Heart rate variability reflects self-regulatory strength, effort, and fatigue

Psychol Sci. 2007 Mar;18(3):275-81. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01888.x.


Experimental research reliably demonstrates that self-regulatory deficits are a consequence of prior self-regulatory effort. However, in naturalistic settings, although people know that they are sometimes vulnerable to saying, eating, or doing the wrong thing, they cannot accurately gauge their capacity to self-regulate at any given time. Because self-regulation and autonomic regulation colocalize in the brain, an autonomic measure, heart rate variability (HRV), could provide an index of self-regulatory strength and activity. During an experimental manipulation of self-regulation (eating carrots or cookies), HRV was elevated during high self-regulatory effort (eat carrots, resist cookies) compared with low self-regulatory effort (eat cookies, resist carrots). The experimental manipulation and higher HRV at baseline independently predicted persistence at a subsequent anagram task. HRV appears to index self-regulatory strength and effort, making it possible to study these phenomena in the field as well as the lab.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Electrocardiography / methods
  • Fatigue / psychology*
  • Female
  • Food Preferences / psychology*
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Internal-External Control
  • Male
  • Motivation*
  • Physical Exertion / physiology*
  • Social Control, Informal*
  • Students / psychology
  • Task Performance and Analysis