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Self-control: Beyond commitment

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 February 2010

Howard Rachlin
Department of Psychology, State University of New York at Stony Brook, Stony Brook, NY 11794-2500 Electronic mail:


Self-control, so important in the theory and practice of psychology, has usually been understood introspectively. This target article adopts a behavioral view of the self (as an abstract class of behavioral actions) and of self-control (as an abstract behavioral pattern dominating a particular act) according to which the development of self-control is a molar/molecular conflict in the development of behavioral patterns. This subsumes the more typical view of self-control as a now/later conflict in which an act of self-control is a choice of a larger but later reinforcer over a smaller but sooner reinforcer. If at some future time the smaller-sooner reinforcer will be more valuable than the larger-later reinforcer, self-control may be achieved through a commitment to the largerlater reinforcer prior to that point. According to some, there is a progressive internalization of commitment in the development of self-control. This presents theoretical and empirical problems. In two experiments – one with pigeons choosing between smallersooner and larger-later reinforcers, the other with adult humans choosing between short-term particular and long-term abstract reinforcers – temporal patterning of choices increased self-control.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995

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