Let’s take a minute to think about some of the people you may know. Do you have any friends, or maybe relatives, that have trouble controlling their behavior? Maybe it is eating too much, spending too much money, or possibly more problematic behaviors like excessive drinking or gambling. For others, it might be issues with procrastination or maybe losing their temper too much. Clearly, human behavior is very complex; in this lesson, we will examine our ability to control our own behavior.
The concept of self-regulation has been studied by psychologists for well over 50 years. It is commonly defined as the process through which an individual controls their own cognitions, emotions, and actions with a longer-term goal in mind. In the modern world, we are bombarded with competing demands. Research has found that each day, the average person is required to make thousands of decisions.
Unfortunately for us, many outcomes are highly rewarding in the short term but are not in our best interests in the long-term. For example, with its high salt, sugar, and fat content, fast food is highly rewarding. Eating it results in the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward system, making us want it again in the future (Garber et al., 2011). These immediate rewards also feel good at the moment and are hard to resist as a result. Yet, if we have a long-term goal (e.g., getting in shape, living longer, etc.), then we must resist and ultimately replace these bad habits with good ones.
How does self-regulating our own behavior happen? First, it involves emotion. Our emotional responses play an important role in our ability to self-regulate. For instance, positive emotions (e.g., feeling confident) can lead to an increased ability to self-regulate when making decisions. In contrast, negative emotions (e.g., depressive symptoms, anxiety, anger) can have the opposite effect, lowering our ability to self-regulate. Our cognitions are also critical (McClelland et al., 2010). We rely on many different cognitive processes to both initiate and inhibit behavior, such as attention, planning, and memory, to name just a few. In order to make positive decisions about goals, we need to pay attention to cues that will promote the desired behavior, and try to ignore those that don’t. For example, one study found that in people who were dieting, seeing cues for forbidden foods increased their desire to eat them. However, the effectiveness of food cues was reduced if the participants were reminded of their diet first (Papies et al., 2008).
Ground-breaking research by Mark Muraven and Roy Baumeister also suggests that self-regulation is likely a limited resource that can be depleted in the moment. Put another way; self-regulation can be drained while we are using it, leaving us more prone to making a decision that is not in our long-term interests. According to Muraven and Baumeister (2000), exerting emotional and cognitive control in the moment is hard to do. The continuous effort involved is draining, and eventually, we can’t hold out any longer. For example, you are in a hurry to get to work and have to skip breakfast. You are trying to eat healthy but are very hungry. Your friendly co-worker just happened to bring in a box of donuts to share with everyone that morning. What do you do? How long can you hold out before gobbling down a donut? How long can your emotional and cognitive control override your physiological sensation of hunger? Ultimately, when self-regulation is depleted, it also takes some time before it is restored.
What can we do to boost our ability to self-regulate? Fortunately, research suggests that self-regulation can be improved with some effort on our part. First, if we have a long-term goal (e.g., losing weight), we can improve our chances for success by setting achievable and realistic goals (e.g., walking 10,000 steps a day) rather than vague goals (e.g., losing a lot of weight this year). Second, keeping track of our progress helps to keep our mind on the task, in this case, maybe using a smartwatch with an app on your phone to record your steps. Third, create habits that support your long-term goals and that reshape your environment to support them (e.g., not having junk food in the house). And lastly, working on regulating our emotions. For instance, practicing deep breathing and mindfulness can help us to deal with our negative emotions and help us make better decisions.
That brings us to the end of this lesson. Tomorrow, we are going to cover self-enhancement. See you then!
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