The Propagation of Self-Control: Self-Control in One Domain Simultaneously Improves Self-Control in Other Domains


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Abstract

A rich tradition in self-control research has documented the negative consequences of exerting self-control in 1 task for self-control performance in subsequent tasks. However, there is a dearth of research examining what happens when people exert self-control in multiple domains simultaneously. The current research aims to fill this gap. We integrate predictions from the most prominent models of self-control with recent neuropsychological insights in the human inhibition system to generate the novel hypothesis that exerting effortful self-control in 1 task can simultaneously improve self-control in completely unrelated domains. An internal meta-analysis on all 18 studies we conducted shows that exerting self-control in 1 domain (i.e., controlling attention, food consumption, emotions, or thoughts) simultaneously improves self-control in a range of other domains, as demonstrated by, for example, reduced unhealthy food consumption, better Stroop task performance, and less impulsive decision making. A subset of 9 studies demonstrates the crucial nature of task timing—when the same tasks are executed sequentially, our results suggest the emergence of an ego depletion effect. We provide conservative estimates of the self-control facilitation (d = |0.22|) as well as the ego depletion effect size (d = |0.17|) free of data selection and publication biases. These results (a) shed new light on self-control theories, (b) confirm recent claims that previous estimates of the ego depletion effect size were inflated due to publication bias, and (c) provide a blueprint for how to handle the power issues and associated file drawer problems commonly encountered in multistudy research projects.

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