Research Overview

Broadly, I am interested in how people set and reach goals. Much of my research has focused on self-control. I am interested in how people set and reach goals that they set for themselves as well as the effects of reaching or not reaching these goals. I am especially interested in factors that may contribute to the breakdown of self-control. I have been working on a model of self-control that suggests self-control draws upon a limited resource or strength (self-control strength). People who are lower in self-control strength due to prior self-control demands (depleted) tend to perform more poorly on tests of self-control than people who have more self-control strength.

Research has found that individuals in a situation that demanded control over alcohol consumption consumed more and became more intoxicated when they exerted self-control in the first part of the experiment as compared to individuals who worked an equally unpleasant, frustrating, effortful task that did not require self-control. The converse was also true: after resisting the temptation to drink, social drinkers were less successful at self-control. Depletion has also been associated with poorer self-control performance in children, greater use of stereotypes, and worse performance on cognitive tasks such as the Stroop and stop signal paradigm.


Recent research has found several moderators of self-control strength. In particular, motivation appears to play a key role in whether depleted individuals will perform more poorly on self-control tasks. When given sufficient motivation, depleted individuals and non-depleted individuals perform equally well on measures of self-control. Only when motivation is low do depleted individuals perform worse on tests of self-control.

In addition, when they expect to exert self-control in the future, depleted individuals perform much more poorly than non-depleted individuals on tests of self-control. This suggests that depleted individuals appear to be highly motivated to conserve self-control strength. This conservation may account for their poorer self-control performance.  Individuals factor in future demands on their strength, as well as they currently level of resources when exerting self-control.

Exerting self-control for intrinsic reasons also appears to be less depleting than exerting self-control for extrinsic reasons. When given controlling reasons to exert self-control or report feeling less intrinsically motivated, participants performed more poorly on subsequent measure of self-control.

Building Strength

There is some evidence that it possible to improve self-control through practice as well. That is, just as physical exercise fatigue muscles and leads to poorer performance in the short-term, exerting self-control decreases self-control capacity temporarily. However, in the long-term, physical exercise, when tempered with rest, leads to greater strength. Research on self-control strength has found a similar effect: When participants practiced small acts of self-control for several weeks, they were more successful at quitting smoking better than participants who did not practice self-control. Research on this provocative idea is ongoing.

There may be ways to accelerate the recovery of self-control strength as well. Depleted individuals who experience a positive mood perform better than depleted individuals whose mood is neutral or negative. We are exploring other means of recovering lost self-control strength.