Can we choose our level of self-control?

A study published in the Association for Psychological Science journal Perspectives on Psychological Science suggests people are able to choose their levels of self-control. The study goes against the common theory that self-control is a limited resource.

According to Michael Inzlicht from the University of Toronto and Brandon Schmeichel of Texas A&M University, the notion is closer to a motivation and attention-driven process than the belief that those who exhibit lots of control will later run out of it as a consequence.

The authors suggested people who resist a second slice of cake, for example, might experience a change in motivation and therefore feel justified in treating themselves later.

In addition, a person's attention is likely to shift and they will be less prone to noticing cues indicating the need for self-control.

They noted: "Engaging in self-control by definition, is hard work - it involves deliberation, attention and vigilance," adding it may not be the case that individuals lose self-control, rather they decide against keeping it up.

Dr Michael Sinclair, Consultant Counselling Psychologist, CPsychol, AFBPsS, CSci comments:

"An apparent 'loss' in self-control may not be dependent on limited resources of distress tolerance or either displays of experiential avoidance. In fact over time and with positive reinforcement, behavioural resistance and impulse control may become as much an habitual and learned pattern of behaviour as the impulsive response that often displays a lack of self-control.

"These are interesting findings and clear evidence to support that other factors may also influence a person's motivation and decision making process which may have very little to do with assumed levels of self-control. For example, value-driven motivation can influence a person's response and behaviour.

"An individual has the capacity for awareness and consequential choice in any given moment and behaviours based on values may override and demonstrate a contradiction to intermittent displays of self-control. Further, choice will no doubt influence levels of self-control insomuch as an adaptive protective factor. Such value-based action can improve levels of wellbeing and bring relief from the otherwise continuous deprivation and lack of fulfilment and life satisfaction that may understandably arise with prolonged displays of self-control."