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Ongoing Deterioration of Self-Regulation: Solving the Mystery. 

Ongoing Deterioration of Self-Regulation: Solving the Mystery. 

By Kim Byrd-Rider

What is the self-regulation problem? Self-regulation includes making decisions, responding actively and exerting self-control. It determines our control over ourselves and the world. The bad news: self-regulation (self-control) degrades quickly with use, unique for a cognitive process. Other cognitive structures improve with subsequent acts, similar to priming. Initial acts of self-regulation actually impair subsequent acts of self-regulation, leaving self-control vulnerable to depletion and it happens fast, sometimes within minutes. (Baumeister et al., 1996; Muraven & Baumeister, 2000; Sheppes et al., 2015; Bargh & Pietromanaco, 1982; Higgins & King, 1981; Wyer & Srull, 1980).  For example, a 5 minutes ability of resisting chocolate while working a puzzle decreased by half for a second episode. The phenomenon crosses cultures and time. Western norms and forces seem especially conducive to self-control weakness. Historical evidence of self-control deterioration and failure appear even in medieval and Confucian writings (Baumeister et al., 1998). This problem is not new. 

In research studies, self-control responds more like a muscle than a cognitive function operating on a quantitative continuum, decreasing in strength over time. Self-regulation easily depletes, then eventually restores itself from an illusive inner resource. Even irrelevant self-regulation acts can tax the inner resource. According to researchers who admit, “We acknowledge that we do not have a clear understanding of the nature of this (inner) resource” (Baumeister et al., 1998).  Nor do they know the factors which speed or delay the replenishing process. Depletion of the inner resource not only lowers self-control but may result in “burnout, learned helplessness, and similar patterns of pathological passivity” (Baumeister et al., 1998). 

While the experimental outcomes in the articles cited here are valid enough, the conclusions may be convoluted. Four of the articles reached the same conclusion: self-regulation relies on a depleting inner resource which regenerates back over an unspecified amount of time. Although the articles are heavily researched with more than fifty references each, three of the four cited articles include one author on their team and a fourth article referenced him: Roy Baumeister. Without Baueister, would the researchers draw a different conclusion from the experiments? It seems illogical that only one cognitive function deteriorates with use and has a mystically, easily-depleted resource, while all the other cognitive functions strengthen with use. Maybe something different is happening. 

Dr. Karen Horney (1950), a German psychiatrist, a founder of the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis, a founder of the American Institute for Psychoanalysis and author of Neurosis and Human Growth provides an alternative lens for self-regulation deterioration.  Her research and experience claim self-control issues result from an inner power struggle between the false-self and the true-self.  Even Baumeister and Heaterthorn (1996) admit the situation could be more complex than just a self-regulation problem, “We suggested that self-regulation often involves an unpleasant inner conflict marked by competing wishes and uncertainty.” Muraven & Baumeister (2000) state, “The acts of self-control can take the form of an inner resource striving to overcome the power of some impulse, emotion, desire, habit, or other response.”  Let’s now define the false and true-self. 

The neurotic false-self is a life coping strategy generated by our irrational imagination with it’s inner shoulds, the search for glory and the pride system involving self-hate. The goal of the false-self is to imprison the true-self and rule the personality from it’s throne of neurosis. Self-regulation deterioration may be a product of the neurotic false-self in action against self-regulation (a factor of the true-self). Brumeeiser et al. (1998) seem to be shocked at “the ease with which we have been able to produce ego (self-control) depletion.” For Horney, this would be evidence of the amount of neurotic power the false-self wields. Dr. Horney believes every person struggles with this inner conflict. In the earlier chocolate eater experiment, the false-self locks-up self-control in a quick 5 minutes but gains momentum and crushes self-control in half the time on the second go-round. 

The true-self, on the other hand, is defined by Horney as, “the original force toward individual growth and fulfillment with which we may again achieve full identification when freed from the crippling shackles of neurosis” (Horney, 1950, p.158). Baumeister et al. and Horney seem to agree on similar definitions for the ‘inner resource’ and the ‘original force’. Horney (1950, p. 17) explains the real-self as, “the clarity and depth of one’s own feelings, thoughts, wishes, interests, the ability to tap his own resources, the strength of his own resources, will power strength, special capacities or gifts, self-expression, and inter-relations with spontaneous feelings.” Regarding self-regulation Baumeister et al. (1998) says, “Even a small amount of this (inner) resource would be extremely adaptive in enabling human behavior to become flexible, varied, and able to transcend the pattern of simply responding to immediate stimuli.” So, the resource is identified by both yet named something different but Baumeister’s culprit is different than Horney’s. Baumeister’s is self-regulation deterioration and Horney’s is the sinister neurotic false-self, a much more serious and entrenched situation. Horney (1950, p.113) adds, “The real-self is fighting for it’s life.” As exemplified in the chocolate experiment, for most people the false-self seems to be winning the fight (Baumeister et al., 1998). 


Bargh, J. A., & Pietromonaco, P. (1982). Automatic information processing and social perception: The      influence of trait information presented outside of conscious awareness on impression formation.      Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 437-449. 


Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self    a limited resource?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1252-1265. 

Baumeister, R. F., & Heatherton, T. F. (1996). Self-regulation failure: An overview. Psychological Inquiry, 7(1), 1-15. 


Higgins, E. T., & King, G. (1981). Accessibility of social constructs: Information processing          consequences of individual and contextual variability. In N. Cantor & J. Kihlstrom(Eds.),           Personality, cognition, and social interaction (pp. 69-121). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.  


Horney, K. (1950). Neurosis and human growth. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company. 

Muraven, M., & Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does            selfcontrol resemble a muscle?. Psychological Bulletin,126(2), 247-259. 

Sheppes, G., Suri, G., & Gross, J.J. (2015) Emotion regulation and psychopathology. Annual Review of    Clinical Psychology. Online before print publication. 


Wyer, R. W., & Srull, T. K. (1980). Category accessibility and social perception: Some implications for     the study of person memory and interpersonal judgments. Journal of Personality and Social   Psychology, 28, 841-856.  





I'm Dr. Kim
Byrd-Rider, PT

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