by:Kelly Bryan

The area of self-control has long been plagued with confusion. Even the meaning of the word creates a terminological dilemma. Often self-control is used to describe the ability to exercise restraint or control over one's emotions, desires, or actions. Sometimes it is used synonymously with willpower. Neil Levy uses the term to describe actions that stem from non-self-deceptively endorsed values (Levy 200). However, the cardinal feature of self-control is that it is the self who is the agent of behavior.

Carl E. Thoresen and Michael J. Mahoney believe that the problem with arriving at a concise definition of self-control has to do with its social relativity (Thoresen and Mahoney 12). They point out that identifying a pattern of behavior as self-control is realistically a social labeling process. Differences in self-control and non-self-control behaviors lie in their social context. The social desirability of a response enters into most definitions. Undesirable behavior patterns are not often accorded the label of self-control. Also, a behavior often requires some amount of conscious effort before it is labeled as self-control (Thoresen and Mahoney 12).

In 1953, American psychologist and philosopher, B.F. Skinner studied the area of self-control and developed a survey of nine categories of self-control techniques. Skinner's basic assumption was that environmental conditions control behavior in systematic ways. This assumption goes back to Skinner's work with laboratory animals in his research at Harvard University, and stayed with him throughout his life (Nye 51).

Skinner's survey of self-control techniques include:

Physical restraint and physical aid- These are techniques to help maintain physical self-control.

Changing the stimuli- This includes such things as removing distractions that lead to undesirable actions; adding a prompt to help achieve desired actions; hiding temptation. It also includes self-managed stimulus exposure.

Depriving and satiating- Manipulating one's behavior by inducing states of deprivation and satiation.

Manipulating emotional conditions- This includes controlling predispositions, rehearsal of previous consequences, and self-instruction.

Using aversive stimulation- The idea is to create a form of adverse control.

Operant conditioning- This is a behavior maintained and modified by the consequences of the behavior. Reinforcement and punishment are the key tools of operant conditioning and they have both positive and negative aspects.

Doing something else- This means to do something that is incompatible with a natural response.

Punishment- This can be self-punishment or punishment from another source (i.e. parent).

More recently, researchers have been studying self control by focusing on the brain. A 2007 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience stated that the area of the brain responsible for self control-where the decision to refrain from doing something occurs after considering doing it- is separate from the area associated with taking action (What Makes Some People Impulsive? par.1). Martha Farah, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania terms this “free won't” as opposed to “free will.” She believes that identifying the circuits in the brain that enable the “free won't” response may someday lead to cures for disorders associated with self-control problems, such as substance dependence, attention deficit disorder, and personality disorders.

Similarly, scientists from the California Institute of Technology discovered differences in the brains of individuals who are able to exercise self-control, as opposed to those who find it almost impossible. Using an MRI scanner, Antonio Rangel and his colleagues were able to determine that one area of the brain, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, is used to make value-laden decisions, while a second region, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, modulates the activity of the first region in people with good self-control. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) is active in every decision, while the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is more active when self-control is being employed. The implication is that researchers may one day be able to come up with ways to increase the activity of the DLPFC in order to increase self-control in individuals, especially those with self-control disorders.

Further, ego-depletion experiments suggest that self-control is a limited resource. Brandon J. Schmeichel and Roy F. Baumeister, psychologists who developed the ego-depletion hypothesis, describe it as a muscle model of self-regulation. The more a muscle is used the more tired it becomes. However, with rest it recovers. While self-control can be diminished over the short term, exercise of self-control, like exercise of muscles, seems to build it up over the long term. While ego-depletion experiments have not uncovered direct evidence concerning the mechanisms of this occurrence, it appears that glucose plays a role. Research in 2007 by Matthew Gailliot et al found that self-control tasks draw upon glucose to a greater extent than do other executive processes of the brain (Levy 211). Exercising self-control depletes glucose, and there is evidence to suggest that glucose is taken from a store specifically reserved for this purpose. The ego-depletion theory can be used to explain the cycle of use and abstention often observed in addicts, as well as those who suffer from impulse-control disorders such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and the failure of self-control to which all individuals are vulnerable.

There are neurobiological differences between being in-control and out of control. In time, it might be possible to define these two states based on specific neurobiological functions. Research has indicated that in people prone to anti-social behavior there is a dysfunction in the part of the brain responsible for self-control. Dr. Gabor Mate believes that whenever we see failures of behavioral self-control we are witnessing short-circuiting of the wiring of this part of the brain. Mate suggests several reasons for this short-circuiting: brain injury, genetic factors, and the absence of the conditions required for proper development (Mate par. 7). Martha Farah states that brain areas can be damaged in subtle and gradual ways, making it difficult to distinguish between someone with brain short-circuiting and a normal brain (Responsibility and Brain Function par. 6).

Whether the locus of behavior is internal or external, the ethical and pragmatic reasons for understanding and exercising self-control are numerous. Many self-control patterns aid in survival. Maintaining a normal body weight has been shown to greatly influence health and longevity. Self-control is also directly related to socialization. Friendships, marriages and other relationships require a relatively significant degree of self-control. Adequate self-control is essential for humans to live and work together peacefully. Although humans are minimally connected through neurological and biological mechanisms that ensure our ability to function as organisms, there can be no optimal level of unity without the exercise of self-control (Levy 204). Furthermore, the failure of self-control and the subsequent related individual and societal problems are grim reminders of the consequences of this failure.


Farah, Martha. “Responsibility and Brain Function. Center for Neuroscience and Society. 23 November 2010. University of Pennsylvania. Web. 24 November 2010. <>

Levy, Neil. “Neuroethics.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Ebook Reader.

Mahoney, Michael, and Carl Thoresen. “Behavioral Self-Control.” New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston Inc., 1974. Print.

Mate, Gabor. “A Solution to Violence is in Our Hands.” Scattered Minds Press. 2 August 2000. Web. 19 November 2010. <>

“Mechanisms of Self-Control Pinpointed in Brain.” Science Daily. 1 May 2009. Web. 19 November 2010. <>

Nye, Robert. “The Legacy of B.F. Skinner.” California: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 1992. Print.

Nye, Robert. “What is B.F. Skinner really saying?” New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1979. Print.

“What Makes Some People Impulsive? Area Responsible For 'Self-Control' Found In Human Brain.” Science Daily. 24 August 2007. Web. 19 November 2010. <>


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Good research and a clear discussion. Good work.

101/essays/selfcontrol.txt · Last modified: 2010/12/02 10:26 by bryank1