Self-regulation refers to the self exerting control over itself. In particular, self-regulation consists of deliberate efforts by the self to alter its own states and responses, including behavior, thoughts, impulses or appetites, emotions, and task performance. The concept of self-regulation is close to the colloquial terms self-control and self-discipline, and many social psychologists use the terms interchangeably.
Self-Regulation History and Background
Early social psychologists did not use the term self-regulation and, if they thought about it at all, regarded it as a minor, obscure, technical problem. However, as the study of the self expanded and researchers became more interested in inner processes, interest in self-regulation expanded. By the 1990s, self-regulation had become widely recognized as a central function of the self, with both practical and theoretical importance, and a broad range of research sought to contribute to the rapidly expanding research literature on self-regulation.
Modern self-regulation theory has several roots. One is in the study of animal learning. Skinnerian behaviorists taught that animals learn behaviors based on past rewards and punishments. In that way, behavior patterns are molded by the external environment. Recognizing that human behavior was more complex and internally guided than much animal behavior, thoughtful behaviorists such as Albert Bandura proposed that people self-regulate by administering rewards and punishments to themselves. For example, a person might say, “If I can get this task done by 7 o’clock, I will treat myself to ice cream,” or “If I don’t get this paper written today, I won’t go to the movies.”
A second root is in research on delay of gratification. In the 1960s, researchers such as Walter Mischel began to study how people would choose between a small immediate reward and a larger, delayed one. For example, a child might be told, ‘You can have one cookie now, but if you can wait for 20 minutes without eating it, you can have three cookies.” In adult life, most work and study activities depend on the capacity to delay gratification, insofar as work and studying bring delayed rewards but are often not immediately satisfying (as compared with relaxing or engaging in hobbies). This line of research found that successful delaying of gratification depended on overriding immediate impulses and focusing attention away from the immediate gratification. The immediate response to a tempting stimulus is to enjoy it now, so it requires self-regulation to override that response to wait for the delayed but better reward.
A third root is in the study of self-awareness. During the 1970s, researchers began studying how behavior changes when people focus attention on themselves. In 1981, the book Attention and Self-Regulation by Charles Carver and Michael Scheier proposed that one main function of self-awareness is to aid in self-regulation. That is, you reflect on yourself as a way of deciding how and whether improvement would be desirable.
The fourth root of self-regulation theory is in research on human personal problems, many of which revolve around failures at self-control. Across recent decades, research has steadily accumulated to reveal the importance of self-regulation in many spheres of behavior. Eating disorders and obesity partly reflect failures to regulate one’s food intake. Alcohol and drug addiction likewise indicate poor regulation of use of these substances. Research on these and related issues has provided much information that self-regulation theorists could use.
Self-regulation has implications for both psychological theory and for practical, applied issues. In terms of theory, self-regulation has come to be seen as one of the most important operations of the human self. Indeed, the human capacity for self-regulation appears to be far more advanced and powerful than is self-regulation in most other animals, and it helps set the human self apart from selfhood in other species. Some theorists believe that the capacity for self-regulation was one decisive key to human evolution.
Self-regulation depicts the self as an active controller. Social psychology’s early theories and research on the self focused mainly on issues such as self-concept and self-knowledge, and in that sense, the self was treated as an accumulated set of ideas. In contrast, self-regulation theory recognizes the self as an active agent that measures, decides, and intervenes in its own processes to change them. Some psychologists link self-regulation to the philosophical notion of free will, understood as the ability to determine one’s actions from inside oneself rather than being driven by external forces.
The practical importance of self-regulation can scarcely be understated. Most personal and social problems that plague modern society have some degree of self-regulation failure at their core. These include addiction and alcoholism, obesity and binge eating, anger management, and other emotional control problems. Crime and violence are often linked to poor self-regulation (especially of aggressive and antisocial impulses). Sexual problems, including unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, can be avoided with effective self-regulation. underachievement in school and work often reflects inadequate self-regulation. Money problems, whether in the form of gambling losses, failure to save for the future, or impulsive shopping and credit card debt, can also indicate inadequate self-regulation. Many health problems could be prevented by self-regulation, such as to ensure that one exercises regularly, brushes and flosses teeth, takes vitamins, and eats a proper diet.
More broadly, self-regulation appears to be an important predictor of success in life. People with good self-regulation have been shown to be more popular and have better, more stable relationships, to get better grades in school and college, to have fewer personal pathologies, and to have better adjustment.
Self-regulation is also a key to moral behavior, and some theorists have argued that it is the master virtue that underlies most or all virtuous behavior because such behavior typically requires overcoming an antisocial or immoral impulse (e.g., to cheat, harm, or betray someone) to do what is morally valued.
Self-Regulation Standards and Goals
Effective self-regulation requires standards, which are concepts of how something ideally should be. Researchers on self-awareness noted very early that when people reflect on themselves, they do not simply notice how they are. Rather, they compare how they are with some standard, such as their personal ideals, other people’s expectations, how they were previously, or the average person. Self-regulation begins by noting discrepancies between how you are and how you want to be. For example, a diet often begins by noting that the person weighs more than his or her ideal weight, and the diet is intended to bring the weight down to the desired weight (the standard).
Self-regulation can be impaired if standards conflict, such as if two parents make inconsistent demands on the child. A lack of clear standards also makes self-regulation difficult.
Self-regulation goals can be sorted into prevention and promotion. Preventive self-regulation focuses on some undesirable outcome and seeks to avoid it. In contrast, promotional self-regulation focuses on some desirable outcome and seeks to approach it. A related distinction is between ideal and ought standards. Ideals are positive concepts of how one would like to be. Ought standards, such as moral rules, typically emphasize some bad or undesired possibility and center on the importance of not performing such actions.
Standards do not automatically activate self-regulation. People must be motivated to change. How people choose their goals and standards, and why they sometimes abandon these, is an important topic for further study.
Monitoring and Feedback Loops in Self-Regulation
Monitoring refers to keeping track of particular behaviors. It is almost impossible to regulate a behavior effectively without monitoring it. (Imagine trying to have a successful diet without ever weighing yourself or keeping track of what you eat.) As stated earlier, many experts believe that a main functional purpose of self-awareness is to serve self-regulation by enabling people to monitor their behavior. Monitoring is more than noticing the behavior itself, though, because it also compares the behavior to standards.
Poor monitoring is an important cause of self-regulation failure. People lose control when they stop keeping track of their behavior. Alcohol intoxication leads to many kinds of self-regulation failure (including overeating, violent activity, overspending, and further drinking), partly because intoxicated people cease to monitor their actions. In contrast, the simplest way to improve self-regulation is to improve monitoring, such as by using external records. For example, people who want to control their spending can often benefit by keeping a written record of each time they spend money.
Self-regulation theory has incorporated the concept of feedback loops from cybernetic theory (that is, a theory originally designed for guided missiles and other mechanical control devices). The feedback loop is represented by the acronym TOTE, which stands for test, operate, test, exit. One commonly invoked example is the thermostat that controls indoor room temperature. The test phase compares the present status with the standard (thus, is the room as warm as the temperature setting?). If there is a discrepancy, then the operate phase begins, which initiates some effort to resolve the problem and bring the reality in line with the standard, just as a thermostat will turn on the furnace to heat the room when it is too cold. As the operate phase continues, additional tests are performed. These will indicate whether progress is being made and, if so, whether the goal or standard has been reached. As long as the reality is still short of the standard, the operations are continued. At some point, the reality reaches the standard, and the test will reveal this. There is then no need for further operations, and the loop is exited (the exit phase).
Unlike machines, humans often feel emotions during self-regulation. Noticing a discrepancy between self and standard can produce negative emotions, such as guilt or sadness or disappointment. Reaching a goal or standard after a successful operate phase can produce positive emotions such as joy, satisfaction, and relief. However, it is not necessary to reach the goal entirely to feel good. Many people experience positive emotions simply because they note that they are making progress toward the standard. In these ways, emotions can sustain and promote effective self-regulation.
Self-Regulation Strength and Depletion
Successful self-regulation depends on the capacity to bring about the desired changes. It is not enough to have goals or standards and to keep track of behavior, if one lacks the willpower or other capacity to make the necessary changes. Some people knowingly do things that are bad for them or that violate their values.
As the colloquial term willpower implies, the capacity to regulate oneself seems to depend on a psychological resource that operates like strength or energy. Exerting self-regulation uses up some of this resource, leaving the person in a weakened state called ego depletion. In that state, people tend to be less effective at further acts of self-control. Moreover, the same resource is used for many different kinds of self-regulation and even for making difficult decisions. For example, when a person is using self-regulation to try to cope with stress or meet deadlines, there will be less available for regulating other habits, and the person may resume smoking or have atypical emotional outbursts. Some evidence indicates that strength can be increased with regular exercise (just like with a normal muscle). That is, if people regularly perform acts of self-regulation, such as trying to maintain good posture or speaking carefully, their capacity for successful self-regulation in other spheres may improve.
Trait Differences in Self-Regulation
Different people are successful at self-regulation to different degrees, though each person’s ability to self-regulate may fluctuate across time and circumstances. Some research has shown that children who were more successful at a delay of gratification task at age 4 years grew up to be more successful academically and socially, and this suggests that there is an important element of stability in people’s self-regulation. (That is, if someone is good at self-regulation early in life, he or she is likely to remain good at it for many years.)
June Tangney and colleagues have reviewed some of the scales designed to measure the capacity for self-regulation. It does appear to be quite possible to rely on a self-report measure to distinguish people by how good at self-regulation they are, although some responses may be tainted by boastfulness, self-report bias, and social desirability bias.
Other Issues in Self-Regulation
Although self-regulation offers human beings a powerful psychological tool for controlling and altering their responses, its effectiveness has important limits. As already noted, consecutive efforts at self-regulation can deplete the capability for further regulation. Another important limit is that not all behaviors can be regulated. Many responses are automatic or otherwise strongly activated. The popular term impulse control (referring to self-regulation of impulsive behaviors such as alcohol and substance abuse, or violence, or sex, or eating) may be a misnomer because usually the impulse itself is not controlled but only the behavior stemming from it. That is, a reformed smoker usually cannot refrain from wanting a cigarette and has to be content with refusing to act on that impulse and to smoke.
Controlling emotions, or affect regulation, is an important category of self-regulation that confronts limited power. Most people cannot alter their emotional states simply by deciding to do so. Put another way, emotions tend to be beyond conscious control. Affect regulation typically proceeds by indirect means, such as by distracting oneself, inducing a different emotion, or calming oneself down.
An ongoing debate concerns the extent to which self-regulation failure stems from irresistible impulses, rather than simply acquiescing. Many people say that they couldn’t resist, such as when they spent too much money shopping or ate something fattening (or indeed engaged in proscribed acts of sex or violence). However, some research suggests that people could resist most of the time if they were sufficiently motivated. Self-deception may be involved in the process by which people allow themselves to fail at self-regulation. Undoubtedly, however, there are some irresistible impulses, such as to breathe, or go to sleep, or urinate.
Once self-regulation begins to break down, additional psychological processes may accelerate the failure. These have been called lapse-activated patterns or, in the case of alcohol and drug abuse, abstinence violation effects. A recovering alcoholic may be very careful and scrupulous about avoiding all alcohol, but after taking a drink or two on one occasion may cease to keep track and hence drink more, or may even decide that because the zero-tolerance pattern has been broken, he or she might as well enjoy more. Dieters seem particularly vulnerable to the fallacy that if a caloric indulgence has spoiled one’s diet for the day, one might as well eat more forbidden foods and then resume the diet tomorrow. Such spiraling processes can turn a minor failure at self-regulation into a destructive binge.
- Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (Eds.). (2004). Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications. New York: Guilford Press.
- Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. E. (1981). Attention and self-regulation: A control theory approach to human behavior. New York: Springer.
- Higgins, E. T. (1996). The “self digest”: Self-knowledge serving self-regulatory functions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 1062-1083.
- Tangney, J. P., Baumeister, R. F., & Boone, A. L. (2004). High self-control predicts good adjustment, less pathology, better grades, and interpersonal success. Journal of Personality, 72, 271-322.