The Philosophy and Science of Self-Control


The philosophical project of understanding self-control has its roots in ancient efforts to explain intentional actions. In De Motu Animalium (701a7-8), Aristotle asks: “How does it happen that thinking is sometimes followed by action and sometimes not, sometimes by motion, sometimes not?” A proper answer requires understanding, among other things, how it happens that we sometimes act in accordance with our deliberative better judgments and sometimes fail to do so, pursuing instead courses of action at odds with those judgments. The Philosophy and Science of Self-Control (PSSC) project aims to support research that bears on this issue and the topic of self-control in general.

The chief aim of this project is to provide incentives and opportunities for collaborative philosophical and scientific research on self-control. The goal of fostering this collaboration is to improve our knowledge of self-control and how to enhance it, in part by developing a more integrated and complete understanding of the topic.  Similar collaboration among scientists and philosophers has been a fruitful strategy for tackling other topics in recent years, such as the scientific and philosophical work on free will and moral judgment that has issued from such collaboration.  This project aims for the same kind of progress for work on self-control.

Central to the project is a set of funding competitions to support informed and collaborative research on self-control in science and philosophy. Other components include two conferences, a summer seminar, a cluster grant program, and post-doctoral fellowship opportunities.

The funding competitions support research along two dimensions:

Dimension 1: Philosophy of Self-Control

In philosophy, questions about self-control are important for debates about action explanation, the power of intentions, mental causation, agency, free will, and moral responsibility.  See the list below for some sample questions.

Dimension 2: Integrated Science and Philosophy of Self-Control

Controlled studies are directly relevant to important questions about self-control.  Both philosophers and scientists from such fields as neuroscience and social psychology rely on hard evidence to explore questions such as those that appear below.

Sample Questions:

1. What overarching theory or theories best organize and explain the range of phenomena addressed in the contemporary scientific literature on self-control?  Sub-questions include the following:

  •  Investigations of self-control employ such terms as “self-regulation,” “willpower,” “inhibition,” “executive function,” “working memory,” “goal-setting,” and “planning,” among others.  How are these phenomena related to each other? What are the most plausible theoretical frameworks for integrating these phenomena, and how might we arbitrate empirically between competing frameworks?
  • People appear to exercise self-control regarding a range of things, e.g., desires, urges, emotions, habits, motoric responses, thoughts, memories, attention, and more. How should we understand the relationship between exercises of self-control across these various domains? Is there a unified mechanism or faculty that subserves control in all these domains, or are there multiple distinct self-control mechanisms? If the latter, in what ways might these distinct mechanisms be linked?

2. Self-control is often understood to involve a conflict between automatic and effortless processing, on the one hand, and deliberate and effortful processing on the other.  On this construal, certain impulses manifest themselves in behavior unless the person exercises self-control by inhibiting the impulse through more deliberative thought.  Are there cases of self-control (or failure to exercise self-control) that show this model to be deficient? If so, what are these cases? Can the model be improved to handle these other cases, and if so, how? Similarly, self-control is frequently characterized as the process of choosing to act so as to sacrifice smaller and proximal gains for the sake of larger, distal rewards.  As before: Are there cases of self-control (or failure to exercise self-control) that show this model to be deficient?  If so, what are these cases, and can the model be revised to incorporate them?

3. Do at least certain kinds of self-control draw upon a resource that can be depleted and replenished in the short-term, and strengthened by long-term use? Much contemporary research suggests that this is true, hence the name for the phenomenon, “ego depletion.” But there are challenges to this view. Can these challenges be met? Suppose they can: Can this resource be understood in careful, nonmetaphorical detail?

4. Exercises of self-control appear sometimes to take the form of maintaining resolutions to perform or avoid certain kinds of behavior.  Maintenance of such resolutions, in turn, seems to require that we not revise these resolutions inappropriately.  If this is correct, how might we improve our ability to maintain such resolutions; in particular, how might we improve our ability to avoid reconsidering resolutions we have made (which improvement might include an enhanced ability to distract ourselves)?

5. How ought we to understand, and how can we enhance, self-control of the sort that requires implementation over long periods of time? Relevant sub-questions here include the following:

  • Some recent research has focused on anticipatory actions such as avoiding problems and developing good work habits. Rather than relying on willpower to resist temptation when it occurs, one can prepare in advance to avoid temptations. How do these processes work? And are people that we tend to characterize as having high self-control more likely to display control in this sense instead of the kind of control manifested in cases of overcoming temptation?
  • Are there distinct stages that characterize the behavior of self-controlled people? If so: What are these stages? (For example, might success on this front best be characterized as including both effective goal-setting and effective goal-striving?) How can people improve in each of these stages? Might strategies that effectively enhance one stage be detrimental to another? What techniques are most successful in improving self-control overall, i.e., in enhancing each of the stages so as to maximize overall self-control?
  • Researchers have introduced the construct of intentional self-regulation (ISR), which encompasses more than self-governance constructs like soft skills, impulse control, delay of gratification, and grit; ISR involves selecting and managing positive and important life goals, using strategies for obtaining the resources for engaging in the executive functions required to optimize the chances of reaching selected goals, and having the ability to compensate effectively in the face of failure or of a blocked or lost goal.  How might work on ISR be extended and enhanced? For example, what inter-individual differences exist (and what are the bases for these differences) in the system of relationships among ISR, ecological assets, thriving, and risk/problem behaviors? What assets, for individuals of what characteristics or backgrounds, are linked to positive human development in the face of particular facets of ISR? How do individuals’ scores for ISR and their level of thriving relate to the scores of others in their social networks, such as mentors or peers?
  • There is evidence that people can intentionally modify some of their dispositions (or “emotional styles”) in ways that enhance control in the long-term, for example, in becoming more resilient or more attentive.  Are there additional ways, not yet discovered, in which people can improve and thereby enhance their self-control in similar ways? If so, what techniques are best suited to enhancing these kinds of control?

6. What underlying trait or traits best explain (at least in part) the reliable personality differences in self-control between individuals?

7. Are there hitherto underexplored factors that are relevant to understanding self-control and its exercise? If so, how might these factors be relevant? (Such factors may include, but need not be limited to, stress, context, first-person perspective, “hot” and “cool” representations of the objects of desire and how they are generated, the resistance or modification of “reflective” desires (as opposed to the resistance of habit-based desires so as to satisfy reflective desires), etc.

8. How can measures and methods for investigating self-control be improved?

  • As above, perhaps some self-controlled people do not (primarily) use effortful inhibition of automatic impulses as a means of promoting self-control. They may instead use alternative means of self-control, such as pre-commitment and cognitive counter-active mechanisms. Although there are numerous measures of inhibition, less has been done to develop and validate appropriate methods and tools to assess these alternative means (assuming they are employed).  What are some effective methods and tools for doing so?
  • What methodological innovations might be used to further work on ISR (explained above)? Much of the work on ISR has been through the SOC (selection, optimization, compensation) questionnaire, and such work would presumably benefit from investigation via ecological or experimental observations, interviews, expert ratings, etc.

9. How might a more sophisticated understanding of self-control illuminate potentially related concepts such as free will, agency, reductionism, the self, etc.? And how might beliefs about the latter phenomena influence the degree and kind of self-control we have? Example sub-questions here might include the following:

  • Does recent empirical work on agency and free will, including work on beliefs about and experience of agency and free will, bear significantly on our understanding of self-control, or vice versa? (For example: Do subjects who believe that they do not have free will tend to have less self-control? If so, why?)
  • According to the “divided mind” view of self-control, exercises of willpower aren’t performed by the person as a whole, but rather are undertaken by only part of the person in which only a strict subset of his or her full set of desires are active. What implications would the truth of such a view have for the nature of persons, selves, and agency?
  • Do certain conceptions of selves correlate with enhanced (or diminished) self-control? (For example, does having a concept of the self as less unified over time correlate with less self-control?)
  • Suppose that acceptance of certain scientifically plausible positions tends to reduce self-control. Might there be other ways of teaching or framing these positions – accurately, of course – that do not have this effect?
  • How much influence do people’s beliefs about their capacity for exercising self-control have on their actual capacity for doing so? (Recent research suggests that such beliefs are highly influential.)

10. What influences do meaningful frameworks have on self-control? For example, there is evidence that religious people have higher self-control than non-religious people; if so, what factors are responsible for this?  (For example, does the perception of a temptation as “sinful” make it more likely to be overcome? If so, why?) Non-religious meaningful frameworks, such as an understanding that a self-control task is being done for the benefit of a loved one or one’s community, may be of interest here as well.

11. What effects do contemplative practices have on self-control? Do practices wherein subjects focus attention on specific objects differ in their influence from practices that encourage open-minded attention?  What are the advantages of different practices in these respects? Furthermore, what are the neuroscientific underpinnings of these practices in short-term and long term changes in brain activity? Can neurofeedback techniques be developed to enhance the efficiency of training? If so, are there risks or detriments involved with these alternatives to the traditional approaches?

12. Are there ways of enhancing self-control that lead to epistemological improvements, such as reductions in cognitive biases or improvements to working memory?  If so, what are these ways? And what implications does this have for other epistemological issues, e.g., for our thinking about rationality and justification?

13. Weakness of will has been a perennial topic within philosophy and other disciplines. What is the best account of weakness of will, and which strategies are the most effective for overcoming it? Relevant sub-questions here include the following:

  • Is weakness of will best understood as action contrary to one’s better judgment, or as action contrary to some prior resolution and due to an inappropriate shift in judgment?
  • Are weak-willed actions best explained by appeal to an inappropriate shift in the person’s judgment about what it is best to do?
  • Is weakness of will a natural kind?
  • How might progress on the sub-questions above lead to enhancements to self-control? (For example: Suppose weakness of will is not a natural kind.  Would a successor concept enable better understanding of lapses in self-control and better techniques for avoiding these? Or suppose that weakness of will is typically characterized by inappropriate shifts in judgment; how can agents guard against such shifts?)

14. Why, and how, is self-control valuable? Relevant sub-questions here can include the following:

  • Is the value of self-control instrumental only or intrinsic as well?
  • What specific benefits does self-control confer? For example: Does having better or worse self-control correlate strongly with other character virtues? How might it be incorporated into a system of virtue ethics? Does it correlate with higher measures of human flourishing?
  • A distinction is sometimes drawn between continence, a state characterized by the ability to control one’s immoral impulses (resist immoral desires, e.g.), and temperance, a state in which immoral impulses simply aren’t experienced (and thus there is no need to inhibit them). How can scientific methods or recent findings illuminate the difference between these two states, the factors that influence each of them, and the techniques that are effective at enhancing each?

15. What are the costs associated with self-control and its exercise? (For example, recent research suggests that improvement in certain kinds of mental control, such as enhanced focus, is accompanied by a reduction in creativity.)  Can one be too self-controlled? (Hyperopia research, for example, suggests that some people are overly concerned about future outcomes and so fail to enjoy short-term rewards appropriately, which suggests that it is possible to have an excess of self-control.)  What considerations and techniques are available for determining and implementing the proper amount of self-control in one’s life—for determining whether and how to balance one’s self-regulatory behaviors?

Philosophy of Self-Control. The PSSC project offers funding to support philosophical work on these questions and other questions about self-control. (See “Grants” page.)

Integrated Science and Philosophy of Self-Control. The PSSC offers funding to support work from teams consisting of both philosophers and scientists who will study these questions and other questions about self-control in an interdisciplinary way. All teams must have at least one philosopher and at least one scientist as members.  (See “Grants” page.)