Self-control strength is a central construct to theories of willpower, optimal functioning, freedom from addiction, and abilities to override problematic social motives and behaviors (e.g., aggression). Understanding the processing basis of self-control strength, and more particularly its depletion, is thus of paramount importance to both basic and applied literatures. Self-control strength, the present review suggests, can be profitably viewed in cognitive control terms, particularly so in relation to operations of a brain-based cognitive control circuit involving the anterior cingulate cortex (linked to monitoring potential or actual unwanted outcomes) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (linked to controlling potential or actual unwanted outcomes). Also, sufficient task motivation is important to operations of this circuit and depletion effects might be understood in terms of such depletion effects on task motivation. Multiple sources of evidence are marshaled in support of this cognitive control perspective of self-control strength. It is concluded that viewing self-control strength in cognitive control terms has considerable merit. Social, cognitive, personality, and clinical sources of data are integrated in the analysis. William James (1890) was among the first psychologists to highlight the importance of self-control to adaptive functioning. Paradoxically, though, he was skeptical of the individual’s ability to override problematic behaviors. Indeed, he suggested that habits, once established, are especially difficult to overcome (thus his oft-cited phrase ‘set in plaster ’ to refer to adulthood functioning). Although building on quite different ideas concerning human nature, Freud (1957), Watson (1913), and Skinner (1963) also stressed the habitual, seemingly deterministic nature of social behaviors and responses to incentives (e.g., immediate reward). Cognitive psychology in the 1970s similarly emphasized automatic processes and habits (e.g., Collins & Loftus, 1975), as did social psychology in the 1980
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