The Strength Model of Self-Control
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | December 31, 2020
The strength model of self-control theorizes that willpower is a limited resource. When we use self-control, strength depletes and we are susceptible to lapses.
At the heart of self-determined action lies a belief in freedom to govern behavior, delaying gratification by resisting impulses in service to distant goals. However, human behavior has baffled psychologist, philosophers, and dreamers throughout human history. We desire, plan, and then fail. Our self-control lapses and stupidity destroy dreams. We trade fabulous futures for mediocre presents. One popular theory explains the dumbfounding lapses to the weakening of self-control. The research compares willpower (self-control) to a muscle that tires with extended use. Fatigue of the self-control ‘muscle,’ they explain, is a depletion of cognitive resources, a process coined “ego depletion” by Roy F. Baumeister during the 1990’s. The strength model of self-control suggests that if we strengthen this muscle, we drain resources at a slower rate.
Self-control is a foundational principal behind goal attainment. Two primary qualities predict successful goal fulfillment. The traits are knowledge and self-control. If we don’t know what needs to be done, no matter how motivated, our actions may fail. We run fast but in the wrong direction. Conversely, even if we know how to get to where we want but then fail to act, we still never arrive. Knowledge and motivation (sprinkled with some luck) work together to fulfill conscious and unconscious goals.
I ran track in high school. My race was the 800 meter. The first track meet of my senior year I set a goal to finish the race four seconds faster than my best time. I trained hard. I practiced the race in my head, knowing the exact splits needed to achieve my goal. The first 600 meters went exactly as planned. However, when it came time to sprint to the finish, I had nothing left. My energy was completely depleted. Perhaps it was a willpower thing. I could have fought through the pain, sprinted, and achieved my goal. Or, maybe, it was a physical thing. My body just couldn’t do it.
Like the race, success balances on many factors—preparation, reasonableness of the goal, external conditions, and of course, willpower.
Importance of Self-Control in Traditional Psychology
Lack of self-control correlates with many (if not most) major life problems—personal and social. Compulsive spending, underachievement, procrastination, alcohol and drug abuse, unhealthy diets, lack of exercise, chronic anxiety, and explosive anger (Baumeister and Tierney, 2012, location 72). Self-control theories fit nicely with Albert Ellis’s writings on frustration intolerance—a trait that Ellis describes as being at the center of all maladaptive behaviors. We need self-control to regulate frustrations to persevere towards hopeful outcomes.
See Frustration Tolerance for more on this topic.
Self-control is important. However, self-control is not the only factor. Our strength of will is only a small sliver of the exceptionally large pie of human motivation. Social scientists look to notable causes of misbehavior outside the individual—poverty, deprivation, oppression, lack of opportunity, and other economic and political environments.
Behavioral biologists incorporate inherited traits into the mix. A study of soldiers resistant to Post-traumatic stress discovered that their brain reward systems were resilient to stress and adversity. “Perhaps, people who are resilient tend to have a dopamine reward system that is relatively resistant to dopamine depletion and that functions well even under highly stressful conditions (Southwick, 2018, location 1587). We often judge self-control as an ethical trait that ‘good’ people have, and ‘bad’ people don’t. These simple judgements ignorantly miss the biological and environmental building blocks that lie beyond a person’s control.
Ego strength theories are delightfully simple, backed with a plethora of supporting research. However, a person’s character shouldn’t be judged using the narrow vision of the strength model, ignoring other factors that contribute to development of self-control. We can learn from ego-depletion studies. They provide valuable insights. But when done looking through the self-control lens, we must integrate these findings into a comprehensive whole that includes other biological and environmental factors.
In a 2019 paper, researchers considered the limitations of ego-depletion theories and concluded, “we do not believe that research on short-term limitations of self-control should be completely abandoned” (Wenzel et al. 2019). Ego-depletion theories provides insights on short term limitations of self-control that expands understanding and assists in our own perseverance towards goal fulfillment.
What is Ego Depletion?
Ego depletion theorizes that willpower is a limited resource. Cognitive demands draw from the well, eventually depleting energy. In a depleted state, we are weakened, lacking strength to resist temptations or pursue difficult goals.
What Depleted the Ego (Cognitive Resources)?
Behavioral, cognitive, and biological demands deplete strength. Biologically: scientists found that low blood sugar levels, heart variance and hormones contribute to depletion. Cognitively: there are correlations between ego depletion and cognitive dissonance, emotional distress, suppressing emotions, and unfamiliar environments. Behaviorally: performing difficult goal directed behaviors and resisting temptations draw from ego strength. Basically, performing acts of self-control deplete ego strength.
How Does Ego Depletion Impact Flourishing?
Ego depletion has a significant impact on wellness. A worn down system does not flourish. Life demands energy. When energy is depleted, we falter. Unrelenting stress (chronic stress) that overwhelms our systems robs strength that could be otherwise used for development. Future oriented goals shift down in priority, and immediate rewards appear attractive. This has survival value. However, constant states of present focused rewards lead to both physical and psychological damage.
When we act from depleted states over long periods of time, we borrow against the future. Habitually depleted is serious, causing long lasting damage.
See Burnout for more on this topic.
When depleted, we hurt important relationships. Healthy connection demands energy. Strong relationships are a distant goal, something we slowly strengthen through giving attention, appreciation, and acceptance. The rewards are not immediate. However, these behaviors forge bonds of closeness. Nurturing these traits has an immediate cost with a future benefit. Sadly, when depleted, we say and do things that hurt those we love. Baumeister and Tierney discovered that “people with good self-control seemed exceptionally good at forming and maintaining secure satisfying attachments to other people” (2012, location 220). Good self-control, such as Baumeister and Tierney suggest is necessary for relationships, requires budgeting energy for relationship building behaviors. Close relationships shouldn’t move to the bottom when the ego is depleted.
Decision Making Challenged:
Wisdom is a casualty of over-taxed systems. Our cognitive skills deteriorate. During a particularly demanding stretch in my life, I routinely couldn’t decide what to eat for dinner. In exhaustion, I just couldn’t compute simple options. A choice of beef or chicken has little impact on long term wellness. Unfortunately, many other decisions do. We often regret decisions made while exhausted. When we come to our senses, we must deal with the fallout from poor choices.
Researchers suggest that we experience decision fatigue when obliged to make several decisions within short time spans. We get more fatigued with each consecutive decision. Decision fatigue is “a state that leaves us with two courses of action: 1) we make careless choices or 2) we surrender to the status quo and do nothing” (Goldsmith and Reiter, 2015, location 2623).
Demanding tasks performed during depletion suffer. Most of us are acquainted with this. We tire and start making mistakes.
We are more susceptible to temptations when depleted. We lack self-control to resist. Addictions, sexual improprieties, and goal failures happen here.
We prevent depletion through conserving and replenishing
How do we conserve cognitive resources?
Healthy relationships add to our strength, sharing physical and emotional loads. Others can soothe emotions when we are upset, share work responsibilities, and provide acceptance and security. Conversely, some relationships add to our stress. We must manage time with the people that demand more than they give. We can help, lift, and support but must balance draining interactions with rejuvenating relationships. The dividends of healthy relationships pay far more than our investments of time and energy.
Effective Structure and Habits
Organizing our life into digestible and habitual pieces relieves demands. Habits become automatic, requiring less thought, creating connections in our brain that fire more efficiently (myelinization). Habitual behaviors require less resources. Structure works in a similar way. Without structure, every decision is a deliberate process, quickly exhausting resources that could have been preserved for more significant actions.
Myelinization is the development of a myelin sheath (a fatty coating) around a nerve fiber.” Messages from the brain travelling through myelinated connections move faster, delivering information with a smaller energy cost.
Possessing Purpose and Passion
When we have internal motivation to act, we smoothly accomplish tasks. Purpose diminishes the need for self-discipline. We do things because we are internally driven to do them. Our efforts are self-sustaining. Passionate engagements create states of flow—time, effort and environments disappear. Passionate work often rejuvenates more than depletes.
In the timeless work of Edward E. Deci and Richard Flaste in their book, Why We Do What We Do, explain that, “intrinsic motivation is an aspect that is almost spiritual. It has to do with the feeling itself: It is vitality, dedication, transcendence.” They continue, “’flow’ when time seems to collapse and disappear, when intensity in the process takes over and the thrill is so great that one hates seeing it end and can’t wait to get back to it” (1996, p. 45).
See Passionate Purpose
Moods matter. Depression and anxiety harm motivation. Low moods apply the brakes, warning of impending doom. Effort to perform ordinary tasks is more taxing. Getting up for work, making dinner, or talking to co-workers demands extra resources. We can combat debilitating or interfering moods with medication, therapy, healthy relationships, and a host of other healing activities. The key is that we recognize that our mood is interfering, increasing a drain on energy. We must adjust, lightening our loads and attend to the emotion.
For more on this topic see Moods: Coloring Our World
Having a Positive Outlook
A positive outlook relieves demands by redefining experience. When life is experienced as one tragedy after another, we quickly deplete. The magnitude of a tragedy is a subjective interpretation. We create narratives surrounding events that either magnify or lighten the seriousness. With a positive outlook, we conserve energy by not catastrophizing over small disappointments.
For more on this topic see Realistic Optimism
How Do We Replenish Resources?
We replenish resources through the basics. We get enough sleep, eat balanced meals, and exercise. A healthy body contributes to a healthy mind. We can add rejuvenating practices of meditation or prayer, enjoyable hobbies, and soothing mindfulness.
C. Richard Snyder wrote, “one of the potential ways prayer enhances the religious person’s sense of mental energy is through a recharging of the mind and body. This is also true for people who are not necessarily religious but practice meditation. In the process of becoming quiet and clearing the mind of other thoughts, the praying (or meditating) person shuts off the draining processes associated with attending to various daily stressors” (2003, location 1046).
A flourishing life is more than just powering up the body to survive daily stressors. We also need joy, pleasure, and purpose. By adding joy, pleasure and purpose we strengthen our resilience.
Although self-care is a new buzz word, the concept is not. We must care for our bodies and minds. A lifetime of stress breaks down our spirit. Our bodies weaken and we succumb to disease and addictions. We must consistently engage in practiced self-care. Attention to our wellness repairs damage, heals wounds, and recharges ego strength.
Ego-depletion and the strength model recently have come under fire. There is scientific backing to some of the opposition. Most likely, self-control isn’t a separate system and there is no self-control muscle. Our biological wiring is intertwined, borrowing from many areas of brain and body. Recent studies suggest that strengthening self-discipline in one area doesn’t necessarily improve self-discipline in other key areas. These findings, perhaps, suggest that rather than strengthening a self-control muscle, subjects are developing skills to perform better in a particular area (Doebel, 2020).
See Delay of Gratification for more on this topic.
While some of the particulars of the theory are debatable, many fundamental pieces remain intact. We do tire and shift priorities. Our bodies budget energy, conserving strength to respond to predictions of future needs. While energy for self-control may not be delegated to an independent system, energy is still a limited resources. Cognitive and physical demands draw from the same well, depleting resources and limiting strength. When depleted, our goals shift, giving priority to less distal objectives. Our cognitive involvement in decisions diminishes when tired, allowing the speedier feeling affects to guide. We default to dominant urges (Emotional Guidance System). Shifting how we process experience is an adaptive process with blessings and curses. Great when thoughts vacate, and we jump out of the way of the speeding car; bad when we forget long term goals and spontaneously and destructively act in the moment.
The lesson that ego-depletion teaches is relevant. We should honor energy through conservation and rejuvenation. Taking care of our bodies and minds is an essential practice for flourishing. By adopting healthy practices of self-care, we slow depletion, preventing an ego depleted state where self-control lapses and consequences hurt our futures.
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Deci, E. L.; Flaste, R. (1996) Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation. Penguin Books; Reprint edition
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Snyder, C. R. (2003) Psychology of Hope: You Can Get Here from There. Free Press
Southwick, S. M. (2018) Resilience (The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges). Cambridge University Press; 2nd edition
Vohs, K., Glass, B., Maddox, W., & Markman, A. (2011). Ego Depletion Is Not Just Fatigue. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(2), 166-173.
Wenzel, M., Lind, M., Rowland, Z., Zahn, D., & Kubiak, T. (2019). The Limits of Ego Depletion. Social Psychology, 50(5-6), 292-304.