as with a punishment the person will make their decisions based upon the consequences and not exert self control. The best way to learn self control is with free will where people are able to perceive they are making their own choices. [22]

"Doing something else"

Skinner notes that Jesus exemplified this principle in loving his enemies.[23] When we are filled with rage or hatred we might control ourselves by 'doing something else' or more specifically something that is incompatible with our response.

"environment and schooling"

The environment plays a significant role in the development of self control in children. We know that there is a positive correlation between age and self control. For example, in school children are taught that they can not have any toy that they want to play with and that they must share. They must ask politely for anything that they want and may not hit other people or be mean in order to get something. Also, they may not go to recess whenever they want to. They are taught that if they work hard in their classes they will be able to go to recess. This is teaching the children delay of gratification in a very effective manner. Home also plays a role , do to parents and sibling , parents teach their children about self –control due to modeling , other examples through allowance they might be given a certain amount is given to them and they learn to conserve the money. Sibling teach each other about self-control watching each other and what the result of the actions.

See also