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Self-Regulation Theory


Explanations > Theories > Self-Regulation Theory

Description | Example | So What? | See also | References 



What we want is not always good for us. Short-term desires and urges might suggest that we eat high fat food or punch people who annoy us, but clearly these have a longer-term cost.

Likewise, if a doctor suggests we should take regular walks or a teacher says we must study more, and we know this is good advice, then we need to have the self-discipline to implement such recommendations.

The question may even go to what we believe and think. Religions provide many guidelines as to proper thought and adherents try hard to think the right things, difficult as this can be.

Self-regulation theory (SRT) says that we expend effort in control of what we think, say and do, trying to be the person we want to be, both in particular situations and in the longer-term.

Much self-regulation is in stopping ourselves from doing things we know we should not do, for example preventing ourselves from impolitely telling other people that they are stupid. Self-regulation is also applied in creating positive behavior, such as studying for exams.

Self-regulation is typically needed when there is a conflict of motivations, for example to run away from a fire as opposed to helping to rescue victims of the fire.

Four components of self-regulation described by Baumeister et al (2007) are:

  • Standards: Of desirable behaivor.
  • Motivation: To meet standards.
  • Monitoring: Of situations and thoughts that precede breaking standards.
  • Willpower: Internal strength to control urges.

We do not always succeed at this task, partly because we also have to attend to other things, like what the other person is saying and partly because the whole process of self-regulation is tiring.

Self-regulation includes impulse control, the management of short-term desires. People with low impulse control prone to acting on immediate desires. This is one route for such people to find their way to jail as many criminal acts occur in the heat of the moment. For non-violent people it can lead to losing friends through careless outbursts, or financial problems caused by making too many impulse purchases.


When a person visits their partner's family, the family tend to make snide criticisms. The person is constantly biting the tongue in order to avoid saying something back and causing a row.

So What?

Using it

Know what things in which you need to exercise important self-regulation and ensure these are always done. To gain compliance with others, get them doing things that require self-regulation. When they start to make mistakes in this, you can hold them up about it, or else slip in a persuasive suggestion.


Do not take on too much at once, particularly when it involves doing things with which you are uncomfortable or where you need to rein your natural self in.

See also

Ego Depletion



Baumeister, R. F., Heatherton, T. F., & Tice, D. M. (1994). Losing Control: How and Why People Fail at Self-Regulation. San Diego, CA:Academic Press

Baumeister, R.F. and Vohs, K.D. (2007). Self-Regulation, Ego Depletion, and Motivation, Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1, 10, 1-14


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