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

Trends Cogn Sci. 2014 Mar;18(3):127-33. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2013.12.009. Epub 2014 Jan 15.


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.

Keywords: attention; cognitive control; ego depletion; emotion; labor/leisure tradeoff; motivation; process model of depletion; self-control; temporal dynamics of motivation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology
  • Executive Function* / physiology
  • Glucose / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Mental Fatigue / physiopathology
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Motivation / physiology
  • Volition* / physiology


  • Glucose