Examining mechanisms of self-control improvement
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Prior research provides evidence that people can improve their self-control performance through practice (e.g., Muraven, Baumeister, & Tice, 1999). Building on the Strength Model of self-control (Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994; Muraven & Baumeister, 2000), this work assumes that self-control practice operates by increasing the capacity or endurance of a domain-general self-control resource. However, recent developments that highlight the role of motivation in self-control performance (e.g., Clarkson, Hirt, Jia, & Alexander, 2010; Job, Dweck, & Walton, 2010) suggest that changes in values, expectations, and beliefs may be driving the improvements over time. In the current study, I adapted a paradigm from the self-control training literature (Muraven, 2010a) in order to examine the possible role of motivational mechanisms in self-control performance improvement. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three practice conditions: a self-control task (avoiding sweets) or two control tasks. Self-control performance and potential motivational mechanisms were assessed both before and after the two-week practice period. Consistent with earlier research, self-control practice was associated with improved performance on an initial self-control performance task; however, there was no evidence of improvement in a post-depletion self-control task. Although self-control practice was not strongly associated with changes across potential motivational mechanisms, some exploratory analyses suggested that self-control instrumentality (beliefs that successful self-control is a means to central, self-relevant outcomes) may be an important predictor of self-control performance. I discuss implications for motivational models of self-control.