Motivation and Emotion

, Volume 43, Issue 1, pp 63–81 | Cite as

Self-control motivationally reconsidered: “Acting” self-controlled is different to “being good” at self-control

  • Axel GrundEmail author
  • Christoph-Alexander Carstens
Original Paper


Self-control is typically conceptualized as an inherent human skill, focusing on the imperative control of thoughts, feelings, and behavior. In the present research, we scrutinize this understanding by differentiating between an ability self-concept of self-control strength and experiential acts of self-control. Moreover, by taking a motivational perspective, we analyze how much of a role intrapsychic conflict plays in both conceptions of self-control, and with regard to psychological well-being. In cross-sectional Study 1 (N = 228), we compared a typicality measure of experiential acts of imperative self-control with the widely used Self-Control Scale (Tangney et al. in J Pers 72:271–322, 2004). Findings confirm that “being good” at self-control does not correspond to “acting” self-controlled, and that both measures show opposing relationships to intrapsychic conflict, as well as to well-being. In Study 2 (N = 114), we corroborated these findings by using an experience-sampling approach. Multilevel analyses showed that between-person differences (Level 2) in self-control strength were generally unrelated to experiential acts of self-control in everyday life. By contrast, we found a positive Level 2 effect for acting self-controlled. With regard to momentary affect, both between- and within differences (Level 1) in acting self-controlled served as substantial predictors, in addition to momentary self-determination. Other context-dependent effects (i.e., studying vs. leisure time) further emphasize the need to consider motivational interpretations of self-control (strength).


Intrapsychic conflict Motivation Self-control Self-determination Well-being Willpower 



This research was supported by a research grant of the Bielelder Nachwuchsfond, Bielefeld University, Germany, to Axel Grund.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Research involving human and animal rights

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. This article does not contain any studies with animals performed by any of the authors.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Supplementary material

11031_2018_9721_MOESM1_ESM.doc (60 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOC 60 KB)


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyBielefeld UniversityBielefeldGermany

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