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Self-regulation is one of the principal functions of the human self, and it consists of processes by which the self manages its own states and actions so as to pursue goals, conform to ideals and other standards, and maintain or achieve desired inner states. Many experts use self-regulation interchangeably with the everyday term self-control, although some invoke subtle distinctions such as restricting self-control to refer to resisting temptation and stiﬂing impulses.
1. Scope Of Self-Regulation
Most knowledge about self-regulation can be grouped into four bro-Advand one narrower category. The most familiar is undoubtedly impulse control, which refers to regulating one’s behavior so as not to carry out motivated acts that could have harmful or undesirable consequences. Dieting, responsible sexual behavior, recovery from addiction, and control of aggression all fall in the category of impulse control.
A second category is aﬀect regulation, or the control of emotions. The most common form of this is the attempt to bring oneself out of a bad mood or bring an end to emotional distress. In principle, however, aﬀect regulation can refer to any attempt to alter any mood or emotion, including all attempts to induce, end, or prolong either positive or negative emotions. Aﬀect regulation is widely regarded as the most diﬃcult and problematic of the major spheres, because most people cannot change their moods and emotions by direct control or act of will, and so people must rely on indirect strategies, which are often ineﬀective.
The third category is the control of thought. This includes eﬀorts to stiﬂe unwanted ideas or to concentrate on a particular line of thought. It can also encompass eﬀorts to direct reasoning and inference processes, such as in trying to make a convincing case for a predetermined conclusion or to think an issue carefully through so as to reach an accurate judgment.
The fourth major category is performance regulation. Eﬀective performance often requires self-regulation, which may include making oneself put forth extra eﬀort or persevere (especially in the face of failure), avoid choking under pressure, and make optimal tradeoﬀs between speed and accuracy.
A narrower category of self-regulation involves superordinate regulation, which is sometimes called self-management. These processes cut across others and involve managing one’s life so as to aﬀord promising opportunities. Choosing challenges or tasks (such as college courses) that are appropriately suited to one’s talents, avoiding situations that bring hard- to-resist temptations, and conserving one’s resources during stressful periods fall in this category.
2. Importance Of Self-Regulation
The pragmatic importance of self-regulation can scarcely be understated. Indeed, most of the personal and social problems aﬄicting citizens of modern, highly developed countries involve some degree of failure at self-control. These problems include drug and alcohol abuse, addiction, venereal disease, unwanted pregnancy, violence, gambling, school failure and dropping out, eating disorders, drunk driving, poor physical ﬁtness, failure to save money, excessive spending and debt, child abuse, and behavioral binge patterns. Experts regularly notify people that they could live longer, healthier lives if they would only quit smoking, eat right, and exercise regularly, but people consistently fail to regulate themselves suﬃciently in those three areas. Longitudinal research has conﬁrmed the enduring beneﬁts of self-regulation. Mischel and his colleagues (e.g., Mischel 1996) found that children who were better able to exercise self-control (in the form of resisting temptation and delaying gratiﬁcation) at age 4 years were more successful socially and academically over a decade later. Thus, these regulatory competencies appear to be stable and to yield positive beneﬁts in multiple spheres over long periods of time. Self-regulation enables people to resist urges for immediate gratiﬁcation and adaptively pursue their enlightened self-interest in the form of long-term goals.
Self-regulation also has considerable theoretical importance. As one of the self’s most important and adaptive functions, self-regulation is central to the eﬀective functioning of the entire personality. The processes by which the self controls itself oﬀer important insights into how the self is structured and it operates. Higgins (1996) has analyzed the ‘sovereignty of self-regulation,’ by which he means that self-regulation is the master or supreme function of the self.
3. Feedback Loops
Psychologists have borrowed important insights from cybernetic theory to explain self-regulatory processes (e.g., Powers 1973). The inﬂuential work by Carver and Scheier (1981, 1982, 1998) analyzed self-awareness and self-regulation processes in terms of feedback loops that control behavior. In any system (including mechanical ones such as thermostats for heating cooling systems), control processes depend on monitoring current status, comparing it with goals or standards, and initiating changes where necessary.
The basic form of a feedback loop is summarized in the acronym TOTE, which stands for test, operate, test, exit. The test phase involves assessing the current status and comparing it with the goals or ideals. If the comparison yields a discrepancy, some operation is initiated that is designed to remedy the deﬁcit and bring the status into line with what is desired. Repeated tests are performed at intervals during the operation so as to gauge the progress toward the goals. When a test reveals that the desired state has been reached, the ﬁnal (exit) step is enacted, and the regulatory process is ended.
Feedback loops do not necessarily exist in isolation, of course. Carver and Scheier (1981, 1982) explained that people may have hierarchies of such loops. At a particular moment, a person’s actions may form part of the pursuit of long-term goals (such as having a successful career), medium-term goals (such as doing well in courses that will furnish qualiﬁcations for that career), and short-term goals (such as persisting to ﬁnish a particular assignment in such a course). Once a given feedback loop is exited, indicating the successful completion of a short-term act of self-regulation (e.g., ﬁnishing the assignment), the person may revert back to aiming at the long-term goals.
Emotion plays a central role in the operation of the feedback loop (Carver and Scheier 1998). Naturally, reaching a goal typically brings positive emotions, but such pleasant feelings may also arise simply from making suitable progress toward the goal. Thus, emotion may arise from the rate of change of discrepancy between the current state and the goal or standard. Meanwhile, negative emotions may arise not only when things get worse but also simply when one stands still and thereby fails to make progress. Carver and Scheier (1998) phrase this as a ‘cruise control’ theory of aﬀect and self-regulation, invoking the analogy to an automobile’s cruise control mechanism. Like that mechanism, emotion kicks in to regulate the process whenever the speed deviates from the prescribed rate of progress toward the goal.
Although this analysis has emphasized feedback loops that seek to reduce discrepancies between real and ideal circumstances, there are also ‘negative feedback loops’ in which the goal is to increase the discrepancy between oneself and some standard. For example, people may seek to increase the discrepancy between themselves and the average person.
4. Self-Regulation Failure
Two main types of self-regulatory failure have been identiﬁed (for a review, see Baumeister et al. 1994). The more common is underregulation, in which the person fails to exert the requisite self-control. For example, the person may give in to temptation or give up prematurely at a task. The other category is misregulation, in which person exerts control over self but does so in some counterproductive manner so that the desired result is thwarted.
Several common themes and factors have been identiﬁed in connection with underregulation. One is a failure to monitor the self, which prevents the feedback loop from functioning. Thus, successful dieters often count their calories and keep track of everything they eat. When they cease to monitor how much they eat, such as when watching television or when distracted by emotional distress, they may eat much more without realizing it.
Alcohol contributes to almost every known pattern of self-control failure, including impulsive violence, overeating, smoking, gambling and spending, and emotional excess. This pervasive eﬀect probably occurs because alcohol reduces people’s attention to self and thereby impairs their ability to monitor their own behavior (see Hull 1981). Emotional distress likewise contributes to underregulation, and although there are multiple pathways by which it produces this eﬀect, one of them is undoubtedly impairment of the self-monitoring feedback loop.
A perennial question is whether underregulation occurs because the self is weak or because the impulse is too strong. The latter invokes the concept of ‘irresistible impulses,’ which is popular with defense lawyers and addicts hoping to imply that no person could have resisted the problematic urge. After reviewing the evidence, Baumeister et al. (1994) concluded that most instances of underregulation involve some degree of acquiescence by the individual, contrary to the image of a valiant person being overwhelmed by an irresistible impulse. For example, during a drinking binge, the person will actively participate in procuring and consuming alcohol, which contradicts claims of having lost control of behavior and being passively victimized by the addiction. Yet clearly people would prefer to resist these failures and so at some level do experience them as against their will. Self-deception and inner conﬂict undoubtedly contribute to muddying the theoretical waters. At present, then, the relative contributions of powerful impulses and weak or acquiescent self-control have not been fully understood, except to indicate that both seem to play some role.
Misregulation typically involves some erroneous understanding of how self and world interact. In one familiar example, sad or depressed people may consume alcohol in the expectation that it will make them feel better, when in fact alcohol is a depressant that often makes them feel even worse. The strategy therefore backﬁres. By the same token, when under pressure, people may increase their attention to their own performance processes, under the assumption that this extra care will improve performance, but such attention can disrupt the smooth execution of skills, causing what is commonly described as ‘choking under pressure.’
5. Strength And Depletion
The successful operation of the feedback loop depends on the ‘operate’ stage, in which the person actually changes the self so as to bring about the desired result. Recent work suggests that these operations involve a limited resource akin to energy or strength. The traditional concept of ‘willpower’ thus is being revived in psychological theory.
Willpower appears to be a limited resource that is depleted when people exert self-control. In laboratory studies, if people perform one act of self-regulation, they seem to be impaired afterwards. For example, after resisting the temptation to eat forbidden chocolates, people are less able to make themselves keep trying on a diﬃcult, frustrating task (Baumeister et al. 1998). Whenever there are multiple demands on self-regulation, performance gradually deteriorates and afterwards the self appears to suﬀer from depletion of resources (Muraven and Baumeister 2000).
Although the nature of this resource is not known, several important conclusions about it are available. First, it appears that the same strength or energy is used for many diﬀerent acts of self-regulation, as opposed to each sphere of self-control using a diﬀerent facility. Trying to quit smoking or keep a diet may therefore impair a person’s ability to persist at work tasks or to maintain control over emotions. Second, the resource is suﬃciently limited that even small exertions cause some degree of depletion. These eﬀects do not necessarily imply pending exhaustion; rather, people conserve their resources when partly depleted. Third, the resource is also used for making decisions and choices, taking responsibility, and exercising initiative. Fourth, there is some evidence that willpower can be increased by regular exercise of self-control. Fifth, rest and sleep seem to be eﬀective at replenishing the resource.
The eﬀects of ego depletion provide yet another insight into self-control failure. This helps explain the familiar observation that self-control tends to deteriorate when people are working under stress or pressure, because they are expending their resources to coping with the stress and therefore have less available for other regulatory tasks.
6. Ironic Processes
Another contribution to understanding self-regulatory failure invokes the notion of diﬀerent mental processes that can work at cross-purposes. Wegner (1994) proposed that eﬀective self-regulation involves both a monitoring process, which remains vigilant for threat or danger (including, for example, the temptation to do something forbidden), and an operating process, which compels the self to act in the desirable fashion. When the monitoring process detects a threat, the operating process helps to prevent disaster, such as when the dieter refuses the oﬀer of dessert. Unfortunately, the monitoring process is generally more automatic than the operating process, so the monitor may continue to notice temptations or other threats even when the operating process is not working. Upon completion of a diet, for example, the dieter may stop saying no to all tempting foods, but the monitoring process continues to draw attention to every delicious morsel that becomes available, so that the person feels constantly tempted to eat. Likewise, when people are tired or depleted, the monitoring system may continue to seek out troublesome stimuli, with disastrous results.
Eﬀective self-regulation depends on three ingredients. First, one must have clear and unconﬂicting standards, such as clear goals or ideals. Second, one must monitor the self consistently, such as by keeping track of behavior. Third, one must have the wherewithal to produce the necessary changes in oneself, and that may include willpower (for direct change) or knowledge of eﬀective strategies (for indirect eﬀorts, such as for changing emotions). Problems in any area can impair self-regulation.
Several areas for future research on self-regulation are promising. The nature of the psychological resource that is expended must be clariﬁed, and brain processes may shed valuable light on how self-regulation works. Interpersonal aspects of self-regulation need to be explicated. The replenishment of depleted resources will also help elucidate the nature of self-control in addition to being of interest in their own right. Individual diﬀerences in self-regulation and developmental processes for acquiring self-control need considerably more study. Applications to clinical, industrial, and relationship phenomena need to be examined.
Eﬀective self-regulation includes the ability to adapt oneself to diverse circumstances. It is a vital aspect of human success in life.
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