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Forget the Cinderella effect: stepparents are just as likely to kill their biological children as their stepchildren

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By Tim O’Mahony Operations Manager at Kexue Communications,
Researchers have known since the early 1970s that children in stepfamilies are at greater risk of child abuse and murder (Fergusson, Fleming & O’Neill, 1972). A team of Swedish researchers has found that parents in stepfamilies are equally likely to kill their biological children as they are to kill their stepchildren. Their findings are published in the journal Current Zoology (Online First).

Evolutionary reasons such as a lack of genetic relatedness and kin selection have previously been used to explain the higher rates of child abuse and homicide observed in stepfamilies (Daly & Wilson, 1988). The research team from Stockholm University and Mid Sweden University investigated whether an evolutionary explanation sufficiently explained this higher prevalence.

The research team analyzed Statistics Sweden records of parental child homicides in Sweden for the period 1965–2009. They included data from two biparental family types in their study: families with two genetic parents and stepfamilies. The group also analyzed the proportion of stepfamilies and families with two genetic parents in the general population for 1987, the midpoint of the study, to determine whether children in stepfamilies were statistically more likely to be murdered.

Dr. Temrin’s team used contingency tables to compare the observed frequencies of parents from the two family types committing child homicide with the frequencies of parents in the two family types in the general population. They found that on average there are 3.2 perpetrators per million parents for stepfamilies, and 1.9 per million parents for families with two genetic parents.

The team also investigated perpetrators in stepfamilies specifically, by finding the ratio of biological parent and stepparent child homicide perpetrators in stepfamilies and comparing it to an expected 1:1 ratio using a Chi-square test.

There were 152 perpetrators of parental child homicide in the two family groups used over the 45 year study period: 125 perpetrators were in families with two genetic parents and 27 were in stepfamilies. Of the 27 stepfamily murderers, 13 killed their genetic children, 13 murdered their stepchildren, and 1 perpetrator killed both. This means that the risk of a stepparent or a genetic parent in a stepfamily murdering a child is not significantly different from a 1:1 ratio (Chi-square = 0, p > 0.99).

“Our study suggests that the risk of being killed is not associated primarily with the non-genetic relation stepparent and stepchild but rather by living in a stepfamily,” said the paper’s lead author, Dr. Hans Temrin from Stockholm University.

Data on the criminal record of all Swedish parents in both genetic parent families and stepfamiles was also taken from the The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention dataset for the midpoint of the study, 1987.

Dr. Temrin’s team found that rates of crime across Sweden were higher for adults in stepfamilies than in biparental families, with general crime 1.5 times higher (28.2% vs. 17.8%), and violent crime twice is high (4.4% vs. 1.9%). These findings agree with previous studies that found that there is a higher incidence of unemployment, psychiatric problems and anti-social behaviors for parents in stepfamilies than parents in families with both genetic parents (Belsky, 1993; Turner, Finkelhor & Ormrod, 2007).

“The Cinderella effect – the observation that adults are more likely to kill their stepchildren than their biological children – has long been a staple of evolutionary psychology-informed homicide research, and this study suggests that this explanation is likely too simple,” said Dr Damon Muller from the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University.

Dr. Temrin explains that “most parental child homicides are not caused by conflicts with the child but rather by problems that parents have.”

“Giving help to people with psychiatric problems and to families with problems in my opinion is the only way to decrease child maltreatment and the risk of children being killed.”

The research team hopes to replicate their study in other countries to investigate whether their observations hold.


Belsky J, 1993. Etiology of child maltreatment: A developmental-ecological analysis. Psychological Bulletin 114: 413-434.

Daly M, Wilson M, 1988. Homicide. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Fergusson DM, Fleming J, O’Neill DP, 1972. Child abuse in New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: A. R. Shearer, Government Printer.

Turner HA, Finkelhor D, Ormrod R, 2007. Family structure variations in patterns and
predictors of child victimization. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 77: 282-295.

Gigerenzer: The Intelligence of the Unconscious

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Video about the intelligence of the unconscious mind by Gigerenzer

The Intelligence of the Unconscious

Gerd Gigerenzer is one of the stars in the realm of decision-making. He has written many articles about decision-making that has been cited many times. In this video he gives a lecture at the University of California about the intelligence of the unconscious.

Be aware: This is an enormously inspiring video, that might change the way you look at decision-making – not only in a scientific way, but also in daily life. this might shake your foundation of what you believe is true, so don’t watch this if you’d like to hang on to “usual logic thinking”.

Universal Self-Enhancement Reloaded: A Battle of Definitions and Paradigms

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Some time ago I gave my thoughts about the battle of panculturalists vs. universalists with regard to self-enhancement. This is take II, which goes much more in depth and explores the story by examining the two key players in the discussion and there scientific battle in the different journals.

Self-enhancement describes a range of psychological phenomena that incline the individual to pass more favourable judgement on him or herself than should be valid from objective self-assessment, operationalized as the relevant social norms (Krueger, 1998). Sedikides and Gregg (2008) refined that view by proposing four levels of self-enhancement, namely an observed effect, an ongoing process, a personality trait and an underlying motive and four different bipolar dimensions of self-enhancement. Self-advancing and self-protecting refers to the fact that you can self-enhance either by augmenting the positive aspects of your self-concept of diminish the negative parts of your self-concept.

Self-enhancement can also take place publicly or in a more private (cognitive) environment. Crocker and Wolfe (2001) found that the preferred domain of self-enhancement differs for each individual and is usually related to what matters most to the individual. Finally self-enhancement can be either candid, using an immediate opportunity for overt self-enhancement, or tactical, accumulating positive information about the self to enhance the self-image in a more lasting way. Especially the last point has been a focus point in the ongoing debate. As remarked by Heine and Hamamura (2007) this definition of self-enhancement in not the only valid one. In their recent meta-study they found 30 different operationalizations of self-enhancement.

Given the frequent replications of the effects of self-enhancement in many different domains, such as the findings of Taylor and Brown (1988) on the beneficial aspects of self-enhancement on mental health, it seems parsimonious to assume that the phenomenon is universally valid. However this notion was challenged by Heine, Lehman, Markus and Kitayama (1999) in their famous article “Is there a Universal Need for Positive Self-Regard?”. They remark that the concept of self-enhancement comes from a North American (I would rather describe it as European) mindset and that most researchers, participants and paradigms employed in the empirical validation of self-enhancement have come from North America. They propose that the self-critical orientation of (most) Eastern cultures is contrary to the notion of self-enhancement and assume that in more collectively oriented cultures the process of self-enhancement is not ecologically useful. In their reply Sedikides, Gaernter and Toguchi (2003) stress the importance of the SCENT model (Sedikides & Strube, 1997). They highlight the difference between candid and tactical self-enhancement and propose that the “both idiocentrics and allocentrics self-enhance…on personally important as opposed to personally unimportant attributes.” Furthermore they assume those important attributes to depend on the orientation of any specific culture on the dimension of collectivism.

In the following answer by Heine (2005) he focusses in the definition of self-enhancement, which he defines as “the tendencies to dwell on and elaborate positive information about the self relative to information about one’s weakness.” He redefines the more abstract definition of self-enhancement by the panculturalists as “being a good self”. The results presented in this meta study indicate that the western samples significantly more self-enhance than the Eastern samples. He states that the question answered by Sedikides et al. (2003) is not directly related to self-enhancement, but to the attributes that are valued by a specific culture. Furthermore he criticizes the method used by Sedikides and his collogues by stating that the better than average effect is part of the common cognitive effect that people evaluate a randomly chosen (in group) individual better than the average group member. Thus the comparison of an own individual with “most other people” does not validly answer the question of universality of self-enhancement.

In their own meta-review Sedikides, Gaertner and Vevea (2005) show that the question of empirical validation of the attributes used in research of cultural self-enhancement is of utmost importance. They show that most studies that did find a difference between western and eastern self-enhancement used attributes that are not empirically connected to the dimension of collectivism. Therefore the results can not indicate if tactical self-enhancement was present in different domains. More broadly they (Sedikides, Gaertner, Vevea, 2007) propose that: “Unvalidated domains lack the capacity to test the hypothesis, because they are undifferentiated or non-diagnostic.” They also disputed Heine’s (2005) critic on the better-than-average effect. In their view the results of the study cited by Heine cannot fully explain the better-than-average effect, when the individual in question is the self.

A valid point made by Heine, Kitayama and Hamamura (2007) entails the notion that Sedikides and his colleagues effectively propose that the method they employ (better-than-average effect) is the only valid empirical approach (so far) to answer the hypothesis of universality of self-enhancement, because most effects used by them (27 of the 29) have been validated in their view as being diagnostic with regard to the hypothesis, whereas they consider all measures employed by Heine and colleagues irrelevant, as all effects (24 of 24) have not been validated. Given that a multi-method approach is usually more parsimonious this is a strong point against the results of the panculturalists that have focussed on only one method.

In my view the discussion has been very beneficial to the domain of cross-cultural psychology, as both sides, universalists and panculturists, have had to refine their theories and definitions about the influence of culture on self-enhancement. However I believe that the meta study of Sedikides et al. (2007) presents convincing arguments for the perspective of the panculturalists. The moderation effect of the validated vs. unvalidated attributes is methodologically strong. If the universalists want to refuse this argument they will have to show that the attributes used in their studies posses diagnostic value, by validating them. Furthermore the more broader (and less cultural-specific) term of self-enhancement is supported by the finding that both eastern and western participants show a significance correlation between the personal importance of attributes and the effect of self-enhancement.

I believe that there is a general tendency for people to feel good about themselves. Because the self in strongly influenced by the cultural environment I find the argumentation of the panculturalists compelling. In addition, their view fits with my own subjective experiences from working with international students from all over the world in the past 8 years. However to fully convince me of the panculturalists’ perspective they will have to replicate their findings using multiple paradigms.


Crocker, J., & Wolfe, C.T. (2001). Contingencies of self-worth. Psychological Review, 108, 593–623.
Heine, S. J. (2005). Where is the Evidence for Pancultural self-enhancement?: A reply to Sedikides, Gaertner, and Toguchi (2003). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 531–538.
Heine, S. J., Kitayama, S. & Hamamura, T. (2007). Which studies test whether self- enhancement is pancultural? A reply to Sedikides, Gaertner, and Vevea, 2007. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 198-200.
Heine, S. J., Lehman, D. R., Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1999). Is there a universal need for positive self-regard? Psychological Review, 106, 766–794.
Krueger, J. (1998) Enhancement Bias in Description of Self and Others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 24, No. 5, 505-516
Sedikides, C., Gaertner, L., & Toguchi, Y. (2003). Pancultural Self-Enhancement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 60–79.
Sedikides, C., Gaertner, L., & Vevea, J . L. (2005). Pancultural Self-Enhancement Reloaded: A Meta-Analytic reply to Heine (2005). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 539-551.
Sedikides, C., Gaertner, L., & Vevea, J.L. (2007). Evaluating the evidence for pancultural self-enhancement. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 201–203.
Sedikides, C. & Gregg, A. (2008). Self-Enhancement, Food for Thought. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 102-116.
Taylor, S. & Brown, J. (1988). Illusion and Well-being: A Social Psychological Perspective on Mental Health. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193-210.

Self-Enhancement: A Universal Process with Culture-Specific Content?

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The individual is the smallest entity, that can arise from any group-division. The word individual actually means “that which is un/(in)-dividable”. Thus the meaning of the individual is closely connected to the group, because the individual only gets meaning in the context of the group. In the same way that the individual gains meaning from the group, the self gains meaning from the culture. As the experiences of our daily life shape your thought and realities, it makes sense to assume that the mental representation of our-selves are shaped by those experiences. Because the self is related to the group, the “independent self” is also an expression of a social mode of interaction. Although the content of the term seems non-social, the implicit context of the term is social.

For a long time the constructs of social psychology have been assumed to be universal. Especially the highly appreciated concept of self-esteem was seen as a basic cognitive process that extends to all humanity. However in the recent past this view has changed. In the same way that Newton’s mechanic does not make sense in a quantum universe, some constructs of (European) social psychology make no sense in an intercultural, globalized world. And so we find ourselves in the middle of a fierce empirical battle between two opposing views: Universalism and Panculturalism. The one side, Universalism claims that self-enhancement is a basic cognitive process that is shared by all humans. The Panculturalists claim that self-enhancement is a cultural process that is functional in some contexts (cultures), but not in others. This one example can be seen as a battle within a much greater war, namely: Does the structure of the mind, as we know it today, also apply to different (non-European) cultures or do we need an own way of psychology for every kind of culture there is? Those that still cling to the Cartesian system of science will be afraid psychology will lose it’s status as “real science” when it cannot provide universal laws. How 20th century is that…

The concept of self has gone through a transformation phase in the last years. Whereas before it was defined as an independent entity that stresses the role of the subject, later definitions of the self also allow a definition in more interdependent terms, which better represent the way people in the eastern world experience being an individual. However the role of the self is still not defined conclusively. Recent studies have shown that independent / interdependent are not the two extremes of one dimension, but that individuals incorporate both constructs within themselves. The meaning of the term enhancement is even more unclear: Usually if you want to enhance something you want to make something better. However as the object of the enhancement, “the self”, is not clearly defined, the process also remains somewhat undefined. I believe the main point where the two views differ from each other depends on the definition of the self. Whereas the Universalists resolve the unclearness by moving to a more abstract level, saying that the self defined by the culture can be enhanced in ways specific and natural to that culture, the Panculturalists implicitly still hold on to the independent, western view of the self. For them enhancement = good = more self-esteem.

If you take the meta-perspective on the discussion at hand, one could wonder if there can ever be an answer to the problem at hand, because both groups argue on a different level of abstraction. Whereas Panculturalists seem to discuss the content of self enhancement, the Universalists discuss the more basic aspects of the process itself. I believe that both views are right in some regard. There definitely is a universal human wish to be a good and appropriate person and there are cognitive processes to make sure that we behave accordingly. However what is considered good and appropriate differs between cultures, thus the deducted goals and ultimately the behaviour might be very different. When we look at self-enhancement on an abstract level, we see its the universal components. If we look at the content of the process, we see the cultural boundaries of the process. In order to really see the big picture and the underlying processes we will need multicultural psychologist. They will be able to distinguish between universal process and culture-specific content much better than most researchers today, because they will live in a multicultural environment and their sense of self will be different from that of a person who grew up with one dominant perspective.

Through the evolution of human societies from early hunter groups to cyber-communities there has been one constant: The need for social acceptance and support. Notwithstanding the differences between the two positions, Panculturalists and Universalists have highlighted the diversity in which humans choose to live together and the diversity of self-concepts and related processes that are used to adhere to the standards of the group. Being able to perceive oneself as an object of social interaction and reflect on that interaction is a key prerequisite for the development of elaborated and fine tuned rules that guide our social interactions: culture. It remains to be seen how new cultures and new ways of social interaction brought about by digital communication technology and globalization will influence the self-concept of generations to come. Maybe the discussion about the nature of the self and the related cognitive processes can never end as long as human culture and interaction styles evolve, because our self-concepts will also keep on evolving.

Written by Martin Glanert

October 7, 2008 at 4:02 pm

The Influence of Aging Self-Stereotypes on Strategy Change from Goal Assimilation to Goal Accommodation

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The processes of goal assimilation and goal accommodation refer to different strategies in dealing with goals, that have become unavailable or extremely difficult to reach. Whereas the process of assimilation can be seen as a more active approach to reach a goal, accommodation refers to a more passive, internal cognitive process that changes the valence of goals. Thus the location of the focus on where to find a solution for a given problem differs for those two strategies: Whereas assimilation directs the focus towards the external world, accommodation directs the focus on the internal world.

Goal assimilation provides persistence by adjusting the strategy to reach a goal in changing environments. However goals might become unreachable or so difficult to reach that the amount of energy spent is in no relation to the possible benefits. At that point goal accommodation starts to change the underlying valence of the goal structure. The changed structure will then provide different motivation patterns that are more ecological in the perspective of the changed environment. In that sense it helps people to retain a sense of control and keeps them moving forward.

If both processes are needed for a healthy development of an individual (as has been suggested recently), there must be a critical point in time during which goal assimilation is abandoned and goal accommodation starts. This is the point at which the internal, subjective heuristics detect that for personal health, safety, happiness, etc. it is better to accommodate than assimilate a specific goal. Finding variables to predict this point in time might be very helpful in order to build a good model of goal strategies. A simple decision heuristic could look something like that:

Expected utility – Expected energy = Motivation (X)

whereas Expected utility is defined as personal value*chance of goal achievement.

As long as the motivation (X) remains positive, the course of action is “business as usual”. When the internal check reveals that the X (motivation) has become negative, the alarm rings and the assimilation process is made to check for different solutions to the equation, firstly concerning the expected energy needed for goal achievement (for example finding an easier way of achieving something by asking someone else to help). If no possible solution is found to the equation that renders X positive, the process of accommodation is activated. It checks if the variable “Goal achievement” can be redefined in such a way as to make X positive. Changing the goal valence might actually take some time and so accommodation starts working on the goal valence until motivation can be restored. This implies that there might be a period of temporary stop within the system, when there is not enough motivation to pursue a goal.

However the heuristics depend on the assumptions made by different processes and are therefore subject to possible biases. The self-view might be one of those processes that influence the information on which the heuristic decision is based. Especially for older people self-stereotyping might be an influencing factor in making the switch from goal assimilation to goal accommodation. Self-stereotyping refers to the process of applying a stereotype to the own self. In this regard it is important to differentiate between implicit and explicit stereotypes. It has been shown with many different implicit stereotypes that they are active in members of the stereotyped group on an implicit level, even if they can not be found using explicit experimental paradigms. This might be especially true for aging stereotypes, as one study reviewing the correlation between explicit and implicit beliefs found the lowest correlation between explicit and implicit beliefs on aging beliefs. One possible explanation could be that aging stereotypes are internalized during the whole life, from very early on. Those implicit knowledge structures might be difficult to access explicitly in later life. This would also imply that implicit aging stereotype are resistant to change. Implicit stereotypes have consistently shown to influence old people’s behaviour, such as their performance on a memory tests. The predominant (implicit) stereotype in the western world is that aging is a bad thing, that old people are weak and have decreased cognitive an physical abilities. How could such cognitions implicitly influence behaviour?

Let’s first have a look at the left part of the equation “Expected utility”. Older people have less time to live, so the expected utility of a goal, in which value accumulates with time, should be lower. For example if you feel that death is waiting around the corner, you might not be so motivated to stop smoking or put on sunscreen, because the possibility that you will earn the fruits of the seeds planted is very low, therefore expected value is low. Since you might already have gone through a lot of episodes of goal valence change, some goals will not be interesting anymore right from the start, like drinking and dancing all night in the club. In that way the valence of all goals are changed, as you go along, until they do not prove problematic anymore. This could also explain, why life satisfaction remains quite constant in elderly people: Since most goals have been accommodated there are not so many things to be depressed about anymore. Another point would be the expected possibility to reach a specific goal. Self-stereotyping might make it harder to imagine specific outcomes, that are not conform to the stereotype. This could lead to an underestimation of the chance of reaching a goal.

Now let’s turn to the right side of the equation that reads “Energy needed”. The amount of energy that can be invested in the achievement of any given goal is limited by the resources available, which change during lifetime. Usually when we are young we have a lot of time, physical and mental strength and a good social network. Those resources might decrease when we grow older (or am I just stereotyping?). Thus goals that require those resources become harder to reach. For some goals a minimum of a specific resource is necessary, but in most cases a lack of resources can be compensated by other resources. However, exchange of resources is probably not 1:1 and the price you pay might be related to how many resources you are missing. For example if you want to walk somewhere, but you are very slow at foot and you do not have time, you can take a taxi. But that costs you money. The slower you get, the less time you have, the more money general transport will cost you. Taking a taxi once a week to visit someone in a different city might be okay with your pool of resources, but taking a taxi several times a day, for example to go to the letterbox, might not be okay. However this could be compensated by having a good social network, someone who brings the mail along…The point I want to make is this: Resources can be exchanged, but with growing age there might be tasks, especially those that rely heavily on depleted resources, that become extremely costly. Thus the goal might still be very valuable to you, but the costs too high, which will decrease motivation. As different streams of resources become diminished there might also be a problem with choices. If you have plenty of resources available to you there might be a lot of ways in which you can assimilate a goal, thus you have a lot of opportunities to reach your goal in a different way. When your resources become more concentrated in one dimension (for example you can barely think, move, have no friends, but a few million dollars left) it might be harder to identify different solutions to the problem, or there might be less solutions available to you.

Thus having less resources available might prompt you to make the switch earlier on. The aging stereotype might suggest that one has less resources available than actually is the case. It might also be the case that the aging stereotype reduces the positive bias that people normally have about their own resources. On top of that, solutions to the motivation-equation that do not fit stereotypical behaviour of elderly people might not reach consciousness. In the same light the process of accommodation might be more stereotypical for elderly people, and thus more accessible. Over time, it might become the predominant process.

So can we propose some kind of action that would optimize the process of goal optimization and goal accommodation? The process itself should, in my view, not be the target of any change. However one could look at the implicit self-stereotype and see if it is a protective factor, by holding back older people to launch dangerous endeavors, or if it is holding them back to live a fulfilled life. Some studies have lately suggested that implicit attitudes might be open to change, for example using the AAT. Systematic search patterns for available resources and possible causes of action could also contribute to cancel out the negative side-effects of self-stereotyping in older people.


I would like to finish with a slightly different, but related thought, that came to my mind while writing the essay. Most old people explain that with old age they come to understand what is really important to them. However there is an alternative explanation to the change in goal valence suggested by the heuristic model. Imagine that you perceive yourself doing something. You might infer that you are actually motivated to do so, and even more if there are obstacles to your goal that you have to overcome. When you are old, activities usually bear more obstacles than before and the total range of activities is limited. Thus the perceived motivation (and probably the increased goal value) might be due to the obstacles you encounter and not to some late insight into the own emotions.

Written by Martin Glanert

September 30, 2008 at 9:56 pm

Questions about “The Self”

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In recent times there has been a lot of discussion with regard to social psychology constructs such as self-esteem, self-determination and self-affirmation. Due to rapidly changing societies and new insights into cognitive processes of memory formation some old theories of self-psychology have recently been challenged. For example Heine, Lehman, Markus and Kitayama (1999) postulated that self-esteem, conceptualized as positive self-regard, is not a universal value and should be replaced by the concept of self-enhancement. However, all those theories are closely connected to the concept of self, which in itself still remains unclear. Since there are many different interpretation of the self, many discussions end in despair, each side holding on to their specific conceptualization of the self, which are not interchangeable. But can there be any definition that fits them all? Does “talking about myself” and “exercising control over myself” relate to the same objects?

Terms such as self-esteem suggest that there is stability of that process on the influence of behavior. However people can switch between different roles (selves?) with relative ease. Reinders et al. (2003) showed that in patients with Multiple Personality Disorder, there are specific cerebral blood flow patterns mainly in the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior associative cortices that can produce different senses of self. It is parsimonious to assume that the same process also mediates the different senses of self in healthy persons, however to a lesser extend in the sense that every self is aware of its coexistence within one person. Different selves have been postulated, such as the social self, the future self, the past self, the material self, the spiritual self… But do constructs such as self-esteem relate to all the selves in the same way or do they apply differently to different selves? Are there processes that extend through all the possible selves? Should we specify a specific self when looking at a process such as self-esteem?

People who have grown up in different cultures report that their self-concept differs in relation to the environment, as shown by Markus and Kitayama (1991). Chinese Canadians completed different measures with regard to the self, such as a measurement of independent, interdependent self-construal. When the test was conducted in a European setting (English researcher, English questions) their self-construct was predominantly independent. However if the setting (environment) was different (Chinese researcher, test in Chinese) their self-construct was more interdependent. Ross, Xun and Wilson (2002) replicated those findings and extended the method to other self-related constructs. They conclude that identities of bicultural persons may be stored in separate knowledge structures, which can be activated by the associated language.

At that point let’s take a look at different theories about the self. Descartes thought that the self was some entity that existed outside of the material body. William James defined the self as an object of knowledge consisting of whatever the individual views as belonging to himself (Epstein, 1973). George Mead noticed that the self-concept arises in social interaction as product of the individuals concerns of how others will react. Rogers saw the self as an organized fluid, but conceptual pattern of perceptions of characteristics and relationships of the ‘I’ or the ‘Me’, together with values attached to these concepts. Allport used the term proprium instead of self to stress the aspects of the individual that he or she regards of central importance and which contribute to a sense of inward unity. Furthermore the self has been described as a self-theory (Epstein, 1973),and as a cognitive knowledge structure. Sarbin remarked that behavior is organized around cognitive structures. Recently neurobiological pathways (especially the CMS, cortical midline structures) have been found to play an important role in self-referential processes. Those processes, distinguishing stimuli related to one’s own self from those that are not relevant to one’s self, might be the computing basis for the different kinds of self-concepts that have been observed.

I believe that the concept of self entails different cognitive processes, which should be looked at in the most abstract way still meaningful. Arguing from a philosophical, mechanical perspective I believe that having cognitive processes that assign a self / non-self marker to different knowledge objects should be enough to construct a theory of self. I assume that “the self” is a cognitive object that is constructed on-line, depending on the task and environment at hand. The content of those temporary self-representations is drawn for the knowledge that has been marked by the reflexive process as possessing the self-attribute. Those knowledge objects frequently used for the construction of the self should over time become chronically accessible. Such a definition of self would allow many degrees of freedom and would fit many definitions of the self previously given. Thus I propose that whenever “the self” is involved, it is necessary to specify which cognitive processes are suggested to be involved. I also propose that the environment for which the theory or hypothesis is formulated should be explicitly described. Ultimately it might be better to talk about reflexive processes instead of the self.


Epstein, S. (1973). The self-concept revisited. American Psychologist, 28, 404-414.
Heine, S. J., Lehman, D. R., Markus, H. R. & Kitayama, S. (1999). Is there a universal need for positive self-regard? Psychological Review, 106, 766-794.
Markus, H. R. & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, (98), 224-253.
Reinders, A. A. T. S., Nijenhuis, E. R. S., Paans, A. M. J., Korf, J., Willemsen, A. T. M., & Boer, J. A. (2003). One brain, two selves. NeuroImage, (20), 2119-2125.
Ross, M., Xun, W. Q. E., & Wilson, A. E. (2002). Language and the bicultural self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1040-1050.

Written by Martin Glanert

September 22, 2008 at 9:54 pm

Can People who lack Self-Regulation Skills still have Satisfying and Well-functioning Relationships?

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A healthy and stable relationship requires both partners to interact on a frequent and regular basis. Different interests need to be discussed, activities need to be planned and coordinated, different tasks need to be done in a joint effort – and if children come into the equation things do not get more relaxed. Recent literature suggests that interactions that require high levels of social coordination impair cognitive functioning (Finkel et al., 2006). And even though we might show more of our “true self” to our partner than to other people, self-presentation also plays a role in intimate relationships. This is important, because there is evidence that self-presentation is a cognitively costly process (Vohs, Baumeister, & Cariocco, 2005). Furthermore one can assume that with time, people in a close relationship get to know the other person better, which means that we are able to understand the wishes and interests of the partner much better. But this also gives us the responsibility to consider those wishes and we might feel forced to reconsider often. In other words we are forced to self-regulate.

The term self-regulation relates to the many (cognitive) processes that manage drives and emotions. Most important, self-regulation keeps us from acting on our first impulses and helps us concentrate. When we interact with each other, we hardly ever say directly what we think – and for a good reason: We are bound by the rules of our culture and sub-culture to interact in a way that respects the feelings and personal space of those we are interacting with. The most important tool for promoting effective interactions is self-regulation.

Since self-regulation is such an important skill in todays society, it is related to many positive outcomes, such as success in school and university, social economic status, health and also relationship satisfaction. Absence of self-regulation is often related to problems in interpersonal interaction, addiction and mental diseases. Recent studies on the quality of self-regulation indicate that it is both, a trait and an ability. People with high self-regulation ability can control their impulses much easier than people with low self-regulation ability. However it is also the case that self-regulation can be trained: Repeated acts of self-regulation enlarge the total pool of energy we have (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000). Current scientific knowledge proclaims that all the energy of a person is drawn from a single source (Baumeister & Heatherton, 1996). One single act of self-regulation can have an effect on our behavior on a very different task, because we lack the energy that is necessary to control our impulses; this state is called ego-depletion. It can be restored by rest and by positive affect.

On the bright side, a healthy relationship has many positive results (especially for men). If we are in a happy relationship, we receive positive affect from the other, we can talk about ourselves and things that touch us emotionally and reflect together on our emotions, fears and plans for the future. A healthy relationship is regarded as one of the best buffers against stress (Kumashiro & Sedikides, 2005). A fulfilling relationship certainly is on the top of the wish list of many people in the (western) world, however this wish often stays a wish, as can be seen in the raising numbers of divorces. It might be that living in a close and healthy relationship is the “normal thing” for most people, the relationship set-point. Thus the lack of a healthy relationship might be the source of stress. This is true for the absence of a relationship and for a relationship that is characterized by destructive interaction patterns.

Any relationship, and intimate relationships especially, involve a wide array of processes, that demand that we regulate ourselves, but also replenish our resources. It is most parsimonious to assume that within any intimate relationship many different processes interaction with each other, forming a dynamical system. Thus predictions about which behavior will lead to what result are very difficult to make. However, research has shown that the ability to exercise self-regulation is important for several aspects of a relationship. For example Finkel and Campbell (2001) found that self-regulation can help to react in a positive and constructive way to negative comments by the partner. This can help to prevent lapsing into a vicious circle of destructive interaction patterns. In another study Finkel and Campbell (2001) found that persons, that had the ability for self-regulation, were much more forgiving about negative behavior of their partners, compared to individuals that had been ego-depleted beforehand. It has also been found that suppressing criticism can be negative, because suppressing thoughts that are potentially threatening to the relationship requires energy. In other words: The daily struggle not to mention the dirty dishes standing around might be quite ego-depleting. This will probably lead us to snap at our partner quite harshly for some little thing. Big fights often start with little things. A healthy relationship allows both partners to articulate their problems and issues in a positive constructive way, before they become a real problem. “Talking it out” might therefore be an effective strategy to preserve our energy resources. Another problem in heterosexual intimate relationships is that interaction with the opposite sex might require more self-regulation than interaction with someone of the same sex (Metzmacher, Nauts & Rommerswinkel, 2008). Possible explanations for this fact are enhanced self-presentation goals or different interaction styles. Men and women are, for example, inclined to talk about different topics (Bischoping, 1993), men interrupt their interaction partners more often than women do (Anderson & Leaper, 1998), and there are differences in nonverbal behavior between the sexes (Bente, Donaghy & Suwelack, 1998).

However, most evidence for the connection between self-regulatory abilities and relationship-satisfaction found so far is correlative. Studies that have experimentally manipulated self-regulation have (for understandable reasons) focussed on a specific aspect of the relationship, such as forgiveness. Since our understanding of the dynamics involved in intimate relationships is still quite rudimentary, I believe that we cannot, at this point, generalize those results to the broad term of relationship satisfaction.

At this point it is wise to come back to the original questions: Can people who lack self-regulation skills have a satisfying and well-functioning relationship? There are definitely some kind of (hypothetical) relationships that would not require self-regulation of both partners and therefore could be called well-functioning, if the other partner is happy with his or her role. In asymmetrical relationships, in which (often) the man is the patriarch and has the power to do what he pleases, he could act upon his impulses without self-regulating, if culture (or something else for that matter) does not restrict him. Another possibility would be a relationship in which both partners are totally free to do whatever they want, some kind of “flower-power free love” relationship. However I believe that after a short time clashes of interest would arise. Thus this kind of relationship might work for a short period of time, but not for an extended period. I conclude that it is possible for people to have a satisfying and well-functioning relationship without self-regulation, but in my view this extends to only one partner. In most cases of “normal” relationships, even those asymmetrical, I believe that self-regulation is a necessary skill to build effective interactions pattern that benefit both partners.


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