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Self-Regulation: “I don’t want to do it… But I have to”

Sometimes you have to do things that you’d rather not do. Whether it is studying, working, exercising or meeting with that one slightly annoying friend who is not really a friend but somehow he just doesn’t get the signs. Anyway, there is no escaping it: sometimes you have to get yourself together and just do it.

This “getting yourself together and just do it” is called self-regulation. In literature, it is defined as the ability to change your cognitive, emotional or behavioural responses in order to reach long-term goals. Take losing weight for example. To lose weight, you need to eat less and workout regularly. You need discipline for this and do not get to see results immediately. It really is a long-term commitment that you need to make. Some individuals are good at this and lose weight successfully. Others struggle a lot and decide to give up after a couple of days. But the question is, why? Why are there individual differences in self-regulation?

The personality roots of self-regulation

To answer our question, we need to ask ourselves what is vital for self-regulation. The answer is: self-control. In literature, it is defined as the individual’s control over his or her thoughts, emotions, impulsivity, performance, and habits. The ability to control all these aspects is extremely important if you want to change your responses to reach long-term goals.

Thus, individual differences in self-control explain the individual differences we find in self-regulation. But how can we explain individual differences in self-control? Well, self-control is actually a facet of the Big Five personality trait conscientiousness. Simply put, we assume the following: individuals with higher levels of conscientiousness tend to have higher levels of self-control. Therefore, they tend to have higher levels of self-regulation.

High vs. low trait self-control

Self-control as described as above is called trait self-control; the level of self-control that is rooted in your personality. But of course, you do not have the exact same level of self-control every day. There are always good days and bad days. Thus, you could see trait self-control as the individual’s “average” level of self-control.

If it is true that individual differences in self-control explain individual differences in self-regulation, we would expect that individuals with higher levels of trait self-control use different self-regulation strategies than individuals with low levels of trait self-control. This has actually been examined recently by Hennecke, Czikmantori and Brandstätter (2019). By means of self-reports, they investigated the strategies individuals spontaneously use to regulate their persistence during unpleasant or challenging activities. Analysing the participants’ responses to the self-reports, Hennecke and colleagues found the following:

1. Individuals higher on trait self-control indeed indicate to be more successful in self-regulation and to persist longer during unpleasant or challenging activities.
2. Individuals higher on trait self-control make more use of three self-regulatory strategies, namely focusing on the positive consequences of the activity, setting goals, and regulating their emotions.
3. Distraction from the unpleasant or challenging activity actually results in less self-regulatory success according to individuals with higher trait self-control.

That is it! Right?

There you have it. Individuals with higher levels of trait self-control make more use of particular regulation strategies than those with lower levels. This must explain why those individuals are better at self-regulation than others, because they make more use of successful strategies! That is it! Right? Well, unfortunately: no. Hennecke and colleagues performed additional analyses to see if the differences in used self-regulation strategies really explained the differences in self-regulation success. But it turned out that the self-regulation strategies could not explain the reported differences in success at all.

Even though we did find support for the assumption that individuals with higher levels of trait self-control are better at regulating themselves, we cannot explain why this is the case based on the study by Hennecke and colleagues (2019). We know that the differences in success cannot be explained by the strategies they employ. Thus, there must be something else that individuals with high levels of trait self-control have or do that those with lower levels don’t. But what this exactly is, remains the question for future research.

What do you think? If differences in self-regulation cannot be explained by the different strategies individuals employ, what else could it be? Leave a comment below!

If you are interested in reading the literature used for this post, references and links are provided here:

Baumeister, R. F., Heatherton, T. F., & Tice, D. M. (1994). Losing control: How and why people fail at self-regulation. San Diego, CA, US: Academic Press.

Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. M. (2007). The strength model of self-control. Current directions in psychological science16(6), 351-355.

Hennecke, M., Czikmantori, T., & Brandstätter, V. (2019). Doing Despite Disliking: Self‐regulatory Strategies in Everyday Aversive Activities. European Journal of Personality33(1), 104-128.

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