Researchers Propose a New Framework for Understanding Self-Control: PSPI

Whether we want to spend less time looking at screens, to eat more vegetables, or to save money for retirement, we often strive to forego the behavior we want to engage in for the one we think we should engage in. In a new report, leading researchers in behavioral science propose a new framework that outlines different types of self-control strategies and underscores how effective self-control entails much more than sheer willpower.

The report, authored by APS Fellow Angela L. Duckworth (University of Pennsylvania), David Laibson (Harvard University), and Katherine L. Milkman (The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania), is published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. The report is accompanied by a commentary from APS Fellow George Loewenstein (Carnegie Mellon University), a leading researcher in the science of decision making.

Based on their comprehensive review of available research, Duckworth, Laibson, and Milkman propose a framework that organizes evidence-based self-control strategies along two dimensions: approach and agent. They observe that sometimes the best self-control strategy involves changing the objective situation, while other times it’s more effective to change how the situation is interpreted. And some strategies are most effective when we initiate them ourselves, while others are better implemented by someone else, such as the government or an employer.

“This framework yields four ways to reduce self-control failures,” says Duckworth. “All of the approaches we describe fall into these four categories, and all are better than expecting individuals to just muster more willpower.”

The four categories include:

  • Self-deployed cognitive strategies: Individuals employ techniques that help to change the way they think, making long-term goals more appealing or easier to accomplish relative to short-term temptations. Examples include goal setting (e.g., identifying clear, specific, and achievable academic goals), planning (e.g., making if-then plans that outline how to handle financial issues in different situations), and self-monitoring (e.g., tracking eating behavior by keeping a food diary).
  • Self-deployed situational strategies: The individual changes her own environment to create incentives, obstacles, and affordances that favor long-term goals over short-term temptations. Examples include self-imposing constraints (e.g., using an app that restricts your phone usage), bundling temptations (e.g., only watching your favorite TV show while exercising), and modifying your situation (e.g., removing junk food from the house).
  • Other-deployed cognitive strategies: Policymakers, practitioners, and others employ techniques that prompt individuals to think in ways that favor long-term goals. Examples include descriptive social norms (e.g., informing individuals that their peers or neighbors engage in eco-friendly behavior), social labeling (e.g., linking alcohol consumption with a distinct social group), and joint evaluation (e.g., requiring the relative strengths of all job candidates to be assessed at one time).
  • Other-deployed situational strategies: Policymakers, practitioners, and others establish incentives, penalties, affordances, or constraints aimed at reducing self-control failures. Examples include hard paternalism (e.g., cigarette taxes, speed cameras, energy savings incentives), microenvironments (e.g., making healthy foods more accessible in certain areas), and defaults (e.g., automatically enrolling employees in retirement savings plans).

The strategies included in the four categories cross traditional academic boundaries, drawing from insights in psychological science and economics. Classifying the strategies in this way highlights the tradeoffs inherent in the different approaches, which are especially relevant to policymakers, employers, healthcare professionals, educators, and other practitioners working to address pressing issues that stem, at least in part, from failures in self-control.

Identifying four types of self-control strategies that go beyond willpower sends an important message, Loewenstein writes in his commentary, considering that people often believe that willpower is sufficient despite its high failure rate. One of the reasons people tend to fail in New Year’s resolutions is “naivety about the limitations of the brute-force approach and ignorance of the far more effective strategies enumerated in the review,” he writes.

But Loewenstein also notes some important caveats to keep in mind when interpreting the research, which the researchers also acknowledge in the report. Many studies have examined self-control strategies in small groups of participants over brief periods of time, which raises questions about whether they will remain effective if implemented at a broader scale and how long the effects will last.

Duckworth, Laibson, and Milkman hope that their review helps to integrate existing research on self-control from several disciplines into a comprehensive whole.

“There is an urgent need for a cumulative and applied science of self-control — one that incorporates insights from theoretical traditions in both psychological science and economics,” Duckworth, Laibson, and Milkman write. “We hope this review is a step in that direction.”

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