Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Readings on Self-Control and Public Policy

I am in early stages of developing a 2017 workshop on self-control and public policy. The purpose of this post is to collect some relevant readings to prompt discussion and thought about this topic. Potential sub-topics of the workshop include those below. Thoughts and comments welcome. 

+ Self-control and education policy (including early interventions). Can and should self-control be fostered? 

+ Self-control and financial regulation.

+ Self-control and health policy.

+ Self-control and employment activation.

+ Ideology and Self-control: potential for "victim blaming".

+ Self-control in psychological research and economic models.

+ Trait and state measures of self-control.

+ Case study on policy issues in ADD treatment.

+ Nudging and self-control.

+ Self-control and other individual differences: how does it compare in importance?

+ What does self-control research imply for debates about poverty and inequality? 

+ What can self-control research, particularly given it is an individual trait, contribute to understanding time trends in things like smoking and obesity?

Adler (2015). Disadvantage, self-control, and health. PNAS, August 18, 2015
vol. 112 no. 33.

Substantial inequities in disease risk and mortality by socioeconomic status (SES) and race challenge us to understand how health disparities emerge and can be eliminated. Building on a strong foundation of studies documenting disparities in a range of diseases and health problems, researchers are increasingly focusing on potentially modifiable mechanisms through which SES and race influence disease risk. One set of mechanisms involves risk factors for disease that occur more frequently in disadvantaged groups that, if reduced, could close the gap in morbidity and mortality. These include lack of access to health care, exposure to toxins and physical hazards, health-damaging behaviors, and adverse social environments (1). A second set of mechanisms involves protective factors that, if bolstered in disadvantaged groups, could do the same. These include social resources such as social support and social participation and psychological resources such as optimism, self-esteem, and perceived control (2). Whereas it is generally assumed that reducing risk factors and/or increasing protective factors will be beneficial in reducing disparities, Miller et al. (3) provide a more qualified assessment of one protective factor—self-regulation—and suggest that although greater self-regulation improves psychosocial outcomes, it may increase biological risk in more disadvantaged groups.

Baumeister & Vonash (2015). Uses of self-regulation to facilitate and restrain addictive behavior. Addictive Behaviors, Volume 44, May 2015, Pages 3–8.

We apply self-regulation theory to understand addictive behavior. Self-regulation and volition depend on a limited resource, and when that resource has been depleted, self-regulation becomes prone to fail. Moving beyond traditional models that have emphasized the relevance of self-regulation to quitting addiction, we propose that self-regulation is used both to facilitate and resist addictive behaviors. Self-regulation is often needed to overcome initial aversion to drugs and alcohol, as well as to maintain addictive usage patterns despite situational obstacles (e.g., illegality, erratic availability, family disapproval). Sustaining addiction also requires preventing use from spiraling out of control and interfering with other aspects of life. More generally, the automaticity and irresistibility of addictive responses may have been overrated, as indicated by how addictive behaviors respond rationally to incentives and other concerns. Self-regulation does facilitate quitting, and relapse may be especially likely when self-regulatory capabilities are depleted.

Bernheim et al (2015). Poverty and Self-Control. Econometrica, Volume 83, Issue 5, September 2015, Pages 1877–1911.

We argue that poverty can perpetuate itself by undermining the capacity for self-control. In line with a distinguished psychological literature, we consider modes of self-control that involve the self-imposed use of contingent punishments and rewards. We study settings in which consumers with quasi-hyperbolic preferences confront an otherwise standard intertemporal allocation problem with credit constraints. Our main result demonstrates that low initial assets can limit self-control, trapping people in poverty, while individuals with high initial assets can accumulate indefinitely. Thus, even temporary policies that initiate accumulation among the poor may be effective. We examine implications concerning the effect of access to credit on saving, the demand for commitment devices, the design of financial accounts to promote accumulation, and the variation of the marginal propensity to consume across income from different sources. We also explore the nature of optimal self-control, demonstrating that it has a simple and behaviorally plausible structure that is immune to self-renegotiation.

Browne et al (2015). Protecting Consumers from Themselves: Consumer Law and the Vulnerable Consumer. Drake L. Rev. 157.

Burgess (2012). Nudging Healthy Lifestyles: The UK Experiments with the Behavioral Alternative to Regulation and the Market. Eur. J. Risk Reg. 3 (2012).

Daly, Delaney, Egan & Baumeister (2015). Childhood Self-Control and Unemployment Throughout the Life Span: Evidence From Two British Cohort Studies. Psychological Science April 13.

The capacity for self-control may underlie successful labor-force entry and job retention, particularly in times of economic uncertainty. Analyzing unemployment data from two nationally representative British cohorts (N = 16,780), we found that low self-control in childhood was associated with the emergence and persistence of unemployment across four decades. On average, a 1-SD increase in self-control was associated with a reduction in the probability of unemployment of 1.4 percentage points after adjustment for intelligence, social class, and gender. From labor-market entry to middle age, individuals with low self-control experienced 1.6 times as many months of unemployment as those with high self-control. Analysis of monthly unemployment data before and during the 1980s recession showed that individuals with low self-control experienced the greatest increases in unemployment during the recession. Our results underscore the critical role of self-control in shaping life-span trajectories of occupational success and in affecting how macroeconomic conditions affect unemployment levels in the population.

Daly, Baumeister, Delaney & Maclachlan (2014). Self-control and its relation to emotions and psychobiology: evidence from a Day Reconstruction Method study.
Journal of Behavioral Medicine, February 2014, Volume 37, Issue 1, pp 81–93.

This study aimed to ascertain whether self-control predicts heart rate, heart rate variability, and the cortisol slope, and to determine whether health behaviors and affect patterns mediate these relationships. A sample of 198 adults completed the Self-Control Scale (Tangney in J Pers 72:271–322, 2004), and reported their exercise levels, and cigarette and alcohol use. Participants provided a complete account of their emotional experiences over a full day, along with morning and evening salivary cortisol samples and a continuous measure of cardiovascular activity on the same day. High trait self-control predicted low resting heart rate, high heart rate variability, and a steep cortisol slope. Those with high self-control displayed stable emotional patterns which explained the link between self-control and the cortisol slope. The self-controlled smoked less and this explained their low heart rates. The capacity to sustain stable patterns of affect across diverse contexts may be an important pathway through which self-control relates to psychophysiological functioning and potentially health.

Daly, Delaney, Baumeister (2015). Self-control, future orientation, smoking, and the impact of Dutch tobacco control measures. Addictive Behaviors Reports,
Volume 1, June 2015, Pages 89–96.


The pronounced discrepancy between smokers' intentions to quit and their smoking behavior has led researchers to suggest that many smokers are time inconsistent, have self-control problems, and may benefit from external efforts to constrain their consumption. This study aims to test whether self-control and future orientation predict smoking levels and to identify if these traits modify how cigarette consumption responds to the introduction of tobacco control measures.


A sample of Dutch adults (N = 1585) completed a measure of self-control and the Consideration of Future Consequences Scale (CFCS) in 2001 and indicated their tobacco consumption each year from 2001 to 2007. In 2004, a workplace smoking ban and substantial tax increase on tobacco was introduced in the Netherlands. To identify the potential impact of these tobacco control measures we examined whether participants smoked or were heavy smokers (20 + cigarettes per day) each year from 2001 to 2007.


Participants with high self-control and CFCS scores showed lower rates of smoking across the seven year period of the study. The 2004 smoking restrictions were linked with a subsequent decline in heavy smoking. This decline was moderated by self-control levels. Those with low self-control showed a large reduction in heavy smoking whereas those with high self-control did not. The effects were, however, temporary: many people with low self-control resumed heavy smoking 2–3 years after the introduction of the tobacco restrictions.


The immediate costs which national tobacco control measures impose on smokers may assist smokers with poor self-control in reducing their cigarette consumption.

Diamond & Lee (2011). Interventions Shown to Aid Executive Function Development in Children 4 to 12 Years Old. Science, Vol. 333, Issue 6045, pp. 959-964.

To be successful takes creativity, flexibility, self-control, and discipline. Central to all those are executive functions, including mentally playing with ideas, giving a considered rather than an impulsive response, and staying focused. Diverse activities have been shown to improve children’s executive functions: computerized training, noncomputerized games, aerobics, martial arts, yoga, mindfulness, and school curricula. All successful programs involve repeated practice and progressively increase the challenge to executive functions. Children with worse executive functions benefit most from these activities; thus, early executive-function training may avert widening achievement gaps later. To improve executive functions, focusing narrowly on them may not be as effective as also addressing emotional and social development (as do curricula that improve executive functions) and physical development (shown by positive effects of aerobics, martial arts, and yoga).

Evans & Kim (2013). Childhood Poverty, Chronic Stress, Self-Regulation, and Coping. Child Development Perspectives, Volume 7, Issue 1,March 2013
Pages 43–48.

Poverty is a powerful factor that can alter lifetime developmental trajectories in cognitive, socioemotional, and physical health outcomes. Most explanatory work on the underlying psychological processes of how poverty affects development has focused on parental investment and parenting practices, principally responsiveness. Our primary objective in this article was to describe a third, complementary pathway—chronic stress and coping—that may also prove helpful in understanding the developmental impacts of early childhood poverty throughout life. Disadvantaged children are more likely than their wealthier peers to confront a wide array of physical stressors (e.g., substandard housing, chaotic environments) and psychosocial stressors (e.g., family turmoil, separation from adult caregivers). As exposure to stressors accumulates, physiological response systems that are designed to handle relatively infrequent, acute environmental demands are overwhelmed. Chronic cumulative stressors also disrupt the self-regulatory processes that help children cope with external demands.

Fishbach (2015). Nudging self-control: A smartphone intervention of temptation anticipation and goal resolution improves everyday goal progress. Motivation Science, Vol 1(3), Sep 2015, 137-150.

Practitioners and researchers alike explore ways of increasing motivation. Whereas previous research mainly explores interventions that operate on people’s goals (e.g., via goal setting), we explore an intervention that operates on overcoming interfering temptations and nudging self-control success. We report an experiment testing a 1-week smartphone field intervention. Self-control involves anticipating and battling temptation; hence, we encouraged participants in a treatment condition to anticipate temptation (i.e., obstacles) for daily goal pursuit and to envision resolutions. They generated these responses for half the goals they listed daily. Participants in the treatment (anticipation + resolution) condition reported more successful pursuit of the daily goals for which they listed obstacles and planned resolutions than for their other goals. We found no such difference between daily goals for participants in a control condition (no anticipation + and no resolution) and for participants in an anticipation-only condition. The beneficial effect of listing obstacles and resolutions was further limited to goals that require self-control and are stronger for people with an assessment self-regulatory mode. Finally, participants in the treatment condition reported increased general happiness during the period of the intervention. We conclude that a simple intervention can improve self-control. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)

Friese (2011). On taming horses and strengthening riders: Recent developments in research on interventions to improve self-control in health behaviors. Self and Identity, Volume 10, 2011 - Issue 3.

This article reviews recent developments in the design of interventions to improve health behavior. Based on dual-system models we classify intervention strategies according to whether they aim at: (i) changing impulsive structures; (ii) improving the ability to self-control; or (iii) changing reflective structures. We review recent work on re-training of automatic associations, attentional biases, and automatic approach–avoidance tendencies, training of self-control and executive functioning, and taxonomic work on health behavior intervention techniques. The theoretical framework as well as the empirical evidence suggest that a combination of both established and newly developed intervention techniques may prove fruitful for future intervention programs. However, several techniques are still in their infancy and more research is needed before clear recommendations can be given.

Gathergood (2012). Self-control, financial literacy and consumer over-indebtedness. Journal of Economic Psychology, Volume 33, Issue 3, June 2012, Pages 590–602.

This paper examines the relationship between self-control, financial literacy and over-indebtedness on consumer credit debt among UK consumers. Lack of self-control and financial illiteracy are positively associated with non-payment of consumer credit and self-reported excessive financial burdens of debt. Consumers who exhibit self-control problems are shown to make greater use of quick-access but high cost credit items such as store cards and payday loans. We also find consumers with self-control problems are more likely to suffer income shocks, credit withdrawals and unforeseen expenses on durables, suggesting that lack of self-control increases exposure to a variety of risks. In most specifications we find a stronger role for lack of self-control than for financial illiteracy in explaining consumer over-indebtedness. We discuss the policy implications of these findings.

Glanz & Bishop (2010). The Role of Behavioral Science Theory in Development and Implementation of Public Health Interventions. Annual Review of Public Health, Vol. 31: 399-418.

Increasing evidence suggests that public health and health-promotion interventions that are based on social and behavioral science theories are more effective than those lacking a theoretical base. This article provides an overview of the state of the science of theory use for designing and conducting health-promotion interventions. Influential contemporary perspectives stress the multiple determinants and multiple levels of determinants of health and health behavior. We describe key types of theory and selected often-used theories and their key concepts, including the health belief model, the transtheoretical model, social cognitive theory, and the ecological model. This summary is followed by a review of the evidence about patterns and effects of theory use in health behavior intervention research. Examples of applied theories in three large public health programs illustrate the feasibility, utility, and challenges of using theory-based interventions. This review concludes by identifying cross-cutting themes and important future directions for bridging the divides between theory, practice, and research.

Hagger & Chatzisarantis (2013). The Strength Model of Self-Control: Recent Advances and Implications for Public Health. Social Neuroscience and Public Health, pp 123-139.

The strength model of self-control conceptualizes self-control as a resource that enables individuals to actively control impulses and urges, but is finite and, after a period of exertion, becomes depleted. In this chapter we discuss the main hypotheses of the strength model, review the current state of the research adopting the model including the recovery, conservation, and training hypotheses, identify the mechanisms that underpin the model including recent advances, summarize the contribution of the model to public health contexts, and provide details of the future research directions to advance the contribution the model makes to understanding self-control. We conclude that the model has provided a useful framework to understand self-control in numerous health-related contexts with training or practice on self-control offering considerable potential for interventions to promote health-related behavior. Future research should elucidate the mechanisms underpinning the effects of self-control resource depletion on behavior and identify the moderators of the effect.

Hengartner et al (2016). Big Five personality traits may inform public health policy and preventive medicine: Evidence from a cross-sectional and a prospective longitudinal epidemiologic study in a Swiss community. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Volume 84, May 2016, Pages 44–51.


Some evidence documents the importance of personality assessments for health research and practise. However, no study has opted to test whether a short self-report personality inventory may comprehensively inform health policy.


Data were taken from a population-based epidemiologic survey in Zurich, Switzerland, conducted from 2010–2012. A short form of the Big Five Inventory was completed by n = 1155 participants (54.4% women; mean age = 29.6 years), while health-related outcomes were taken from a comprehensive semi-structured clinical interview. A convenience subsample averaging n = 171 participants additionally provided laboratory measures and n = 133 were subsequently followed-up at least once over a maximal period of 6 months.


Personality traits, in particular high neuroticism and low conscientiousness, related significantly to poor environmental resources such as low social support (R2 = 0.071), health-impairing behaviours such as cannabis use (R2 = 0.071), and psychopathology, including negative affect (R2 = 0.269) and various mental disorders (R2 = 0.060–0.195). The proportion of total variance explained was R2 = 0.339 in persons with three or more mental disorders. Personality significantly related to some laboratory measures including total cholesterol (R2 = 0.095) and C-Reactive Protein (R2 = 0.062). Finally, personality prospectively predicted global psychopathological distress and vegetative symptoms over a 6-month observation period.


Personality relates consistently to poor socio-environmental resources, health-impairing behaviours and psychopathology. We also found some evidence for an association with metabolic and immune functions that are assumed to influence health. A short personality inventory could provide valuable information for preventive medicine when used as a means to screen entire populations for distinct risk exposure, in particular with respect to psychopathology.

Hoyt et al (2014). “Obesity Is a Disease”: Examining the Self-Regulatory Impact of This Public-Health Message. Psychological Science, April 2014 vol. 25 no. 4 997-1002.

In the current work, we examined the impact of the American Medical Association’s recent classification of obesity as a disease on weight-management processes. Across three experimental studies, we highlighted the potential hidden costs associated with labeling obesity as a disease, showing that this message, presented in an actual New York Times article, undermined beneficial weight-loss self-regulatory processes. A disease-based, relative to an information-based, weight-management message weakened the importance placed on health-focused dieting and reduced concerns about weight among obese individuals—the very people whom such public-health messages are targeting. Further, the decreased concern about weight predicted higher-calorie food choices. In addition, the disease message, relative to a message that obesity is not a disease, lowered body-image dissatisfaction, but this too predicted higher-calorie food choices. Thus, although defining obesity as a disease may be beneficial for body image, results from the current work emphasize the negative implications of this message for self-regulation.

Moffitt et al (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. February 15, 2011, vol. 108 no. 7.

Policy-makers are considering large-scale programs aimed at self-control to improve citizens’ health and wealth and reduce crime. Experimental and economic studies suggest such programs could reap benefits. Yet, is self-control important for the health, wealth, and public safety of the population? Following a cohort of 1,000 children from birth to the age of 32 y, we show that childhood self-control predicts physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offending outcomes, following a gradient of self-control. Effects of children's self-control could be disentangled from their intelligence and social class as well as from mistakes they made as adolescents. In another cohort of 500 sibling-pairs, the sibling with lower self-control had poorer outcomes, despite shared family background. Interventions addressing self-control might reduce a panoply of societal costs, save taxpayers money, and promote prosperity.

Muraven (2010). Building self-control strength: Practicing self-control leads to improved self-control performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 46, Issue 2, March 2010, Pages 465–468.

Self-control performance may be improved by the regular practice of small acts of self-control. Ninety-two adults’ self-control capacity was assessed using the stop signal paradigm before they started practicing self-control and again at the end of 2 weeks. Participants who practiced self-control by cutting back on sweets or squeezing a handgrip exhibited significant improvement in stop signal performance relative to those who practiced tasks that did not require self-control. Participants who did not practice self-control believed that the tasks should improved self-control, engaged in tasks that were effortful and made self-control salient, but did not actually require self-control. Supplemental analyses suggested that only practicing self-control built self-control capacity; the improved outcomes cannot be explained by self-fulfilling prophecies, increased self-efficacy or awareness of self-control. The results may have implications for understanding the development of self-control in both children and adults, as well as clinical implications for treating disorders that involve low self-control.

Piquero et al (2016). A meta-analysis update on the effectiveness of early self-control improvement programs to improve self-control and reduce delinquency.
Journal of Experimental Criminology, June 2016, Volume 12, Issue 2, pp 249–264.


To update Piquero et al.’s (Justice Quarterly 27:803–834, 2010) meta-analysis on early self-control improvement programs.


Screening of eligible studies was carried out for the period between January 2010 and September 2015. An additional seven studies were identified, which were added to the original database of 34 studies, totaling an overall sample of 41 eligible studies. A random effects model was used to obtain an overall mean effect size estimate. Additional analyses were performed to assess publication bias and moderation.


Overall average, positive, and significant effect sizes were observed for improving self-control (0.32) and reducing delinquency (0.27). There was evidence of publication bias for the self-control improvement outcomes, as well as some evidence of moderation for both self-control improvement and delinquency outcomes.


Early self-control improvement programs are an effective evidence-based strategy for improving self-control and reducing delinquency.

Piquero et al (2010). Self-Control Interventions for Children Under Age 10 for Improving Self-Control and Delinquency and Problem Behaviors: A Systematic Review. The Campbell Collaboration Library of Systematic Reviews.

Piquero et al (2010). On the Malleability of Self‐Control: Theoretical and Policy Implications Regarding a General Theory of Crime. Justice Quarterly,
Volume 27, 2010 - Issue 6.

Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory of crime has generated significant controversy and research, such that there now exists a large knowledge base regarding the importance of self‐control in regulating antisocial behavior over the life‐course. Reviews of this literature indicate that self‐control is an important correlate of antisocial activity. Some research has evaluated programmatic efforts designed to examine the extent to which self‐control is malleable, but little empirical research on this issue has been carried out within criminology, largely because the theorists have not paid much attention to policy proscriptions. This study evaluates the extant research on the effectiveness of programs designed to improve self‐control up to age 10 among children and adolescents, and assesses the effects of these programs on self‐control and delinquency/crime. Meta‐analytic results indicate that (1) self‐control programs improve a child/adolescent’s self‐control, (2) these interventions also reduce delinquency, and (3) the positive effects generally hold across a number of different moderator variables and groupings as well as by outcome source (parent‐, teacher‐, direct observer‐, self‐, and clinical report). Theoretical and policy implications are also discussed.

Song et al (2013). When Health Policy and Empirical Evidence Collide: The Case of Cigarette Package Warning Labels and Economic Consumer Surplus. American Journal of Public Health: February 2014, Vol. 104, No. 2, pp. e42-e51.

In its graphic warning label regulations on cigarette packages, the Food and Drug Administration severely discounts the benefits of reduced smoking because of the lost “pleasure” smokers experience when they stop smoking; this is quantified as lost “consumer surplus.” Consumer surplus is grounded in rational choice theory. However, empirical evidence from psychological cognitive science and behavioral economics demonstrates that the assumptions of rational choice are inconsistent with complex multidimensional decisions, particularly smoking. Rational choice does not account for the roles of emotions, misperceptions, optimistic bias, regret, and cognitive inefficiency that are germane to smoking, particularly because most smokers begin smoking in their youth. Continued application of a consumer surplus discount will undermine sensible policies to reduce tobacco use and other policies to promote public health.

Wideman et al (2016). Rationale, design and methods for the RIGHT Track Health Study: pathways from childhood self-regulation to cardiovascular risk in adolescence. BMC Public HealthBMC series, 16:459.

Cardiovascular risk factors during adolescence—including obesity, elevated lipids, altered glucose metabolism, hypertension, and elevated low-grade inflammation—is cause for serious concern and potentially impacts subsequent morbidity and mortality. Despite the importance of these cardiovascular risk factors, very little is known about their developmental origins in childhood. In addition, since adolescence is a time when individuals are navigating major life changes and gaining increasing autonomy from their parents or parental figures, it is a period when control over their own health behaviors (e.g. drug use, sleep, nutrition) also increases. The primary aim of this paper is to describe the rationale, design and methods for the RIGHT Track Health Study. This study examines self-regulation as a key factor in the development of cardiovascular risk, and further explores health behaviors as an explanatory mechanism of this association. We also examine potential moderators (e.g. psychosocial adversities such as harsh parenting) of this association.

RIGHT Track is a longitudinal study that investigates social and emotional development. The RIGHT Track Health Study prospectively follows participants from age 2 through young adulthood in an effort to understand how self-regulatory behavior throughout childhood alters the trajectories of various cardiovascular risk factors during late adolescence via health behaviors. Individuals from RIGHT Track were re-contacted and invited to participate in adolescent data collection (~16.5, 17.5 and 18+ years old). Individuals completed assessments of body composition, anthropometric indicators, fitness testing (via peak oxygen consumption), heart rate variability during orthostatic challenge, 7-day accelerometry for physical activity and sleep, 24-h dietary recalls, and blood analysis for biomarkers related to metabolic syndrome, inflammatory status and various hormones and cytokines. Individuals also completed extensive self-report measures on diet and eating regulation, physical activity and sedentary behaviors, sleep, substance use, medical history, medication use and a laboratory-day checklist, which chronicled previous day activities and menstrual information for female participants.

Insights emerging from this analysis can help researchers and public health policy administrators target intervention efforts in early childhood, when preventing chronic disease is most cost-effective and behavior is more malleable.

Wills et al (2015). Self-control and substance use prevention: A translational analysis. Handbook of adolescent drug use prevention: Research, intervention strategies, and practice , (pp. 121-139).

This chapter examines the implications of self-regulation research for the prevention of early onset drug use. It outlines a dual-process approach to conceptualizing and assessing two regulation constructs that we term self-control and dysregulation. We summarize research that has related self-control or dysregulation measures to adolescent substance use and focus on both main effects and moderation effects. We also review available research that has implemented a self-control intervention and examined effects on outcome variables, including, but not limited to, smoking and alcohol use. We outline a translational model that suggests how to include self-regulation concepts in primary or secondary prevention programs. The chapter concludes with a discussion of several questions that could be addressed in further research on self-regulation and substance use prevention. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)

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