November 5, 2008

How good are you at Self-Control?

SCR Feature — alice @ 1:47 am Print This Post  AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Two recent studies suggest that effective self-regulation involves strong working memory capacity

Why is it that you managed to lose 10 pounds in only one month while I did not lose a single pound in three months? Classic work conducted in the 80′s by Albert Bandura, Charles Carver, and Michael Scheier, as well as more recent efforts by Roy Baumeister and his team, indicate that factors such as sustained self-observation, setting clear and reasonable goals, transcending the immediate situation (i.e., delaying gratification), and avoiding “self-control depletion” all play a role in successful self-regulation.

To illustrate: You most probably succeeded at losing the extra pounds because you (1) kept monitoring food intake and weight loss on a regular basis (sustained self-observation), (2) wisely decided that it would be realistic to try losing between two and three pounds per week (setting clear and reasonable goals), (3) avoided eating between meals by making sure that no food (e.g., candies, chips) was available in your car or office (transcending the immediate situation; delaying gratification), and (4) did not use up your self-control “energy” all at once (e.g., at breakfast or lunch) and instead spent it evenly throughout the day to have some left in the evening (avoiding “self-control depletion”; current research indeed shows that repeated acts of self-control drain a psychological resource, leading to poorer self-regulation subsequently).     

By contrast, it is most probable that I failed at losing weight because I (1) did not pay enough attention to my eating behavior and neglected to monitor my weight throughout the process, (2) unrealistically hoped that I could lose 25 pounds, if not more, in only one month, (3) did not manage to avoid short-term temptations, and (4) tried too hard not to overeat in the mornings and afternoons, so that at dinner time I had no strength left and often overindulged in sweets of all sorts.

This example clearly represents an oversimplification of reality but provides us with a snapshot of what is currently known about the complex and fundamental process of self-regulation, defined as altering our own inner states (e.g., emotions, thought patterns) and behaviors (e.g., eating habits). Self-regulation permeates many spheres of human activity: addiction, unwanted sexual behavior, crime, impulsive buying behavior, financial planning, anger management, attention deficit disorders, and many more.

Two recently published articles add yet another variable to the self-regulatory puzzle: working memory capacity (WMC). Despite its name, WMC is not about memory capacity per se (e.g., how much information we can store in short-term memory) but rather about our ability to maintain information in an active, quickly retrievable state. WMC allows us to form a mental representation of something in our mind (like a short-term goal) and to keep this representation active while suppressing other competing information-other mental representations or external stimuli. Put simply, WMC makes it possible to focus on tasks and not get constantly distracted by other thoughts or things occurring around us.What goes on in our head when we actively apply our WMC? The most probable answer is that we engage in self-talk.

In their research, Wilhelm Hofmann (at the University of Würzburg in Germany) and colleagues propose that self-regulation is governed by automatic and controlled processes, and that the relative influence of these components is affected by people’s individual differences in WMC.

Automatic processes mainly consist of unconscious attitudes and personality traits; these attitudes and traits tend to make us act impulsively, and thus partially explain self-regulatory failure. Controlled processes are made up of conscious attitudes and goals; they are responsible for reflective action, and consequently foster self-regulatory success. Since WMC promotes the focus of attention on current conscious mental representations, it should activate controlled processes and facilitate self-regulation.

Hofmann and his team conducted three studies in which participants with low or high WMC had to self-regulate in the sexual, food, and anger domains. For instance, in the anger study, male participants received particularly negative feedback following their filmed WMC performance from another alleged participant; they then saw a video sequence of that same participant performing the WMC task and could retaliate against him by providing feedback. The participants’ feedback served as indicators of anger levels after the provoking situation. WMC was measured by having participants perform simple equations (e.g., 3 + 5 = ?) and memorize the results (e.g., 8) while simultaneously judging other equations as being either true or false. This most certainly represents a valid measure of WMC because participants had to maintain mental representations (the results of the equations) while suppressing another competing mental activity (the concurrent task).
In a nutshell, and as suggested above, what Hofmann and his colleagues observed is that participants with low WMC tended to activate more automatic processes (e.g., unconscious attitudes: chocolate tastes great) to the detriment of controlled ones (e.g., conscious goals: remember, I’m on a diet), thus exhibiting poor self-regulatory behavior (e.g., overeating); participants with high WMC were more inclined to use controlled processes and suppress their automatic processes, thus performing better at self-regulation.
In their article, Noah Shamosh (at Yale University in Connecticut, USA) and associates used a different type of task to measure self-regulation and aimed to identify the brain areas sustaining WMC using fMRI. The team used what is called a “delay discounting” task, where participants were asked to resist smaller, quicker financial rewards and choose instead delayed, but larger and constantly increasing, amounts of money. So in essence they had to think in terms of long-term consequences and postpone immediate gratification. WMC was evaluated in various ways-for instance, by having participants keeping several words in mind while doing math problems. Participants with high WMC showed the best self-regulatory performance; recording of their brain activity during the delay discounting task indicates that the left anterior prefrontal cortex was particularly active, suggesting that this area represents the neurological seat of WMC (see Figure 1).


  Figure 1-the anterior prefrontal cortex


Now the question is: Phenomenologically speaking, what is WMC? What goes on in our head when we actively apply our WMC? The most probable answer is that we engage in self-talk. It is pretty surprising indeed that none of the two articles discussed here mention inner speech (Baddeley’s phonological loop), which has been shown to be an important part of working memory since its inception into cognitive psychology in the 70′s. Basically, when we maintain information in an active state so that we can readily retrieve it (which is what working memory does), most of the time at least we talk to ourselves: “OK, how many teaspoons of salt am I supposed to add now? Yes! Two… Two… Two…”
Going back to Hofmann and colleagues’ work, one can suggest that participants with high WMC were better at self-regulation because of greater inner speech use. To illustrate, let us imagine a man who’s trying to control his temper. He may have a predisposition toward aggression (a personality trait: automatic process) as well as a genuine desire to avoid getting into trouble (a goal: controlled process). If he has high WMC, he most likely will say to himself when facing frustration “Calm down! I always tend to explode in rage in that type of situation, that’s who I am [becoming aware of his automatic process-personality trait], but I don’t want this to happen [thus suppressing it], I want to stay cool” [focusing attention on his controlled process-the goal]. Of course, the man with low WMC would engage in little or no inner speech, would not be able to draw attention on the goal, and thus would succumb to his automatic processes…
Interestingly enough, a large body of literature exists on the relation between private speech in children and effective self-regulation, going back to Lev Vygosky and Alexander Luria; this line of work is still very active with research conducted by Adam Winsler (at George Mason University in Virginia, USA) and Charles Fernyhough (at Durham University in UK), just to name a couple researchers… It actually adds weight to the claim that WMC is associated with better self-regulatory skills. Quite simply, on one hand we already know that inner speech promotes self-control. On the other hand, as suggested by the work of Hofmann and Shamosh, WMC also facilitates self-regulation. And then, there is the implicit assumption that a large part of WMC precisely consists of inner speech. We thus end up with a nice, tight conceptual triangle (see Figure 2), that both papers reviewed here have unfortunately overlooked.


Figure 2-Postulated interactions between inner speech, WMC, and self-regulation


About the Author

Alain Morin, Behavioral Sciences, Mount Royal College,
4825 Mount Royal Gate SW, Calgary (AB), Canada T3E 6K6



  1. Hofmann, W., Gschwendner, T., Friese, M., Wiers, R.W., & Schmitt, M. (2008). Working memory capacity and self-regulatory behavior: Toward an individual differences perspective on behavior determination by automatic versus controlled processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psycholology, 95(4), 962-77.
  2. Shamosh, N.A., DeYoung, C.G., Green, A.E., Reis, D.L., Johnson, M.R., Conway, A.R.A., Engle, R.W., Braver, T.S., & Gray, J.R. (2008). Individual differences in delay discounting: Relation to intelligence, working             memory, and anterior prefrontal cortex. Psychological Science, 19(9), 904-911.

Additional readings

  1. Bandura, A. (1991). Social cognitive theory of self-regulation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50(2), 248-287.
  2. Baumeister, R.F. & Kathleen D. Vohs (eds.) (2004). Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications. New York: Guilford.
  3. Carver, C.S., & Scheier, M.F. (1998). On the self-regulation of behavior. New York: Cambridge University Press.


  1. How do you factor in the research showing that visuo-spatial working memory and verbal working memory are separable capacities (see Robert Logie’s work)? So for instance, if your WMC test is “keeping several words in mind while doing math problems,” have you determined whether the subject’s strategy with math is primarily verbal or visuo-spatial? If the WMC capacity test is effectively finding greater visuo-spatial working memory, rather than verbal, then it might be that self-control more correlates with a capacity for “vision” of goals than “self-talk” of goals. Until you disambiguate this, the argument that self-control equates to greater capacity for self-talk isn’t strong.

    You also should contend with Aaron Beck’s findings suggesting that self-talk, lodged presumably in working memory, often leads to a neurotic lack of self-control, which can be improved precisely by training subjects to gain psychological distance from the self-talk – what his well-proven “cognitive therapy” consists in.

    In folk psychology, of course, inner speech just is self-control, and there’s a homunculus over there producing it, or is it that we’re supposed to be the homunculus? All the standard arguments against a homunculus need to be disarmed, perhaps by better separating your claim from the folk psychological picture.

    Also, even if better self-control capacity correlates with better verbal (as compared to visuo-spatial) working memory capacity, you need to show that it isn’t the other way around: that better self-control capacity produces better working memory capacity. Keeping something within working memory is itself arguably an instance of self-control.

    Comment by whit — December 6, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

  2. In response to the comment made above:
    (1) It is indeed good to remind us that working memory is made up of both a verbal component (inner speech) and a visuo-spatial component (imagery). In my SCR Feature I deliberately simplified the picture and exclusively focused on the potential link between the verbal component of working memory and self-regulation. It thus remains possible that imagery too plays an active role in self-regulation/control. Note here (a) that my argument has never been that «self-control equates to greater capacity for self-talk», but rather that «inner speech promotes self-control», and (b) to my knowledge, research showing a link between visuo-spatial skills and self-regulation is non-existent.

    (2) Cognitive therapy (e.g., Beck’s work, as well as Meichembaum’s, Ellis’, etc.) does not suggest that self-talk per se is detrimental to self-control. Instead, it shows that some individuals misuse inner speech by either overusing it or by distorting it (by engaging in negative thought patterns), which leads to poor self-regulation indeed. These individuals are «self-ruminators» as opposed to «self-reflectors» — see Trapnell and Campbell (1999). Healthy use of inner speech translates into highly effective self-regulation.

    Comment by Alain Morin — December 8, 2008 @ 2:04 am

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