The currently accepted model of self-control may not be as precise as researchers once thought, a new study has suggested.
According to Michael Inzlicht of the University of Toronto and Brandon Schmeichel of Texas A and M University, rather than being a limited resource, self-control may actually be more like a motivation and attention-driven process.
Research on self-control has surged in the last decade and much of it has centred on the resource model of self-control.
According to this model, originally proposed by Roy Baumeister and colleagues, self-control is a limited resource - if we exercise a lot of self-control by refusing a second slice of cake, we may not have enough self-control later in the day to resist the urge to shop or watch TV.
Over 100 papers have produced findings that support this model.
However, research has found, for example, that people who are required to manage their emotions show impaired performance on later tasks, such as solving a difficult puzzle, squeezing a handgrip exerciser, and keeping items in working memory.
But Inzlicht and Schmeichel point out that a newer crop of studies are yielding results that don't fit with this idea of self-control as a depletable resource.
Recent studies have shown that incentives, individual perceptions of task difficulty, personal beliefs about willpower, feedback on task performance, and changes in mood all seem to influence our ability to exercise self-control.
These results suggest that self-control may not rely on a limited resource after all.
To accommodate these new findings and get at the mechanisms that underlie self-control, Inzlicht and Schmeichel propose an alternative model that describes self-control as a process involving motivation and attention.
"Engaging in self-control by definition, is hard work; it involves deliberation, attention, and vigilance," the authors wrote.
If we resist that second slice of cake, we may experience a shift in motivation so that we feel justified in indulging ourselves later on. It's not necessarily the case that we can't control ourselves because we're "out" of self-control but rather that we choose not to control ourselves any longer.
At the same time, our attention shifts so that we're less likely to notice cues that signal the need for self-control and we pay more attention to cues that signal some kind of reward.
In laying out the basic components of this process model, Inzlicht and Schmeichel want to motivate researchers to ask critical questions about how self-control really works.
"The idea that self-control is a resource is one possibility, but there are alternative possibilities that can accommodate more of the accumulated data," Inzlicht said.
The study has been published in Perspectives on Psychological Science.