Why self-control seems (but may not be) limited

Michael Inzlicht*, Brandon J. Schmeichel, C. Neil Macrae

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalLiterature reviewpeer-review

546 Citations (Scopus)


Self-control refers to the mental processes that allow people to override thoughts and emotions, thus enabling behavior to vary adaptively from moment to moment. Dominating contemporary research on this topic is the viewpoint that self-control relies upon a limited resource, such that engaging in acts of restraint depletes this inner capacity and undermines subsequent attempts at control (i.e., ego depletion). Noting theoretical and empirical problems with this view, here we advance a competing model that develops a non-resource-based account of self-control. We suggest that apparent regulatory failures reflect the motivated switching of task priorities as people strive to strike an optimal balance between engaging cognitive labor to pursue 'have-to' goals versus preferring cognitive leisure in the pursuit of 'want-to' goals.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)127-133
Number of pages7
JournalTrends in Cognitive Sciences
Issue number3
Early online date15 Jan 2014
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2014


  • self-control
  • cognitive control
  • ego depletion
  • process model of depletion
  • motivation
  • attention
  • emotion
  • labor/leisure tradeoff
  • temporal dynamics of motivation
  • opportunity cost model
  • ego-depletion
  • resource-depletion
  • strength model
  • executive functions
  • task-performance
  • decision-making
  • error-detection
  • control failure


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