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J Exp Psychol Gen. 2015 Jun;144(3):639-54. doi: 10.1037/xge0000065. Epub 2015 Mar 30.

The propagation of self-control: Self-control in one domain simultaneously improves self-control in other domains.

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Imperial College Business School, Imperial College London.
Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University.
Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University.

Erratum in


[Correction Notice: An Erratum for this article was reported in Vol 144(3) of Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (see record 2015-24174-008). The affiliations for co-authors Kuangjie Zhang and Steven Sweldens were incorrect. All versions of this article have been corrected.] A rich tradition in self-control research has documented the negative consequences of exerting self-control in 1 task for self-control performance in subsequent tasks. However, there is a dearth of research examining what happens when people exert self-control in multiple domains simultaneously. The current research aims to fill this gap. We integrate predictions from the most prominent models of self-control with recent neuropsychological insights in the human inhibition system to generate the novel hypothesis that exerting effortful self-control in 1 task can simultaneously improve self-control in completely unrelated domains. An internal meta-analysis on all 18 studies we conducted shows that exerting self-control in 1 domain (i.e., controlling attention, food consumption, emotions, or thoughts) simultaneously improves self-control in a range of other domains, as demonstrated by, for example, reduced unhealthy food consumption, better Stroop task performance, and less impulsive decision making. A subset of 9 studies demonstrates the crucial nature of task timing-when the same tasks are executed sequentially, our results suggest the emergence of an ego depletion effect. We provide conservative estimates of the self-control facilitation (d = |0.22|) as well as the ego depletion effect size (d = |0.17|) free of data selection and publication biases. These results (a) shed new light on self-control theories, (b) confirm recent claims that previous estimates of the ego depletion effect size were inflated due to publication bias, and (c) provide a blueprint for how to handle the power issues and associated file drawer problems commonly encountered in multistudy research projects.

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