What Is Self-Control?

Self-control—or the ability to subdue one's impulses, emotions, and behaviors to achieve long-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 prefrontal cortex—the planning, problem-solving, and decision making center of the brain—which is significantly larger in humans than in other mammals.

The richness of nerve connections in the prefrontal cortex enables people to plan, evaluate alternative actions, and ideally avoid doing things they'll later regret, rather than immediately respond to every impulse as it arises.

The ability to exert self-control is often referred to as willpower. It allows people to direct their attention despite the presence of competing stimuli, and it underlies all kinds of achievement, from school to the workplace. It benefits relationships as well.

Why You Lose Self-Control

One of the most famous studies of self-control is known as “the marshmallow test,” which found that children who, left alone in a room with a plate containing a marshmallow, were able to resist eating the candy in order to be rewarded with two in the future, later showed numerous positive outcomes. Notably, they had 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,. Later studies have suggested that self-control actually changes significantly over a lifetime and can be improved with practice.

There is significant debate in science as to whether willpower is a finite resource. Some studies indicate 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. A better understanding of why individuals give in to some impulses—but are able to successfully resist others—is critical for helping people who suffer from addictive behaviors, impulsivity, and eating disorders.


Addiction, Compulsive Behaviors

How to Regulate Your Behavior

Whether the temptation is drugs, food, or scrolling through Twitter instead of working, everyone has domains of life in which they wish they could exercise a little more willpower. How can an individual build this critical skill? Recent research points to the use of rewards, routines, and mindfulness practices as possible ways to establish better habits and regulate behavior over the long-term.

Another approach is to develop awareness of the triggers that derail self-control. The sights and smells emanating from a neighborhood bakery as one walks by can weaken determination to maintain a healthy diet, but taking a different route that avoids the bakery can fortify it. Strengthening willpower may not always be easy, but doing so can significantly improve health, performance at work, and quality of life.

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