What Is Self-Control?

Self-control—or the ability to subdue one's impulses, emotions, and behaviors in order to achieve longer-term goals—is what separates modern people from their ancient ancestors and the rest of the animal kingdom. Self-control is primarily rooted in the pre-frontal cortex, which is significantly larger in humans than in other mammals with similar brains. Thanks to the pre-frontal cortex, rather than immediately responding to every impulse as it arises, individuals can plan, evaluate alternative actions, and ideally avoid doing things they'll later regret.

The ability to exert self-control is typically called willpower. Willpower is what allows people to direct their attention, and it underlies all kinds of achievement, from school to the workplace. There is significant debate in science as to whether or not willpower is a finite resource. Some well-known studies have made a case that exercising willpower makes demands on mental energy. This concept, called ego depletion, is one possible explanation for why individuals are more apt to reach for a chocolate chip cookie when they're feeling overworked.

Recently, however, scientists have failed to replicate some of the studies underlying the concept of ego depletion. More research is underway, but the final verdict on whether people can “run out” of willpower remains to be seen.

Failures of Self-Control

One of the most famous studies of self-control is known as “the marshmallow test,” which found that children who were able to resist eating one marshmallow—in order to be rewarded with two in the future—later showed higher academic achievement than those who had wolfed the treat down immediately. The study’s results seemed to indicate that self-control is an innate ability with wide-reaching implications for people's lives, but later studies have suggested that self-control actually changes significantly over a lifetime, and can be improved with practice. A better understanding of why individuals give in to some impulses—but are able to successfully resist others—is critical for understanding addictive behaviors, impulsivity, and eating disorders.

How to Regulate Behavior

Whether one is most tempted by drugs, food, or scrolling through Twitter instead of working, everyone has areas of their lives in which they wish they could exercise a little more willpower. How can an individual build this critical skill? Recent research has pointed to the use of rewards, routines, and mindfulness as a few possible ways to establish better habits and regulate behavior over the long term. Strengthening willpower may not always be easy, but the benefits can significantly improve health, performance at work, and quality of life.


Habit Formation, Motivation, Anger

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