Departmental Papers (Psychology)

Document Type

Conference Paper

Date of this Version


Publication Source

Decision Making for a Social World


As Duckworth and Kern (2011) note, currently over 1% of the abstracts in PsycInfo are indexed by "self-control" or one its synonyms. As part of this widespread interest, cognitive and neural scientists are debating the psychological mechanisms of self-control (Ainslie, 1975; Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999; Muraven & Baumeister, 2000), and the implementation of these mechanisms in the brain (Figner, et al., 2010; Hare, Camerer, & Rangel, 2009; Hare, Malmaud, & Rangel, 2011; Kable & Glimcher, 2007, 2010; McClure, Ericson, Laibson, Loewenstein, & Cohen, 2007; McClure, Laibson, Loewenstein, & Cohen, 2004). These efforts, however, currently proceed without much agreement on a theoretical or operational definition regarding what constitutes "self-control" (Duckworth & Kern, 2011). Definitions have been offered, of course, but one gets the sense that many investigators are content defining self-control in much the same manner that American courts define pornography - "I know it when I see it" (Jacobellis vs Ohio, 1964).

Just as our intuitions regarding physics can be mistaken, so too can our intuitions regarding psychology (Stanovich, 1985). This essay argues that an over-reliance on "intuitive psychics" is hindering efforts to identify the cognitive and neural processes involved in self-control. Specifically, current theories tend to underemphasize or ignore completely a factor of critical importance – the social world. Yet, "self-control" is a concept that only emerges at the level of the person in society: it is the social world that defines what is and is not a self-control problem. This realization has important implications for people interested in cognitive and neural mechanisms: it suggests that self-control is unlikely to be a single process; that the computation of social norms is an understudied process that is likely critical for self-controlled behavior; and that interventions that target the social context to increase the influence of norms may prove the strongest way to increase self-controlled behavior.

Copyright/Permission Statement

Published with the permission of the International Cognition and Culture Institute.



Date Posted: 08 December 2017