Strength Model Of Self-Control

The  strength  model  of  self-control  was  proposed by  Roy  Baumeister,  an  eminent  social  psychologist, to describe how individuals can control their behavior, automatic tendencies, and natural desires in order to achieve long-term goals and conform to socially  prescribed  codes  of  behavior  and  norms. In  this  model,  the  terms  self-control  and  self-regulation   are used interchangeably to describe the capacity to consciously guide behavior to a desired direction  and  resist  short-term  temptations  that lure  individuals  away  from  their  focal  goals.  The strength model of self-control has achieved a great degree  of  attention  in  the  psychology  literature given that failures to self-control can lead to personal  and  societal  problems  (e.g.,  underachievement in school or work, violence against others).

The ability to self-control is particularly important  in  terms  of  engaging  in  important  health behaviors (e.g., regular exercise, healthy diet) and tackling  obesity  as  well  as  alcohol  and  substance abuse.  Hence,  it  is  not  surprising  that  research based  on  the  strength  model  of  self-control  is becoming increasingly popular in the exercise and health psychology literature. In a recent survey of American   adults,   conducted   on   behalf   of   the American    Psychological    Association,    it    was revealed  that  the  most  frequently  reported  goals the  survey  participants  had  set  for  2012  were health-related  (e.g.,  41%  reported  a  goal  to  start exercising regularly). However, in the same survey 27%  of  the  respondents  reported  that  poor  self-control prevented them from meeting their goals. On a positive note, 71% of them believed that self-control can be improved through practice, which is what research also suggests.

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This  entry  first  provides  an  overview  of  the strength  model  of  self-control  and  explains  why self-control is a limited resource. It goes on to discuss why self-control is relevant to the promotion of  health-related  behaviors,  and  concludes  with some practical for strengthening self-control.

Self-Regulatory Strength and Depletion

Following  through  a  New  Year’s  resolution  to engage  in  regular  physical  activity  (PA)  requires not only the motivation to change but also the self-regulatory strength to monitor any discrepancies in meeting this goal and fight against competing interests, priorities, or temptations. This self-regulatory strength is colloquially called willpower. Willpower helps individuals overcome temptations and achieve valued  academic,  health,  financial,  interpersonal, and societal goals. Research indicates that the benefits of having high levels of self-control transcend over time; children with high self-control (assessed by  both  self-reports  and  adult  reports)  not  only do  better  at  school  but  grow  up  to  be  more  successful  adults  (in  their  professional  and  personal lives) than children with lower self-control. These findings hold up if even when differences in socioeconomic status, intelligence, and other potentially confounding variables are taken into account.

Despite the benefits of having high self-control, individuals  are  often  unable  to  resist  temptations  and  impulses.  The  playwright  Oscar  Wilde famously  claimed  that  he  could  resist  anything but temptation. The strength model of self-control explains  self-regulatory  failures  by  arguing  that self-control  is  a  limited  resource  resembling  a muscle.  The  more  self-control  is  exercised  (irrespective of the nature of the task), the more it gets tired and eventually depleted. This depletion, called ego  depletion  in  the  literature  (aligned  with  the Freudian discussion of the self in terms of energy), makes individuals vulnerable to future temptations and  can  impair  their  performance  in  subsequent tasks  that  require  self-control.  Research  testing the  strength  model  of  self-control  has  found  this depleting effect to be robust across a variety of situations, such as when asking individuals to regulate their  emotions,  make  difficult  choices,  engage  in problem  solving  and  logical  reasoning,  suppress thoughts or stereotypes, and resist temptations. For example,  in  a  study  by  Kathleen  Vohs  and  Todd Heatherton,  chronic  dieters  and  nondieters  were asked  to  sit  close  to  or  away  from  a  candy  bowl and were told to either help themselves to the candy or not to touch it. For chronic dieters, sitting close to a candy bowl and being told to help themselves to  the  candy  requires  the  exertion  of  self-control. The  results  of  the  Vohs  and  Heatherton  study showed that the chronic dieters demonstrated less persistence in a subsequent cognitive task and ate more  candy  compared  with  the  dieters  who  sat away from the candy bowl. For nondieters, sitting near the bowl did not impair their subsequent self-control  performance.  This  finding  indicates  that the undermining effects of ego depletion occur only in individuals who have the motivation to achieve a goal. Also, in the same study there was not self-regulatory failure when dieters were told not to eat from the candy bowl. This finding illustrates that willpower depletion does not occur when behavior is constrained by external factors and is not under volitional control.

The depleting effects of self-control might vary as a function of a number of personal or situation factors.  For  example,  individuals  high  in  autonomous motivation to exert self-control, or perceiving  others  to  support  their  autonomy,  are  less depleted than those with low autonomous motivation  or  those  pressured  by  others  to  self-control. Also,  increased  positive  mood  and  individuals’ belief that willpower is not a limited resource may reduce levels of ego depletion. In individuals with high reserves of self-control (i.e., high levels of trait self-control), the undermining effects of situational ego  depletion  on  task  performance  are  less  pronounced  than  for  individuals  who  have  low  trait self-control. Additionally, participants who anticipated a future self-control task showed larger ego depletion  than  participants  who  did  not  expect  a future task. Perhaps in the latter case individuals are more strategic in terms of their resource allocation, choosing to conserve resources for the subsequent self-control  task.  This  conservation  hypothesis  is aligned  with  Baumeister’s  argument  that  acts  of self-control result in partial depletion only, rather than  complete  exhaustion,  because  individuals conserve  their  energy  resources  for  future  situations.  In  fact,  research  by  Vohs,  Baumeister,  and Brandon  Schmeichel  has  shown  that  moderately (but  not  severely)  depleted  motivated  individuals can  utilize  some  of  their  remaining  resources  to maintain their performance levels.

The  findings  from  the  strength  model  of  self-control literature have implications for exercise and health  promotion.  First,  individuals  whose  jobs require a great deal of self-regulatory strength and information  processing  are  likely  to  feel  depleted by the end of their working day. If these individuals  are  on  a  weight  loss  program,  they  might  be less able to exert self-control later on in the day in terms of choosing a healthy meal option or engaging in PA when faced with tempting high calorie or sedentary alternatives (unless these individuals are highly  motivated  to  lose  weight).  Another  implication  from  the  findings  in  the  literature  is  that, since  self-control  is  a  limited  resource,  individuals should try to consolidate a change in a single health  behavior  first  (i.e.,  make  it  more  habitual so that it requires less self-control) and then move on  to  another  behavior,  as  opposed  to  trying  to alter  multiple  behaviors  simultaneously.  The  latter would be more depleting; in fact, exerting self-control  toward  one  behavior  might  undermine self-control efforts toward the other behavior. This was  well  illustrated  in  a  study  by  Ditka  Shmueli and  Judith  Prochaska  in  which  smokers  who were  asked  to  resist  a  highly  tempting  food  were more likely to subsequently smoke compared with smokers  who  were  asked  to  resist  food  that  was not tempting. The longitudinal evidence suggesting that children with high self-control are more likely to  retain  their  high  self-control  in  adolescence and  adulthood,  coupled  with  evidence  indicating a negative relation between self-control and overweight or obesity, imply that self-control training programs  that  aim  to  promote  healthy  behaviors should  be  implemented  from  a  relatively  young age.  Obviously,  the  influence  of  the  obesogenic environment  and  advertising  for  unhealthy  products  cannot  be  discounted.  Expecting  individuals to  exert  self-control  when  unhealthy  temptations are readily available throughout the day might not be  entirely  realistic.  However,  self-control  training could be used in conjunction with changes in policy  and  legislation  to  better  facilitate  health behavior change. The next section discusses some ideas for strengthening self-control.

Boosting Self-Control

Odysseus tied himself to the mast of his ship and put wax in his shipmates’ ears to avoid the fatally tempting  song  of  the  Sirens.  Unlike  this  Homeric hero,  however,  many  individuals  overestimate their  ability  to  resist  temptation.  People  who  are perceived to have a high capacity to control their impulses  expose  themselves  to  more  tempting  situations  and  ultimately  engage  in  more  impulsive behavior  (perhaps  as  a  result  of  depletion)  than those  who  perceive  a  lower  capacity  for  self-control.  Thus,  an  effective  way  of  maintaining  self-control,  particularly  when  depleted,  is  to  avoid highly tempting situations. For example, new exercisers  who  plan  to  exercise  in  the  evening  should avoid  watching  television  first  “for  a  little  while” before  they  start  their  workout.  Self-control  can also  be  boosted  by  inducing  positive  mood,  promoting  autonomous  motivation  for  task  engagement, reaffirming long-term goals and higher-order values, and taking breaks or engaging in relaxation between self-control tasks. Further, self-control can be  enhanced  by  making  it  more  automatic.  For instance, it has been found that forming implementation  intentions  (“if–then”  plans)  can  overcome the  performance  decrements  associated  with  ego depletion.  Using  again  the  example  of  new  exercisers  who  plan  to  exercise  in  the  evening,  these individuals should form a plan so that they are prepared when at the end of the working day they are invited out by their colleagues for “a few drinks.”

Another  interesting  suggestion  that  has  been made  in  the  literature  for  boosting  self-control  is to  maintain  steady  blood  glucose  levels.  This  is because  self-control  might  deplete  blood  glucose, which is important for mental activities. It has been shown that depleted individuals have lower blood glucose  levels  than  nondepleted  ones  and  that  by consuming a glucose drink, the effects of depletion can be counteracted. Thus, keeping blood glucose levels  steady  via  consuming  glucose-based  drinks or  regular  meals  might  help  individuals’  self-control  in  tempting  situations  (e.g.,  being  offered a high calorie cake) when they are in a “hot state” (i.e.,  hungry).  However,  such  findings  have  been challenged recently as it has been shown that similar bolstering effects on self-control can be found by  simply  rinsing  the  mouth  with  carbohydrate solutions without actual digestion. Thus, it is possible  that  the  glucose  effects  are  motivational  (as opposed to metabolic) in nature.

The  muscle  metaphor  of  the  strength  model implies that self-control, similar to a muscle, can be trained regularly to become stronger. For example, a study by Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng showed that   participants   enrolled   in   a   2-month   self-regulation    program  based  on  regular  exercise (which  requires  self-control)  were  less  depleted in a laboratory task they performed at the end of the  program  compared  to  those  not  enrolled  in this program. The self-control training group also self-reported  gains  in  self-control  in  other  healthrelated behaviors (e.g., smoking, alcohol, and caffeine use).

In   conclusion,   the   strength   model   of   self-control  has  potential  as  a  conceptual  framework for  explaining  how  to  protect  health  behavior change from temptations, in particular before the new behavior becomes habitual. Its utility should be  further  tested  outside  laboratory  settings  by recruiting  community  and  clinical  samples  (e.g., obese  individuals)  to  self-control  training  programs with objectively assessed outcomes.


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