The Muscle Metaphor in Self-Regulation in the Light of Current Theorizing on Muscle Physiology

  • Michael Richter
  • Joséphine Stanek


Self-regulation researchers have frequently compared self-regulation with a muscle postulating that self-regulatory activity resembles muscle activity. Self-regulation and muscle activity are supposed to require both energy resources and the depletion of these resources should underlie the performance decline after a strenuous self-regulatory activity (the ego-depletion effect), as well as the decrease in maximum muscle force after heavy physical exercise. The muscle metaphor also claims that self-regulation can be trained and strengthened like a muscle. Repeatedly performing self-regulatory tasks should lead to higher self-regulation capacities like repeatedly exercising a muscle leads to increased muscle force and endurance. Drawing on a presentation of recent research and theorizing on the mechanisms of muscle contraction and metabolism, we discuss the muscle metaphor’s ideas of muscle fatigue, energy depletion, and muscle training. We show that muscle metabolism and muscle training are highly complex processes that are not adequately captured by the muscle metaphor. In particular, the muscle metaphor creates the impression that resource depletion is the sole (or main) determinant of muscle fatigue. This contrasts with the physiological literature that discusses resource depletion as one among several factors involved in muscle fatigue and that does not agree on its importance for muscle fatigue. We also discuss the advantages and drawbacks of using the muscle metaphor’s oversimplified model of muscle functioning in self-regulation research.


Muscular force Muscle physiology Energy metabolism Muscle metaphor 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Geneva Motivation Lab, FPSE Department of PsychologyUniversity of GenevaGenevaSwitzerland

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