Motivation and Emotion

, Volume 36, Issue 4, pp 416–424 | Cite as

Being active and impulsive: The role of goals for action and inaction in self-control

  • Justin HeplerEmail author
  • Dolores Albarracin
  • Kathleen C. McCulloch
  • Kenji Noguchi
Original Paper


Although self-control often requires behavioral inaction (i.e., not eating a piece of cake), the process of inhibiting impulsive behavior is commonly characterized as cognitively active (i.e., actively exerting self-control). Two experiments examined whether motivation for action or inaction facilitates self-control behavior in the presence of tempting stimuli. Experiment 1 used a delay discounting task to assess the ability to delay gratification with respect to money. Experiment 2 used a Go/No-Go task to assess the ability to inhibit a dominant but incorrect motor response to the words “condom” and “sex”. The results demonstrate that goals for inaction promote self-control, whereas goals for action promote impulsive behavior. These findings are discussed in light of recent evidence suggesting that goals for action and inaction modulate physiological resources that promote behavioral execution.


Self-control Inhibition Action Inaction General goals 


  1. Ainslie, G. (1975). Specious reward: A behavioral theory of impulsiveness and impulse control. Psychological Bulletin, 82, 463–496.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Albarracin, D., & Handley, I. M. (2011). The time for doing is not the time for change: Effects of general action and inaction goals on attitude retrieval and attitude change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 983–998.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Albarracin, D., Handley, I. M., Noguchi, K., McCulloch, K. C., Li, H., Leeper, J., et al. (2008). Increasing and decreasing motor and cognitive output: A model of general action and inaction goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 510–523.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Albarracin, D., Hepler, J., & Tannenbaum, M. (2011). General action and inaction goals: Their behavioral, cognitive, and affective origins and influences. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20, 119–123.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Albarracin, D., Wang, W., & Leeper, J. (2009). Immediate increase in food intake following exercise messages. Obesity, 17, 1451–1452.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Bargh, J. A. (1990). Auto-motives: Preconscious determinants of social interaction. In E. T. Higgins & R. M. Sorrentino (Eds.), Handbook of motivation and cognition (pp. 93–130). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  7. Bargh, J. A., Gollwitzer, P. M., Lee-Chai, A., Barndollar, K., & Trötschel, R. (2001). The automated will: Nonconscious activation and pursuit of behavioral goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 1014–1027.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited-resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252–1265.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. M. (2007). The strength model of self-control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 351–355.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Brehm, J. W., Wright, R. A., Solomon, S., Silka, L., & Greenberg, J. (1983). Perceived difficulty, energization, and the magnitude of goal valence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 19, 21–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1996). Automatic activation of impression formation and memorization goals: Nonconscious goal priming reproduces effects of explicit task instructions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 464–478.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cherek, D. R., Moeller, F. G., Dougherty, D. M., & Rhoades, H. (1997). Studies of violent and nonviolent male parolees: II. Laboratory and psychometric measurements of impulsivity. Biological Psychiatry, 41, 523–529.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Derefinko, K. J., Adams, Z. W., Milich, R., Fillmore, M. T., Lorch, E. P., & Lynam, D. R. (2008). Response style differences in the inattentive and combined subtypes of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 36, 745–758.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Dickman, S. J. (1990). Functional and dysfunctional Impulsivity: Personality and cognitive correlates. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 95–102.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Dolan, M., & Fullam, R. (2004). Behavioural and psychometric measures of impulsivity in a personality disordered population. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 15, 426–450.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Dom, G., de Wilde, B., Hulstijn, W., van den Brink, W., & Sabbe, B. (2006). Behavioural aspects of impulsivity in alcoholics with and without a cluster-B personality disorder. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 41, 412–420.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Förster, J., Liberman, N., & Friedman, R. (2007). Seven principles of goal activation: A systematic approach to distinguishing goal priming from priming of non-goal constructs. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11, 211–233.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gailliot, M. T., Baumeister, R. F., DeWall, C. N., Maner, J. K., Plant, E. A., Tice, D. M., et al. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 325–336.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Gendolla, G. H. E., & Silvestrini, N. (2010). The implicit “go”: Masked action cues directly mobilize mental effort. Psychological Science, 21, 1389–1393.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Green, L., Myerson, J., & McFadden, E. (1997). Rate of temporal discounting decreases with amount of reward. Memory & Cognition, 25, 715–723.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Job, V., Dweck, C. S., & Walton, G. M. (2011). Ego depletion—Is it all in your head? Implicit theories about willpower affect self-regulation. Psychological Science, 21, 1686–1693.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Kirby, K. N., Petry, N. M., & Bickel, W. K. (1999). Heroin addicts have higher discount rates for delayed rewards than non-drug-using controls. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 128, 78–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Laran, J. (2010). The influence of information processing goal pursuit on postdecision affect and behavioral intentions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 16–28.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Lawyer, S. R. (2008). Probability and delay discounting of erotic stimuli. Behavioral Processes, 79, 36–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Logan, G. D., & Cowan, W. B. (1984). On the ability to inhibit thought and action: A theory of an act of control. Psychological Review, 91, 295–327.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Metcalfe, J., & Mischel, W. (1999). A hot/cool-system analysis of delay of gratification: Dynamics of willpower. Psychological Review, 106, 3–19.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Mitchell, S. H. (2004). Measuring impulsivity and modeling its association with cigarette smoking. Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews, 3, 261–275.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Noguchi, K., Handley, I. M., & Albarracin, D. (2011). Participating in politics resembles physical activity: General action and inaction patterns in international archives, United States archives, and experiments. Psychological Science, 22, 235–242.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Swann, A. C., Bjork, J. M., Moeller, G., & Dougherty, D. M. (2002). Two models of impulsivity: Relationship to personality traits and psychopathology. Biological Psychiatry, 51, 988–994.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Wright, R. A., Brehm, J. W., & Bushman, B. J. (1989). Cardiovascular responses to threat: Effects of the difficulty and availability of a cognitive avoidant task. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 10, 161–171.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Wright, R. A., & Kirby, L. D. (2001). Effort determination of cardiovascular response: An integrative analysis with applications in social psychology. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 33, 255–307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Yeomans, M. R., Leitch, M., & Mobini, S. (2008). Impulsivity is associated with the disinhibition but not restraint factor from the Three Factor Eating Questionnaire. Appetite, 50, 469–476.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Justin Hepler
    • 1
    Email author
  • Dolores Albarracin
    • 1
  • Kathleen C. McCulloch
    • 2
  • Kenji Noguchi
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignChampaignUSA
  2. 2.Idaho State UniversityPocatelloUSA
  3. 3.University of Southern MississippiHattiesburgUSA

Personalised recommendations