Self control
Self control is the ability to control one's emotion
Emotion is a complex psychophysiological experience of an individual's state of mind as interacting with biochemical and environmental influences. In humans, emotion fundamentally involves "physiological arousal, expressive behaviors, and conscious experience." Emotion is associated with mood,...

s, behavior
Behavior or behaviour refers to the actions and mannerisms made by organisms, systems, or artificial entities in conjunction with its environment, which includes the other systems or organisms around as well as the physical environment...

 and desires
Desire (emotion)
Desire is a sense of longing for a person or object or hoping for an outcome. Desire is the fire that sets action aflame. The same sense is expressed by emotions such as "craving" or "hankering". When a person desires something or someone, their sense of longing is excited by the enjoyment or the...

 in order to obtain some reward later. In psychology
Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. Its immediate goal is to understand individuals and groups by both establishing general principles and researching specific cases. For many, the ultimate goal of psychology is to benefit society...

 it is sometimes called self-regulation
The term self-regulation can signify:*Autoregulation*Homeostasis, in systems theory*Self-control, in sociology / psychology*Self-regulated learning, in educational psychology*Self-regulation theory , a system of conscious personal health management...

. Exerting self-control through the executive functions
Executive functions
The executive system is a theorized cognitive system in psychology that controls and manages other cognitive processes. It is responsible for processes that are sometimes referred to as the executive function, executive functions, supervisory attentional system, or cognitive control...

 in decision making
Decision making
Decision making can be regarded as the mental processes resulting in the selection of a course of action among several alternative scenarios. Every decision making process produces a final choice. The output can be an action or an opinion of choice.- Overview :Human performance in decision terms...

 is held in some theories to deplete
Ego depletion
Ego depletion refers to the idea that self-control or willpower is an exhaustible resource that can be used up. When that energy is low, mental activity that requires self-control is impaired. In other words, using one's self-control impairs the ability to control one's self later on. In this...

 one's ability to do so in the future.

In Behavior Analysis

Another view is that self-control represents the locus of two conflicting contingencies of reinforcement
Reinforcement is a term in operant conditioning and behavior analysis for the process of increasing the rate or probability of a behavior in the form of a "response" by the delivery or emergence of a stimulus Reinforcement is a term in operant conditioning and behavior analysis for the process of...

, which then make a controlling response reinforcing when it causes changes in the controlled response.

Self-control is directly related to the pressure an individual may face.
  • Good Pressure: When an individual is in a competitive, yet non-judgemental and non-prejudicial environment, the individual may want to be like those around them. An individual may become motivated and inspired and gain self-control.
  • Bad Pressure: When an individual is in a judgemental and prejudicial environment and there is no competition, an individual may become depressed and unmotivated, losing self-control.
  • No Pressure: When an individual is free and there is no competition, and can do what one may feel, self-control is based on how an individual may feel. Since there are no other individuals to compare, an individual may be less motivated or more motivated depending on the urgency of whatever they are doing.

Human and non-human self-control

Human self-control research is typically modeled by using a token economy
Token economy
A token economy is a system of behavior modification based on the systematic positive reinforcement of target behavior. The reinforcers are symbols or tokens that can be exchanged for other reinforcers. Token economy is based on the principles of operant conditioning and can be situated within...

 system in which human participants choose between tokens for one choice and using 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 forces suggested procedural artifacts as a possible suspect. One aspect of these procedural differences was the delay to the exchange period (Hyten et al. 1994). 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 that males have less control than females (Jackson & Hackenberg 1996). However, Logue, (1995), who is discussed more below, points out that in her study done on self-control it was male children who 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 further 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.

Functional imaging
Functional imaging
Functional imaging , is a method of detecting or measuring changes in metabolism, blood flow, regional chemical composition, and absorption....

 of the brain has shown that self-control is correlated with an area in the dorsal fronto-median cortex in the frontal lobe
Frontal lobe
The frontal lobe is an area in the brain of humans and other mammals, located at the front of each cerebral hemisphere and positioned anterior to the parietal lobe and superior and anterior to the temporal lobes...

. This area is distinct from those involved in generating intentional actions, attention to intentions, or select between alternatives. This control occurs through the top-down inhibition of premotor cortex
Premotor cortex
The premotor cortex is an area of motor cortex lying within the frontal lobe of the brain. It extends 3 mm anterior to the primary motor cortex, near the Sylvian fissure, before narrowing to approximately 1 mm near the medial longitudinal fissure, which serves as the posterior border for...


Outcomes as determining whether a self-control choice is made

Alexandra W. Logue
Alexandra W. Logue
Dr. Alexandra W. Logue is Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost of the City University of New York . She began service in this position as Interim Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost in June 2008, and was appointed to the permanent position in April 2009. Dr. Logue received her A.B....

 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. 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 on the option with the higher value at the time of the decision.

Finally, Logue defines the relationship between responses and outcomes as outcome contingencies. Outcome contingencies also impact the degree of self-control that a person exercises. For instance, if a 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.

Cassandra B. Whyte
Cassandra B. Whyte
Cassandra Bolyard Whyte is an American higher education administrator, teacher, and educational researcher. She is recognized for publication and leadership in the areas of higher education management, improving academic performance of students, campus planning and safety, predicting educational...

 studied locus of control
Locus of control
Locus of control is a theory in personality psychology referring to the extent to which individuals believe that they can control events that affect them. Understanding of the concept was developed by Julian B...

 and academic performance and determined that internals tend to achieve at a higher level. Internals may perceive they have options from which to choose, thus facilitating more hopeful decision-making behavior as opposed to dependence on externally determined outcomes that require less commitment, effort, or self-control.

Physiology of Behavior

Many things affect one's ability to exert self-control, but self-control particularly requires sufficient glucose
Glucose is a simple sugar and an important carbohydrate in biology. Cells use it as the primary source of energy and a metabolic intermediate...

 levels in the brain. Exerting self-control depletes glucose. Research has found that reduced glucose, and poor glucose tolerance (reduced ability to transport glucose to the brain) are tied to lower performance in tests of self-control, particularly in difficult new situations.

As a limited resource

For more details see Ego depletion
Ego depletion
Ego depletion refers to the idea that self-control or willpower is an exhaustible resource that can be used up. When that energy is low, mental activity that requires self-control is impaired. In other words, using one's self-control impairs the ability to control one's self later on. In this...

Research by Roy Baumeister
Roy Baumeister
Roy F. Baumeister is Francis Eppes Professor of Psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. He is a social psychologist who is known for his work on the self, social rejection, belongingness, sexuality, self-control, self-esteem, self-defeating behaviors, motivation, and...

 and colleagues has shown that people's ability to exert self-control depends on a strength-like resource that diminishes after use.

After participants performed a task requiring self-control, they were less able to exert self-control, even in entirely different areas; this result was replicated in over a hundred experiments

There is also evidence that training people to accept the time delay before receiving a reward similarly enhances people's self-control.
Donal Logue (1984) used a fading procedure in which participants were initially presented with a choice between two different rewards - a small one and a big one - which could be received after the same (large) time delay.
On subsequent presentations of the two rewards, the time delay for the small reward was gradually reduced. The results showed that as the time delay for the small reward decreased, participants tended to choose the big reward more often than the small reward. Thus, Logue was able to condition participants to accept a large time delay in order to receive a big reward, rather than to choose not to wait in order to receive a small but immediate reward.
Not only can people be trained to accept long time delays, but people's perception of the delay itself can be modified. For instance, Mischel and Ebbessen (1970) showed that a distracting entertaining task can lead people to perceive the time delay as shorter than they typically perceive it.

In sum, although there is empirical evidence that self-control is a limited mental resource, a number of studies support the notion that self-control is nevertheless a resource that can be increased through suitable "exercise".

In children vs. adults

Self control should increase with age due to the development of the sensory system. As the sensory system develops, people's perceptual abilities expand. For instance, children do not have a concept of time, and in this sense, they live in the present. However, as children age and develop into adults, they gradually gain the ability to comprehend the future consequences of their actions. Alexandra Logue argues that there are two key aspects of perceptual ability that develop with age. First, the ability to estimate time allows people to make decisions based not only on immediate outcomes, but on future outcomes too. Second, the ability to direct attention away from certain events permits people to evaluate the situation at hand more thoroughly, and ultimately to make better decisions. These two perceptual abilities - the ability to estimate time and the ability to direct attention away from events - can explain why (clinically healthy) adults have more self-control than children.

In support of her argument, Logue cites several studies on the relationship between children's age and self-control that support the hypothesis that self-control in children increases with age. Essentially, growing children begin to understand the benefits in delaying certain behaviour and outcomes (i.e. "delay of gratification"). They also learn to weigh the consequences of various decision options; “they learn it is not always advantageous to wait for the more preferred outcome” (p. 36).

In quality of life

In the 1960s, Walter Mischel
Walter Mischel
Walter Mischel is an American psychologist specializing in personality theory and social psychology. He is the Robert Johnston Niven Professor of Humane Letters in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University.-Early life:...

 tested four year old children for self control in "The Marshmallow Test": the children were each given a marshmallow
The marshmallow is a confection that, in its modern form, typically consists of sugar, corn syrup, water, gelatin that has been softened in hot water, dextrose, vanilla flavourings, and sometimes colouring, whipped to a spongy consistency. Some marshmallow recipes call for egg whites...

 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.

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 willpower. 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
Antisocial personality disorder
Antisocial personality disorder is described by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, fourth edition , as an Axis II personality disorder characterized by "...a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood...

, Borderline Personality Disorder
Borderline personality disorder
Borderline personality disorder is a personality disorder described as a prolonged disturbance of personality function in a person , characterized by depth and variability of moods.The disorder typically involves unusual levels of instability in mood; black and white thinking, or splitting; the...

, addiction
Substance dependence
The section about substance dependence in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not use the word addiction at all. It explains:...

, eating disorders and impulse control disorders[3].

Skinner's Survey of Self-Control Techniques

B.F. Skinner's Science and Human Behavior provides a survey of nine categories of self control methods.

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 effect behavior.

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.

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.

Manipulating emotional conditions

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

Treating an activity as "work" or "fun" can have an effect on the difficulty of self control.

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 doing things (turning off the clock) which tend to awakening ourselves.


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.

Operant conditioning

The use of a token economy
Token economy
A token economy is a system of behavior modification based on the systematic positive reinforcement of target behavior. The reinforcers are symbols or tokens that can be exchanged for other reinforcers. Token economy is based on the principles of operant conditioning and can be situated within...

, or other methods or techniques unique to operant conditioning may be seen as a special form of self-control. It can take great self control to stay off drugs or to stop smoking.


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.

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.

"Doing something else"

Skinner noted that various philosophies and religions exemplified this principle by instructing believers to love their enemies. 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.

See also

  • Aboulia
    Aboulia or Abulia , in neurology, refers to a lack of will or initiative and is one of the Disorders of Diminished Motivation or DDM. Aboulia falls in the middle of the spectrum of diminished motivation, with apathy being less extreme and akinetic mutism being more extreme than aboulia...

  • Akrasia
    Akrasia , occasionally transliterated as acrasia, is the state of acting against one's better judgment. The adjective form is "akratic".-Classical approaches:...

  • Amygdala hijack
    Amygdala hijack
    Amygdala hijack is a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Drawing on the work of Joseph E...

  • Attentional Control
    Attentional Control
    In cognitive neuroscience, attentional control refers to individuals' capacity to choose what they pay attention to and what they ignore. It is also known as endogenous attention or executive attention. In lay terms, attentional control can be described as an individual's ability to concentrate...

  • Chun Tzu
  • Delay of Gratification
    Deferred gratification
    Deferred gratification and delayed gratification denote a person’s ability to wait in order to obtain something that he or she wants. This intellectual attribute is also called impulse control, will power, self control, and “low” time preference, in economics...

  • Operant Conditioning
    Operant conditioning
    Operant conditioning is a form of psychological learning during which an individual modifies the occurrence and form of its own behavior due to the association of the behavior with a stimulus...

  • Outline of self
  • Radical Behaviorism
    Radical behaviorism
    Radical behaviorism is a philosophy developed by B.F. Skinner that underlies the experimental analysis of behavior approach to psychology. The term radical behaviorism applies to a particular school that emerged during the reign of behaviorism...

  • Self-control theory of crime
    Self-control theory of crime
    The Self-control theory of crime, often referred to as the General Theory of Crime, is a criminological theory about the lack of individual self-control as the main factor behind criminal behavior....

  • Verbal Behavior (book)
    Verbal Behavior (book)
    Verbal Behavior is a 1957 book by psychologist B.F. Skinner, in which he analyzes human behavior, encompassing what is traditionally called language, linguistics, or speech...

  • Walden Two
    Walden Two
    Walden Two is a utopian novel written by behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner, first published in 1948. In its time, it could have been considered to be science fiction, as the methods employed to alter people's behaviour did not yet exist....

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