A person’s efforts to change or maintain his or her actions over time, whether these involve dieting, living on a budget, or training to run a marathon, involve careful planning that is a form of self-regulation.
If we have a self-regulatory strategy, this means that we specify in advance how we want to respond in certain situations. These “if-then” plans or implementation intentions may dictate how much weight we give to different kinds of information (emotional or cognitive), a timetable to carry out a decision, or even how we will deal with disruptive influences that might interfere with our plans (like a bossy salesperson who tries to steer us to a different choice).
Now, the bad news: As any frustrated dieter knows, self-regulation doesn’t necessarily work. Just because we devise a well-meaning strategy doesn’t mean we’ll follow it. Sometimes our best-laid intentions go awry literally because we’re too tired to fight temptation.
Research documents for example that our ability to self-regulate declines as the day goes on. The Morning Morality Effect shows that people are more likely to cheat, lie, or even commit fraud in the afternoon than in the morning. Scientists know that the part of the brain they call the executive control center that we use for important decision making, including moral judgments, can be worn down or distracted even by simple tasks like memorizing numbers. As one researcher nicely put it, “To the extent that you’re cognitively tired, you’re more likely to give in to the devil on your shoulder.”