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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.


Anderson, K.J. & Leaper, C. (1998). Meta-Analyses of Gender Effects on
Conversational Interruption: Who, What, Where, When and How? Sex Roles,
39, 225-252.
Baumeister, R.F. & Heatherton, T.F. (1996). Self-Regulation Failure: An Overview.
Psychological Inquiry, 7, 1-15.
Bente, G., Donaghy, W.C. & Suwelack, D. (1998). Sex Differences in Body
Movement and Visual Attention: an Integrated analyses of Movement and
Gaze in Mixed-sex Dyads. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 22, 31-58.
Bischoping, K. (1993). Gender Differences in Conversation Topics, 1922-1990. Sex
Roles, 28, 1-18.
Finkel, E. J. & Campell, W. K., 2001. Self-Control and Accommodation in Close Relationships: An Interdependence Analysis, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 263-277.
Finkel, E.J., Campbell, W.K., Brunell, A.B., Dalton, A.N., Scarbeck, S.J. & Charttrand,
T.L. (2006). High-Maintenance Interaction: Inefficient Social Coordination
Impairs Self-Regulation. Journal of Personality and social Psychology, 91,
Kumashiro, M. & Sedikides, C., 2005. Taking on Board Liability-Focused Information. Psychological Science, 16, 732-739.
Metzmacher, M., Nauts, S. & Rommerswinkel, V., 2008. The Effect of Mixed-Sex Interaction on Executive Functioning, unpublished manuscript.
Muraven, M. & Baumeister, R. F., 2000. Self-Regulation and Depletion of Limited Resources: Does Self-Control Resemble a Muscle? Psychological Bulletin , 126, 247-259 .
Vohs, K.D., Baumeister, R.F., & Ciarocco, N.J. (2005). Self-Regulation and Self-
Presentation: Regulatory Resource Depletion Impairs Impression
Management and Effortful Self-Presentation Depletes Regulatory Resources.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 632-657.

Ego Depletion & Executive Functioning

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Executive functioning is the mental ability to control and manage cognitive processes. It is a theoretical cognitive system that involves processes such as attention, abstract thinking, rule acquisition, initiating appropriate actions and inhibiting inappropriate actions and selecting relevant sensory information. Executive functioning is sometimes called central executive or cognitive control and plays an important role in many psychological theories. Many of them come from observation of patients with frontal lobe damage. They show disorganized behaviour and strategies in everyday life, although the more basic functions such as reasoning, learning and memory are still functioning. Thus it was hypothesized that there must be an overarching system coordinating the basic cognitive processes.

Although there is some evidence that points to a cognitive system of executive control, it is hard to translate those findings into sound scientific evidence. This is due to the nature of executive control, which is mainly concerned with dynamic coordination of cognitive resources. It manifests itself only indirectly by effecting other cognitive processes. The executive system is believed to be involved in handling novel situations that require functions, which cannot be explained by the reproduction of learned schemas or set behaviours, for example situations which require the inhibition of strong habitual responses. This inhibition of habitual responses (self-control or self-regulation) is of utmost importance for humans living together. Many problems (such as crime, addiction and obesity) are connected to failures of self-regulation.

The term self-regulation or self-control must (of course) not be taken literally, as a self does not regulate itself, but it may control behaviours, feelings and thoughts. To investigate which processes are influenced by self-regulation numerous experiments have been conducted. Most experiments first impair self-regulatory abilities by subjecting the participants to a task that possibly involves self-control. If those subjects do worse on a subsequent task, than subjects that have not undergone ego depletion, the task is presumed to require self-control.

On the matter of cognitive processing, Schmeichel, Vohs and Baumeister (2003) showed that most forms of intelligent thought are affected by ego-depletion. Wegner, Schneider, Cater & White (1997) asked participants to suppress thoughts about a white bear or to not suppress thoughts. Dependent measure was the time participants spend on unsolvable anagrams. Those who previously had suppressed their thought did quit significantly sooner. Memory also seems to be impaired, but only if the task involves cognitive processing (for example choosing which items to remember). More basic function of memory, for example simple recall, does not seem to be influenced. Vohs, Baumeister, Twenge, Schmeichel, Tice & Crocker (2005) presented different products and asked the participants which one they would like to have. As dependent measurement they used a supposedly healthy drink that tasted very bad. Participants who had previously been assigned the difficult decision tasked drank less than one-third of the amount participants in the control group drank. They also quit a mathematical computing task earlier.

Interpersonal processes play an important part in human life. Vohs et al. (2005) found that self-presentation requires self-regulation. They asked participants to present themselves very positively to a friend and moderate to a stranger (which goes against the natural urge to be modest with friends, but to present a favourable picture of oneself to strangers). Participants in this condition were faster to stop with a mathematical task than participants in the control condition, who presented themselves consonant with typical self-presentation patterns. On the topic of love, Vohs and Baumeister (2004) examined the self-regulatory processes of people in a relationship. Having to read a dull historical biography, participants either had to show exaggerate emotional and facial expression or read the text normally. Those in the ego-depletion condition took significantly longer on watching pictures of attractive people. Richeson and Shelton (2003) found that suppressing stereotypes led to ego depletion effects in participants high on racial bias when interacting with members of the minority group.

Regulating affect also draws energy on self-control processes. Muraven , Tice & Baumeister (1998) showed participants emotionally distressing film clips. They were asked to either show no emotion, show exaggerated emotion or just behave normally. The dependent measurement was a handgrip exercise, as this is supposed to involve self-regulation (going on even, if it hurts). Participants in the normal condition press the handgrip longer.

It is also important to look at processes that can prevent ego-depletion or even replenish self-control abilities. A possibility to prevent subjects from showing effects of ego depletion is to install an automatic process that takes over the function of the “normal control process” that is supposed to draw on self-regulatory energy. One way to do this are intention implementations. Webb and Sheeran (2002) asked participants to form intention implementations on the Stroop task. Whenever they would see a word, they would ignore the meaning of the word and only focus on the colour. Participants who had formed implementation intentions about the Stroop task showed no depletion effect on a subsequent task. A way to neutralise the effects of ego depletion would be to replenish the energy sources of the self. Smith (2002) first depleted self-regulatory energy by a series of challenging tasks and then had the participants either read a magazine or meditate. Those who had meditated performed much better on a subsequent measurement of self-regulation. Motivation might also play an important factor when assessing effects of ego-depletion. Weiland, Lassiter, Daniels and Fischer (2004) had participants cross out the letter E from a text, either using very difficult or easy rules. Depleted participants who where primed with achievement, instead of a neutral prime, continued longer on a unsolvable puzzle test.

The conclusion is that self-regulation has significant influence on executive functioning, affecting function on a broad variety of behaviour. Self-regulation might be the most important adaptation of human behaviour that enables us to live in cultural groups. Ultimately, Freud might have hinted in the right direction with his account of the superego as an entity supplying the individual with energy for self-regulation.

For our experiment we will have a broad variety of dependent measures to choose from. There are cognitive tasks (Stroop, anagram solving), tasks that measure how long participants engage in a behaviour (for example solving puzzles) before they quit and more real-life measurements (drinking, handgrip). They all have their advantages and their disadvantages: The Stroop test, for example, is very reliable, but might lack ecological validity. More ecological valid tasks (such as drinking bad tasting fluid or pressing a handgrip) might not be so reliable. Furthermore, tasks measuring ‘time before quit’ might be confounded with motivation. The problem with all those tasks is that you cannot measure ego-depletion without a tasks that makes use of self-regulation itself. Future research will have to deal with this strong connection between the manipulation and the dependent measurement. Maybe a creative mind will come up with a way to measure ego-depletion without inducing it at the same time.


Muraven, M., Tice, D. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Self-control as limited resource: Regulatory depletion patterns. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 774-789.

Richeson, J. A., & Shelton, J. N. (2003). When prejudice does not pay: Effects of interracial contact on executive function. Psychological Science, 14, 287-290.

Schmeichel, B. J., Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (2003). Intellectual performance and ego depletion: Role of the self in logical reasongin and other information processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 33-46.

Smith, R. W. (2002). Effects of relaxation on self-regulatory depletion. (Doctoral dissertation, Case Western Reserve University, 2002.) Dissertation Abstracts International, 63 (5-B), 2605.

Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F. (2004). Depletion of self-regulatory resources makes people selfish. Unpublished manuscript, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F., & Ciarocco, N. J. (2005). Self-regulation and self-presentation: Regulatory resource depletion impairs impression management and effortful selfpresentation depletes regulatory resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 632 – 657.

Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F., Twenge, J. M., Schmeichel, B. J., Tice, D. M., & Crocker, J. (2004). Decision fatigue: Making multiple decisions depletes the self. Manuscript in preparation.

Webb, T. L., & Sheeran, P. (2002). Can implementation intentions help to overcome ego-depletion? Journal of Experimental Psychology, 39, 279-286.

Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 5-13.

Weiland, P. E., Lassiter, G. D., Daniels, L., & Fisher, A. (2004, January). Can nonconscious goals moderate self-regulatory failure? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Austin, TX.