Self-control is considered a trait that is fairly stable across time. Good self-control is associated with a host of positive outcomes including good mental and physical health, stable personal relationships, and wealth. Despite being a prominent research topic in several subfields of psychology, there is no clear consensus about how self-control should be defined. Some researchers stress the control of dominant responses such as thoughts, emotions, and impulses as defining elements of self-control. Other definitions are much broader. One line of current work seeks to develop a theory-guided, encompassing conceptualization of self-control. This project seeks to closely consider overlap with and distinctiveness from related constructs in the personality space, and elucidate implications for the measurement of self-control.
If self-control is apparently so helpful in living a healthy, happy, and prosperous life, a self-suggesting question is how it can be improved. Some researchers examined if regular practice of self-control can lead to changes not only in the practiced domain, but more broadly in domains that require self-control. A recent meta-analysis of this literature from our lab provided mixed support for this idea and concluded that more theoretical and empirical work is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn (Friese, Frankenbach, Job, & Loschelder, 2017).
A prominent idea suggests that the exertion of self-control impairs performance in subsequent attempts at self-control (ego depletion effect). After a prolific period in which this phenomenon has received abundant attention in research and the public media, the field as been confronted with severe doubts about the robustness and replicability of much of the reported research. A review from our lab about the state of the field concluded that there is no conclusive evidence for the phenomenon beyond reasonable doubt, but neither is there conclusive evidence that the phenomenon does not exist. Both better theoretical and empirical work is needed to gain a deeper understanding of ego depletion effects (Friese, Loschelder, Gieseler, Frankenbach, & Inzlicht, 2019). Ongoing work examines the role of mental effort as indicated by psychophysiological measures in the emergence of ego depletion effects.
The dynamics of self-control
Many self-control situations are characterized by conflicts between individuals’ long-term goals and their short-term impulses. Based on contemporary dual-process and dual-system models of human behavior, we examined the interplay of three components that jointly shape self-regulatory behavior: (1) reflective precursors of behavior such as explicit attitudes and personal standards, (2) impulsive precursors of behavior such as spontaneous affective reactions toward a temptation, and (3) boundary factors that shift the weight of reflective and impulsive processes on behavior such as the willingness and the ability of the individual to exert control over behavior. A series of studies supported the assumptions that reflective precursors correspond to observed self-regulatory behavior better under conditions of high ability to control and the reverse was true for impulsive precursors of behavior (for an overview, see Hofmann, Friese, & Strack, 2009).