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Self & identity
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Self control is the ability to control one's behaviors, actions, emotions, thought processes etc. Gaining control over these aspects of ourselves is a key developmental task.

It is sometimes called self-regulation or self discipline, and exerting self-control through the executive functions in decision making is thought to deplete a resource in the ego.[1]

Self-discipline refers to the training that one gives one's self to accomplish a certain task or to adopt a particular pattern of behavior, even though one would really rather be doing something else. For example, denying oneself of an extravagant pleasure in order to accomplish a more demanding charitable deed. Thus, self-discipline is the assertion of willpower over more base desires, and is usually understood to be a synonym of 'self control'. Self-discipline is to some extent a substitute for motivation, when one uses reason to determine a best course of action that opposes one's desires. Virtuous behavior is when one's motivations are aligned with one's reasoned aims: to do what one knows is best and to do it gladly. Continent behavior, on the other hand, is when one does what one knows is best, but must do it by opposing one's motivations.[2] Moving from continent to virtuous behavior requires training and some self discipline.

Self-control in Behavior 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.[3][4]

Self-control is directly related to the pressure you face.

  • Good Pressure: When you are in a competitive yet non-judgemental and non-prejudicial environment, you want to be like those around you. You become motivated and inspired and gain self-control.
  • Bad Pressure: When you are in a judgemental and prejudicial environment and there is no competition you become depressed and unmotivated. You lose self-control.
  • No Pressure: When you are free and there is no competition, you do what you feel. Your self-control is based on how you feel and since there is no one to compare yourself to, you may be less motivated or more motivated depending on the urgency of whatever you are doing.

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.[5][6].

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.

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 usuing 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).[7] 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).[8] 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 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.[9]

Functional imaging research identifies self-control with an area in the dorsal fronto-median cortex in the frontal lobe that is distinct from those involved in generating intentional actions, attention to intentions, or select between alternatives.[10] This control occurs through the top-down inhibition of premotor cortex.[11]

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 [9]. 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 [9]. 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.

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 to exert self-control, even in entirely different areas. This result was replicated in over a hundred experiments [12]

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 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, Borderline Personality Disorder, addiction, eating disorders and impulse control disorders[3].

The Self in Behavior Analysis

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.[13]

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.[14]

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.[15]

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.[16]

Manipulating emotional conditions

Going for a 'change of scene' may remove emotional stimuli, as may rehearsing injustice to motivate a strong response later.[17]

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.[17]


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.[18]

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.It takes great self control to stay off of drugs or 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.[18]

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.[19]

"Doing something else"

Skinner notes that Jesus exemplified this principle in loving his enemies.[20] 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. It is known 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, due to parents and siblings, as 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. Siblings teach each other about self-control watching each other and what the result of the actions.

Neuroscience of self control

Many things affect one's ability to exert self-control, but self-control particularly requires sufficient glucose 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.[21]

See also

References & Bibliography

  1. Vohs KD, Baumeister RF, Schmeichel BJ, Twenge JM, Nelson NM, Tice DM (May 2008). Making choices impairs subsequent self-control: a limited-resource account of decision making, f-regulation, and active initiative. J Pers Soc Psychol 94 (5): 883–98.
  2. , Fowers BJ. 2008, From Continence to Virtue: Recovering Goodness, Character Unity, and Character Types for Posewitive Psychology. Theory & Psychology, Vol. 18, No. 5, 629-653
  3. Skinner, B.F. (1953) Science and Human Behavior, p.230.
  4. Pierce, W. D., & Cheney, C. D. (2004). Behavior Analysis & Learning. 3rd Ed. Mahway, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. p. 258
  5. Mischel, W., Shoda, Yth the members of the original study whom he was able to find. His reported results appear to show that the life-expectancy of the group was more strongly correlated with their assessed self-control level than anything else
  6. Reported in the book "The Attitude Factor" by Thomas Blakeslee
  7. Hyten, C., Madden, G. J., & Field, D. P. (1994). Exchange delays and impulsive choice in adult humans. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 62, 225-233.
  8. Jackson, K., & Hackenberg, T. D., (1996). Token reinforcement, choice, and self-control in pigeons.Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 66, 29-49.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Logue, A.W. (1995). Self-Control: Waiting Until Tomorrow For What You Want Today. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall
  10. Brass M, Haggard P. (2007).To do or not to do: the neural signature of self-control. J Neurosci. 27(34):9141-5. PMID 17715350
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  11. Kühn S, Haggard P, Brass M. (2009). Intentional inhibition: How the "veto-area" exerts control. Hum Brain Mapp. 30(9):2834-2843. PMID 19072994
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  12. Many experiments can be found here
  13. Skinner, B.F. Science and Human Behavior, Chapter XV
  14. Skinner, B.F. Science and Human Behavior, Chapter XV p. 231
  15. Skinner, B.F. Science and Human Behavior, Chapter XV p. 233
  16. Skinner, B.F. Science and Human Behavior, Chapter XV p. 235
  17. 17.0 17.1 Skinner, B.F. Science and Human Behavior, Chapter XV p. 236
  18. 18.0 18.1 Skinner, B.F. Science and Human Behavior, Chapter XV p. 237
  19. Logue, Self Control: Waiting Until Tomorrow For What You Want Today 34-77
  20. Skinner, B.F. Walden Two 1948
  21. Gailliot MT, Baumeister RF (2007). The physiology of willpower: linking blood glucose to self-control.. Pers Soc Psychol Rev 11 (4): 303–27.

Key texts


  • Bandura, A (1997). Self-efficacy: The Exercise of Control. W.H.Freeman & Co Ltd ISBN 0716728508
  • Benevento, J A (2004).A Self-regulated Learning Approach For Children With Learning/Behavioral Disorders. Charles C Thomas Pub Ltd.ISBN 0398075360

  • Thoresen, C. E., & Mahoney, M. J.(1974). Behavioral self-control. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.


Additional material


Martin, G., & Pear, J. (2006). Behavior modification: What it is and how to do it (8th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, CA: Prentice-Hall.


External links

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