Self-regulation theory (SRT) is a system of conscious personal management that involves the process of guiding one's own thoughts, behaviors, and feelings to reach goals. Self-regulation consists of several stages, and individuals must function as contributors to their own motivation, behavior, and development within a network of reciprocally interacting influences.
Roy Baumeister, one of the leading social psychologists who have studied self-regulation, claims it has four components: standards of desirable behavior, motivation to meet standards, monitoring of situations and thoughts that precede breaking said standards, and lastly, willpower. Baumeister along with other colleagues developed three models of self-regulation designed to explain its cognitive accessibility: self-regulation as a knowledge structure, strength, or skill. Studies have been done to determine that the strength model is generally supported, because it is a limited resource in the brain and only a given amount of self-regulation can occur until that resource is depleted.
SRT can be applied to:
- impulse control, the management of short-term desires. People with low impulse control are prone to acting on immediate desires. This is one route for such people to find their way to jail as many criminal acts occur in the heat of the moment. For non-violent people it can lead to losing friends through careless outbursts, or financial problems caused by making too many impulsive purchases.
- the cognitive bias known as illusion of control. To the extent that people are driven by internal goals concerned with the exercise of control over their environment, they will seek to reassert control in conditions of chaos, uncertainty or stress. Failing genuine control, one coping strategy will be to fall back on defensive attributions of control—leading to illusions of control (Fenton-O'Creevy et al., 2003).
- goal attainment and motivation
- sickness behavior
SRT consists of several stages. First, the patient deliberately monitors one's own behavior, and evaluates how this behavior affects one's health. If the desired effect is not realized, the patient changes personal behavior. If the desired effect is realized, the patient reinforces the effect by continuing the behavior. (Kanfer 1970;1971;1980)[clarification needed]
Another approach is for the patient to realize a personal health issue and understand the factors involved in that issue. The patient must decide upon an action plan for resolving the health issue. The patient will need to deliberately monitor the results in order to appraise the effects, checking for any necessary changes in the action plan. (Leventhal & Nerenz 1984)[clarification needed]
Another factor that can help the patient reach his/her own goal of personal health is to relate to the patient the following: Help them figure out the personal/community views of the illness, appraise the risks involved, and give them potential problem-solving/coping skills. Four components of self-regulation described by Baumeister et al. (2007) are:
- Standards: Of desirable behavior.
- Motivation: To meet standards.
- Monitoring: Of situations and thoughts that precede breaking standards.
- Willpower: Internal strength to control urges
History and contributors
There have been numerous researchers, psychologists, and scientists that have studied self-regulatory processes. Albert Bandura, a cognitive psychologist had significant contributions focusing on the acquisition of behaviors that led to the social cognitive theory and social learning theory. His work brought together behavioral and cognitive components in which he concluded that "humans are able to control their behavior through a process known as self-regulation." This led to his known process that contained: self observation, judgement, and self response. Self observation (also known as introspection) is a process involving assessing one's own thoughts and feelings in order to inform and motivate the individual to work towards goal setting and become influenced by behavioral changes. Judgement involves an individual comparing his or her performance to their personal or created standards. Lastly, self-response is applied, in which an individual may reward or punish his or herself for success or failure in meeting standard(s). An example of self-response would be rewarding oneself with an extra slice of pie for doing well on an exam.
Dale Schunk and Barry Zimmerman
Expanding beyond Bandura's three steps, Dale Schunk and Barry Zimmerman, two educational psychologists, have collaborated and researched the effects of social and instructional variables on self-regulation. They have reviewed how specific strategies enhance individual learning processes and how it orients toward self-regulation and achievement processes including: self-observation, self-evaluation, self-reaction, and self-efficacy. Self-observation may be considered insufficient because motivation depends on one’s expectations of outcomes and efficacy. Self-evaluation is where an individual compares his or her current performance to a desired one. Schunk and Zimmerman state that "specific goals specify the amount of effort required for success and boost self-efficacy because progress is easy to gauge." They describe the two types of self-evaluation as absolute or normative. An example of an absolute standard is an academic grading scale, where as a normative standard would involve evaluating oneself's performance. When individuals achieve these valued goals, they're more likely to continue to exert a high level of effort since sub-standard performance will no longer provide satisfaction. Self-reaction is the third element, in which one can be motivated through reactions by others. For example, if one's performance received numerous positive acknowledgments, that individual may have a feeling of self-efficacy; whereas a negative self-evaluation would likely motivate an individual to work harder. Self-reaction also allows a person to re-evaluate his or her goals in conjunction with attainments. Lastly, self-efficacy is the belief that goal completion is enough motivation in it self, and can refer to how people have preconceived judgments about how they are able to perform certain tasks.
As a widely studied theory, SRL was also greatly impacted by the well-known social psychologist Roy Baumeister. He described the ability to self-regulate as limited in capacity, and through this he coined the term ego depletion. The four components of self-regulation theory described by Roy Baumeister are standards of desirable behavior, motivation to meet standards, monitoring of situations and thoughts that precede breaking standards, and willpower, or the internal strength to control urges. In Baumeister's paper titled Self-Regulation Failure: An Overview, he express that self-regulation is complex and multifaceted. Baumeister lays out his “three ingredients” of self-regulation as a case for self-regulation failure. The first involves standards; without specific ideals for standards, there may be conflicting dilemmas that will cease self-regulation. The second ingredient is monitoring, in that if it is not performed, individuals can lose control of success and attentiveness to behaviors. For example, individuals who undermine their competence to fulfill a task may not even attempt to reach that goal. The third is a somewhat more complex, and states that when a current state or behavior is falling short to reach a goal or standard, a certain cognitive process will be triggered to accommodate this. Self-regulation is a process that may be under regulated, mis-regulated, or neglected, and because of this it can be viewed as a strength in the brain. Baumeister concludes his work with the theory that an individual must be able to work through immediate situations by considering long-term implications as well as having a structured sense of relaxation and a healthy sense of impulse control.
Many studies have been done to test different variables regarding self-regulation. Albert Bandura studied self-regulation before, after and during the response. He created the triangle of reciprocal determinism that includes behavior, environment, and the person (cognitive, emotional, and physical factors) that all influence one another. Bandura concluded that the processes of goal attainment and motivation stem from an equal interaction of self-observation, self-reaction, self-evaluation, and self-efficacy.
In addition to Bandura's work, psychologists Muraven, Tice, and Baumeister conducted a study for self control as a limited resource. They suggested there were three competing models to self-regulation: self-regulation as a strength, knowledge structure, and a skill. In the strength model, they indicated it is possible self-regulation could be considered a strength because it requires willpower and thus is a limited resource. Failure to self-regulate could then be explained by depletion of this resource. For self-regulation as a knowledge structure, they theorized it involves a certain amount of knowledge to exert self control, so as with any learned technique, failure to self-regulate could be explained by insufficient knowledge. Lastly, the model involving self-regulation as a skill referred to self-regulation being built up over time and unable to be diminished; therefore, failure to exert would be explained by a lack of skill. They found that self-regulation as a strength is the most feasible model due to studies that have suggested self-regulation is a limited resource.
Dewall, Baumeister, Gailliot, and Maner performed a series of experiments instructing participants to perform ego depletion tasks to diminish the self-regulatory resource in the brain, that they theorized to be glucose. This included tasks that required participants to break a familiar habit, where they read an essay and circled words containing the letter 'e' for the first task, then were asked to break that habit by performing a second task where they circled words containing 'e' and/or 'a'. Following this trial, participants were randomly assigned to either the glucose category, where they drank a glass of lemonade made with sugar, or the control group, with lemonade made from Splenda. They were then asked their individual likelihoods of helping certain people in hypothetical situations, for both kin and non-kin, and found that excluding kin, people were much less likely to help a person in need if they were in the control group (with Splenda) than if they had replenished their brain glucose supply with the lemonade containing real sugar. This study also supports the model for self-regulation as a strength because it confirms it is a limited resource.
Baumeister and colleagues expanded on this, and determined the four components to self-regulation. Those include standards of desirable behavior, motivation to meet these standards, monitoring of situations and thoughts that precede breaking standards, and willpower.
Applications and examples
Impulse control in self-regulation involves the separation of our immediate impulses and long-term desires. We can plan, evaluate our actions, and refrain from doing things we will regret. Research shows that self-regulation is a strength necessary for emotional well-being. Violation of one's deepest values results in feelings of guilt, which will undermine well-being. The illusion of control involves people overestimating their own ability to control events. Such as, when an event occurs an individual may feel greater a sense of control over the outcome that they demonstrably do not influence. This emphasizes the importance of perception of control over life events.
The self-regulated learning is the process of taking control and evaluating one's own learning and behavior. This emphasizes control by the individual who monitors, directs and regulates actions toward goals of information. In goal attainment self-regulation it is generally described in these four components of self-regulation. Standards, which is the desirable behavior. Motivation, to meet the standards. Monitoring, situations and thoughts that precede breaking standards. Willpower, internal strength to control urges.
Illness behavior in self-regulation deals with issues of tension that arise between holding on and letting go of important values and goals as those are threatened by disease processes. Also people who have poor self-regulatory skills do not succeed in relationships or cannot hold jobs. Sayette (2004) describes failures in self-regulation as in two categories: under regulation and misregualtion. Under regulation is when people fail to control oneself whereas misregualtion deals with having control but does not bring up the desired goal (Sayette, 2004).
One challenge of self-regulation is that researchers often struggle with the conceptualization and operationalization of self-regulation (Carver & Scheier, 1990). The system of self-regulation comprises a complex set of functions, including research cognition, problem solving, decision making, and meta cognition.
Ego depletion refers to self control or willpower drawing from a limited pool of mental resources. If an individual has low mental activity, self control is typically impaired, which may lead to ego depletion. Self control plays a valuable role in the functioning of self in people. The illusion of control involves the overestimation of an individual's ability to control certain events. It occurs when someone feels a sense of control over outcomes although they may not possess this control. Psychologists have consistently emphasized the importance of perceptions of control over life events. Heider proposed that humans have a strong motive to control their environment.
Reciprocal determinism is a theory proposed by Albert Bandura, stating that a person's behavior is influenced both by personal factors and the social environment. Bandura acknowledges the possibility that individual's behavior and personal factors may impact the environment. These can involve skills that are either under or overcompensating the ego and will not benefit the outcome of the situation.
Recently, Baumeister's strength model of ego depletion has been criticized in multiple ways. Meta-analyses found little evidence for the strength model of self-regulation and for glucose as the limited resource that is depleted. A pre-registered trial did not find any evidence for ego depletion. Several commentaries have raised criticism on this particular study. In summary, many central assumptions of the strength model of self-regulation seem to be in need of revision, especially the view of self-regulation as a limited resource that can be depleted and glucose as the fuel that is depleted seems to be hardly defensible without major revisions.
Self-regulation can be applied to many aspects of every day life, including social situations, personal health management, impulse control, and more. Since the strength model is generally supported, ego depletion tasks can be performed to temporarily tax the amount of self-regulatory capabilities in a person's brain. It is theorized that self-regulation depletion is associated with willingness to help people in need, excluding members of an individual's kin. Many researchers have contributed to these findings, including Albert Bandura, Roy Baumeister, and Robert Wood.
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