Lay Theories of Self-control

  • Veronika Job
  • Gregory M. Walton


Why do people sometimes fail to regulate their behavior effectively to accomplish their goals? How can they do better? This chapter explores the role of prominent beliefs in society about the nature of willpower, and how these beliefs shape self-regulation. Social factors can convey, and people can believe, that self-control relies on a limited resource and, when this resource is drawn down, so too is the capacity to exert self-control (limited-resource theory). Alternatively, people can reject this idea, and believe instead that exerting self-control can become self-energizing and even boost later performance (nonlimited-resource theory). Longitudinal and experimental studies show that these beliefs or lay theories causally affect how people strive toward goals and ultimately affect their well-being. The belief that willpower relies on a limited resource undermines self-control in the laboratory and in everyday life, especially as demands accumulate. This theory sensitizes people to cues about the availability of mental resources, such as feelings of tiredness and the consumption of sugar, long before any actual lack of resources, and facilitates the goal to rest following self-control efforts. By contrast, the belief that willpower is not so dependent helps people maintain their self-control and make progress on valued personal goals, and increases well-being.


Lay theories Self-control Self-regulation Ego depletion Goal-striving Well-being Rest goal Self-efficacy 


  1. Aronson, E. (1999). The power of self-persuasion. American Psychologist, 54, 584–588.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Aronson, J., Fried, C. B., & Good, C. (2002). Reducing the effects of stereotype threat on African American college students by shaping theories of intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 113–125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bandura, A. (1971). Social learning theory. New York, NY: General Learning Press.Google Scholar
  4. Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37, 122–147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bandura, A., & Walters, R. H. (1963). Social learning and personality development (Vol. 14). New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.Google Scholar
  6. 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.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Baumeister, R. F., & Heatherton, T. F. (1996). Self-regulation failure: An overview. Psychological Inquiry, 7, 1–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bernecker, K., Hermann, M., Brandstätter, V., & Job, V. (2017). Implicit theories about willpower predict subjective well-being. Journal of Personality, 85, 136–150.Google Scholar
  9. Bernecker, K., & Job, V. (2015a). Beliefs about willpower are related to therapy adherence and psychological adjustment in patients with type 2 diabetes. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 37, 188–195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bernecker, K., & Job, V. (2015b). Beliefs about willpower moderate the effect of previous day demands on next day’s expectations and effective goal striving. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1496.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  11. Bernecker, K., & Job, V. (in press). Implicit theories about willpower in resisting temptations and emotion control. Journal of Psychology. Google Scholar
  12. Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78, 246–263.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Boule, N. G., Haddad, E., Kenny, G. P., Wells, G. A., & Sigal, R. J. (2001). Effects of exercise on glycemic control and body mass in type 2 diabetes mellitus: A meta-analysis of controlled clinical trials. Journal of the American Medical Association, 286, 1218–1227.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Brand-Miller, J., Petocz, P., Hayne, S., & Colagiuri, S. (2003). Low-glycemic index diets in the management of diabetes: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Diabetes Care, 26, 2261–2267.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Bronkhorst, J. (1993). The two traditions of meditation in ancient India. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.Google Scholar
  16. Brown, C. M., & McConnell, A. R. (2011). Discrepancy-based and anticipated emotions in behavioral self-regulation. Emotion, 11, 1091–1095.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Brunstein, J. C. (1993). Personal goals and subjective well-being: A longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 1061–1070.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Carter, E. C., Kofler, L. M., Forster, D. E., & McCullough, M. E. (2015). A series of meta-analytic tests of the depletion effect: Self-control does not seem to rely on a limited resource. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144, 796–815.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Chambers, E. S., Bridge, M. W., & Jones, D. A. (2009). Carbohydrate sensing in the human mouth: Effects on exercise performance and brain activity. The Journal of Physiology, 587, 1779–1794.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  20. Chow, J. T., Hui, C. M., & Lau, S. (2015). A depleted mind feels inefficacious: Ego-depletion reduces self-efficacy to exert further self-control. European Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 754–768.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Clarkson, J. J., Hirt, E. R., Jia, L., & Alexander, M. B. (2010). When perception is more than reality: The effects of perceived versus actual resource depletion on self-regulatory behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 29–46.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Cohen, G. L., Steele, C. M., & Ross, L. D. (1999). The Mentor’s Dilemma: Providing Critical Feedback Across the Racial Divide. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 1302–1318.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Deater-Deckard, K. (2014). Family matters: Intergenerational and interpersonal processes of executive function and attentive behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23, 230–236.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  24. DeWall, C. N., Baumeister, R. F., Gailliot, M. T., & Maner, J. K. (2008). Depletion makes the heart grow less helpful: Helping as a function of self-regulatory energy and genetic relatedness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1653–1662.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Diamond, A. (2012). Activities and programs that improve children’s executive functions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21, 335–341.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  26. Diener, E., Suh, E. M., Lucas, R. E., & Smith, H. L. (1999). Subjective well-being: Three decades of progress. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 276–302.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Duckworth, A. L., Grant, H., Loew, B., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2011). Self-regulation strategies improve self-discipline in adolescents: Benefits of mental contrasting and implementation intentions. Educational Psychology, 31, 17–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality and development. Philadelphia, PA: Taylor & Francis.Google Scholar
  29. Eccles, J. S. (1993). School and family effects on the ontogeny of children’s interests, self-perceptions, and activity choices. In R. Dienstbier (Series Ed.) & J. E. Jacobs (Vol. Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation: 1992. Developmental perspectives on motivation (Vol. 40, pp. 145–208). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.Google Scholar
  30. Emmons, R. A. (1986). Personal strivings: An approach to personality and subjective well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 1058–1068.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Ferguson, M. J., & Bargh, J. A. (2004). Liking is for doing: The effects of goal pursuit on automatic evaluation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 557–572.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Finkel, E. J., DeWall, C. N., Slotter, E. B., Oaten, M., & Foshee, V. A. (2009). Self-regulatory failure and intimate partner violence perpetration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 483–499.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Fischer, P., Greitemeyer, T., & Frey, D. (2008). Self-regulation and selective exposure: The impact of depleted self-regulation resources on confirmatory information processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 382–395.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Fishbach, A., Shah, J. Y., & Kruglanski, A. W. (2004). Emotional transfer in goal systems. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 723–738.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Freeman, N., Shmueli, D., & Muraven, M. (2013). Lay theories of self-control influence judgments of individuals who have failed at self-control. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43, 1418–1427.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Gailliot, M. T., & Baumeister, R. F. (2007). The physiology of willpower: Linking blood glucose to self-control. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11, 303–327.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. 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.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. Gottfredson, M. R., & Hirschi, T. (1990). A general theory of crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Gunderson, E. A., Gripshover, S. J., Romero, C., Dweck, C. S., Goldin-Meadow, S., & Levine, S. C. (2013). Parent oraise to 1-3 year-olds predicts children’s motivational frameworks 5 years later. Child Development, 84, 1526–1541.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  40. Hagger, M. S., Wood, C., Stiff, C., & Chatzisarantis, N. L. (2010). Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 495–525.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. Hagger, M. S., & Chatzisarantis, N. L. D. (2013). The sweet taste of success: The presence of glucose in the oral cavity moderates the depletion of self-control resources. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 28–42.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Haimovitz, K., & Dweck, C. S. (2016). What predicts children’s fixed and growth intelligence mind-sets? Not their parents’ views of intelligence but their parents’ views of failure. Psychological Science, 27, 859–869.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  43. Inzlicht, M., & Schmeichel, B. J. (2012). What is ego depletion? Toward a mechanistic revision of the resource model of self-control. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7, 450–463.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. Inzlicht, M., Schmeichel, B. J., & Macrae, C. N. (2014). Why self-control seems (but may not be) limited. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18, 127–133.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. Inzlicht, M., McKay, L., & Aronson, J. (2006). Stigma as ego depletion: How being the target of prejudice affects self-control. Psychological Science, 17, 262–269.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. Job, V., Bernecker, K., Miketta, S., & Friese, M. (2015). Implicit theories about willpower predict the activation of a rest goal following self-control exertion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109, 694–706.Google Scholar
  47. Job, V., Dweck, C. S., & Walton, G. M. (2010). Ego depletion—Is it all in your head? Implicit theories about willpower affect self-regulation. Psychological Science, 21, 1686–1693.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. Job, V., Flückiger, L., Bernecker, K., Lieb, R. & Mata, J. (2017). An implicit theories about willpower intervention helps students to deal with demands: Effects on academic self-regulation and grades. Manuscript in preparation. Google Scholar
  49. Job, V., Walton, G. M., Bernecker, K., & Dweck, C. S. (2013). Beliefs about willpower determine the impact of glucose on self-control. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110, 14837–14842.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Job, V., Walton, G. M., Bernecker, K., & Dweck, C. S. (2015). Implicit theories about willpower predict self-regulation and grades in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108, 637–647.Google Scholar
  51. Klinger, E. (1977). Meaning and void: Inner experience and the incentive in people’s lives. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  52. Kringelbach, M. L. (2004). Food for thought: Hedonic experience beyond homeostasis in the human brain. Neuroscience, 126, 807–819.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  53. Kurzban, R. (2010). Does the brain consume additional glucose during self-control tasks? Evolutionary Psychology, 8, 244–259.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  54. Larson, R. W., & Verma, S. (1999). How children and adolescents spend time across the world: Work, play, and developmental opportunities. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 701–736.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  55. Lepper, M. R., Woolverton, M., Mumme, D. L., & Gurtner, J. (1993). Motivational techniques of expert human tutors: Lessons for the design of computer-based tutors. In S. P. Lajoie & S. J. Derry (Eds.), Computers as cognitive tools (pp. 75–105). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  56. Little, B. (1983). Personal projects: A rationale and method for investigation. Environment and Behavior, 15, 273–309.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Loschelder, D. D., & Friese, M. (2016). Moderators of the ego depletion effect. In E. R. Hirt, J. J. Clarkson, & L. Jia (Eds.), Self-regulation and ego control (pp. 21–42). San Diego, CA: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  58. Maier, G. W., & Brunstein, J. C. (2001). The role of personal work goals in newcomers’ job satisfaction and organizational commitment: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 1034–1042.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  59. Masicampo, E. J., Martin, S. R., & Anderson, R. A. (2014). Understanding and overcoming self-control depletion. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 8, 638–649.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Martijn, C., Tenbült, P., Merckelbach, H., Dreezens, E., & De Vries, N. K. (2002). Getting a grip on ourselves: Challenging expectancies about loss of energy after self-control. Social Cognition, 20, 441–460.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Miller, E. M., Walton, G. M., Dweck, C. S., Job, V., Trzesniewski, K. H., & McClure, S. M. (2012). Theories of willpower affect sustained learning. PLoS ONE, 7, e38680.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  62. Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. I. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244, 933–938.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  63. Moffitt, T. E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R. J., & Harrington, H. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 2693–2698.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Molden, D. C., Hui, C. M., Scholer, A. A., Meier, B. P., Noreen, E. E., D’Agostino, P. R., et al. (2012). Motivational versus metabolic effects of carbohydrates on self-control. Psychological Science, 23, 1137–1144.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  65. Moller, A. C., Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2006). Choice and ego-depletion: The moderating role of autonomy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 1024–1036.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  66. Mosher, L. (2005). Praying: The Rituals of Faith (Vol. 2). New York, NY: Seabury Books.Google Scholar
  67. Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33–52.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  68. Mukhopadhyay, A., & Johar, G. V. (2005). Where there is a will, is there a way? Effects of lay theories of self-control on setting and keeping resolutions. Journal of Consumer Research, 31, 779–786.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Mukhopadhyay, A., & Yeung, C. W. (2010). Building character: Effects of lay theories of self-control on the selection of products for children. Journal of Marketing Research, 47, 240–250.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Muraven, M., Shmueli, D., & Burkley, E. (2006). Conserving self-control strength. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 524–537.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  71. Muraven, M., & Slessareva, E. (2003). Mechanisms of self-control failure: Motivation and limited resources. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 894–906.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  72. Muraven, M., Tice, D. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Self-control as limited resource: Regulatory depletion patterns. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 774–789.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  73. Olson, K. R., & Dweck, C. S. (2008). A blueprint for social cognitive development. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 193–202.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  74. Paunesku, D., Walton, G. M., Romero, C., Smith, E. N., Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2015). Mind-set interventions are a scalable treatment for academic underachievement. Psychological Science, 26, 784–793.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  75. Salmon, S. J., Adriaanse, M. A., De Vet, E., Fennis, B. M., & De Ridder, D. T. D. (2014). “When the going gets tough, who keeps going?” Depletion sensitivity moderates the ego-depletion effect. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 647.PubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  76. Sanders, M. A., Shirk, S. D., Burgin, C. J., & Martin, L. L. (2012). The gargle effect: Rinsing the mouth with glucose enhances self-control. Psychological Science, 23, 1470–1472.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  77. Savani, K., & Job, V. (in press). Is ego-depletion a cultural phenomenon? Acts of self-control improve subsequent performance in cultures in which willpower exertion is believed to be energizing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Google Scholar
  78. Schmeichel, B. J., Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (2003). Intellectual performance and ego depletion: Role of the self in logical reasoning and other information processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 33–64.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  79. Silvia, P. J., & Gendolla, G. H. E. (2001). On introspection and self- perception: Does self-focused attention enable accurate self-knowledge? Review of General Psychology, 5, 241–269.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Simpkins, S. D., Fredricks, J. A., & Eccles, J. S. (2012). Charting the Eccles’ expectancy-value model from mothers’ beliefs in childhood to youths’ activities in adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 48, 1019–1032.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  81. Tangney, J. P., Baumeister, R. F., & Boone, A. L. (2004). High self-control predicts good adjustment, less pathology, better grades, and interpersonal success. Journal of Personality, 72, 271–324.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  82. Tice, D., Baumeister, R., Shmueli, D., & Muraven, M. (2007). Restoring the self: Positive affect helps improve self-regulation following ego depletion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 379–384.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Valiente, C., Lemery-Chalfant, K., & Reiser, M. (2007). Pathways to problem behaviors: Chaotic homes, parent and child effortful control, and parenting. Social Development, 16, 249–267.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Verma, S., Sharma, D., & Larson, R. W. (2002). School stress in India: Effects on time and daily emotions. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 26, 500–508.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F., & Ciarocco, N. J. (2005). Self-regulation and self-presentation: Regulatory resource depletion impairs impression management and effortful self-presentation depletes regulatory resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 632–657.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  86. Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F., & Schmeichel, B. J. (2012). Motivation, personal beliefs, and limited resources all contribute to self-control. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 943–947.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Vohs, K. D., & Faber, R. J. (2007). Spent resources: Self-regulatory resources availability affects impulse buying. Journal of Consumer Research, 33, 537–547.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Walsh, R., & Shapiro, S. L. (2006). The meeting of meditative disciplines and Western psychology: A mutually enriching dialogue. American Psychologist, 61, 227–239.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  89. Webb, T. L., & Sheeran, P. (2003). Can implementation intentions help to overcome ego-depletion? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 53, 5–13.Google Scholar
  90. Wilson, T. D., & Dunn, E. W. (2004). Self-knowledge: Its limits, value, and potential for improvement. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 493–518.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  91. Yeager, D. S., Romero, C., Paunesku, D., Hulleman, C. S., Schneider, B., Hinojosa, C., et al. (2016). Using design thinking to improve psychological interventions: The case of the growth mindset during the transition to high school. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108, 374–391.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  92. Yeager, D. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2013). An implicit theories of personality intervention reduces adolescent aggression in response to victimization and exclusion. Child Development, 84, 970–988.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  93. Yeager, D. S., & Walton, G. M. (2011). Social-psychological interventions in education: They’re not magic. Review of Educational Research, 81, 267–301.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of ZurichZurichSwitzerland
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyStanford UniversityStanfordUSA

Personalised recommendations