WHY IS SELF-REGULATION IMPORTANT?
Invariably the goals we adopt or are given to us are challenged in a number of ways. We may have counterproductive impulses, such as eating dessert even though we have a goal to lose weight. We may encounter situational hurdles, obstacles that interfere with the ongoing pursuit of some goal. We may have competing goals, so that satisfying one goal detracts from accomplishing another. Thus, people must manage the conflict between goals. And, in some cases, progress may be so slow that it is difficult to sustain motivation. Remaining on course toward goal pursuit requires a set of strategies that, collectively, constitute self-regulation.
Not every good behavior involves self-regulation, Hoyle clarified; self-regulation is behavior over which the individual exercises some level of discretion. Self-regulation requires considerable cognitive energy and effort. If the individual is constantly self-regulating, it is impossible to sustain momentum toward accomplishing a goal. It is most effective for the individual to move many behaviors outside the realm of the processes that require self-regulation.
For example, some behaviors are contingent on cues in the environment and are simply habits. The individual performs a habit when he or she links a behavior with some cue in the environment, Hoyle explained, and thus can accomplish the behavior without having to draw on self-regulation. Also, many behaviors are attributable to impulse. Impulses may be productive or they may detract from goal pursuit in some way, but they occur without self-regulation. Other behaviors are strongly influenced by normative pressure. This is frequently seen among adolescents, who experience a critical push/pull between the normative environment and their own individual goals. Finally, there are behaviors that are determined by social, political, or religious systems within which people live. In some cases those systems serve the role of regulating behavior, thereby circumventing the need for self-regulation.
Trends in society demonstrate some of the consequences that result from a lack of self-regulation. As Hoyle put it, “I don’t think we need much convincing that a lot of what we see around us seems to involve a failure of self-control at a fairly large level.” For example, Hoyle noted, U.S. consumers have not exerted much self-regulation when it comes to debt levels. In the late 1970s, consumer revolving credit debt was $54 billion. By the end of the 1990s, it rose to more than $600 billion, and now approaches $1 trillion.2 Likewise, Hoyle observed, obesity rates are at crisis levels. In 1990, no state had an obesity prevalence rate above 15 percent. By 2007, only one state had an obesity prevalence rate less than 20 percent, and 30 states had a preva-
2See http://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/g19/hist/cc_hist_sa.html [July 2011].