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Self-control, conscientiousness, grit, emotion regulation, willpower - how do you measure it?

(the "brief self-control scale" is downloadable as either a Word doc or a PDF file; the "grit scales", assessing ability to commit to longer term projects, are downloadable as PDF files; assessment of the broader quality of "conscientiousness" as part of the big five personality assessment is downloadable as a Word doc or PDF file, as too an additional "background details" sheet as Word doc or PDF file).  

I've already written three blog posts on "Self-control, conscientiousness, grit, emotion regulation, willpower - whatever word you use, it's sure important to have it", "Self-control, conscientiousness, grit ... more on the many benefits" (these two posts have been combined into a handout downloadable either as a Word doc or as a PDF) and on "Self-control, conscientiousness, grit ... possible adverse effects" (also downloadable as a further Word doc or as a PDF).  These posts highlight the huge importance of our ability to delay immediate gratification now for greater gains later - we simply wouldn't survive as functioning individuals or groups without this self-control.  The posts also demonstrate that people with greater self-control do much better in their lives in multiple areas - health, wealth, relationships, and in achieving pretty much whatever matters to them.  

In today's post I want to look at the question "how do you measure it?"  Probably the first thing to say here is that there isn't a single "it" to measure.  Self-control, conscientiousness, grit, emotion regulation and willpower are all terms that loosely refer to the ability to delay responding to immediate impulses in order to achieve greater gains in the future.  In her paper "The importance of self-control", Angela Duckworth writes about defining self-control saying "Monikers for self-control vary widely and include delay of gratification, effortful control, willpower, executive control, time preference, self-discipline, self regulation, and ego strength.  Moffitt et al. use the term self-control synonymously with conscientiousness, a large class of personality traits that includes responsibility, industriousness, and orderliness.  The common thread running through diverse conceptualizations of self-control is the idea of effortful regulation of the self by the self.  Self-controlled individuals are more adept than their impulsive counterparts at regulating their behavioral, emotional, and attentional impulses to achieve long-term goals."  And Baumeister et al comment (in their "Is there a downside" paper) "Conscientiousness in the Big Five (model of personality) is a blend of self-control, traditionalism, industriousness, responsibility, and orderliness.  Trait self-control is thus a narrower, more specific concept".

When it comes to looking at measurement of self-control and related qualities, I think Duckworth and Kern's 2011 paper "A meta-analysis of the convergent validity of self-control measures" is far-and-away the best current resource.  The full text of this article is freely viewable/downloadable on Angela's university web pages and the abstract reads "There is extraordinary diversity in how the construct of self-control is operationalized in research studies. We meta-analytically examined evidence of convergent validity among executive function, delay of gratification, and self- and informant-report questionnaire measures of self-control.  Overall, measures demonstrated moderate convergence (rrandom=.27 [95% CI=.24, .30]; rfixed=.34 [.33,.35], k=282 samples, N=33,564 participants), although there was substantial heterogeneity in the observed correlations.  Correlations within and across types of self-control measures were strongest for informant-report questionnaires and weakest for executive function tasks.  Questionnaires assessing sensation seeking impulses could be distinguished from questionnaires assessing processes of impulse regulation.  We conclude that self-control is a coherent but multidimensional construct best assessed using multiple methods."

The authors make a whole series of useful points.  Examples include "Our conceptualization of self-control emphasizes ‘‘top-down''processes that inhibit or obviate impulses, and thus implicitly assumes ‘‘bottom-up'' psychological processes that generate these impulses.  While individuals surely vary in what they find tempting ... given that adults and children across cultures reliably rate themselves lower in self-control than in any other character strength (Peterson, 2006), it seems reasonable to assume that almost everyone is tempted by something."  This "two system" model echoes Metcalfe & Mischel's 1999 paper "A hot/cool-system analysis of delay of gratification: dynamics of willpower" and the ideas of several other research teams too.  To an extent, Duckworth & Kern link the bottom-up impulse generating process to the personality trait of extraversion-linked sensation seeking (and to neuroticism-linked urgency).  The top down control processes - for example, planning & perseverance - they link more with the personality trait of conscientiousness.  They suggest that brain subcortical, dopaminergic-mediated sensation seeking probably peaks in late adolescence whereas the psychological processes associated with inhibitory control, premeditation, and perseverance correspond to slowly maturing brain frontal areas.

They write "Our review of the self-control literature revealed four distinct approaches to the measurement of self-control: executive function tasks, delay of gratification tasks, self-report questionnaires, and informant-report questionnaires.  Arguably, each of these approaches assesses voluntary self-governance in the service of goals or standards.  Still, diversity both within and across these types of measures is striking."  Researchers would do well to use a battery of different assessment methods to get a better overview of what's going on.  For clinicians like me, questionnaires make most sense, and the Duckworth/Kern's review validates their usefulness.  They note "Questionnaire measures of self-control have been shown to predict academic achievement, physical health, wealth, juvenile delinquency, criminal activity in adulthood, and even longevity."  Dauntingly their "literature search revealed over 100 unique self- and informant-report questionnaires, most designed as stand-alone measures and a few as subscales of omnibus personality, temperament, or psychopathology inventories."

Currently I use three questionnaires (at different times/situations).  One is a big five aspects personality measure that includes assessment of conscientiousness - the DeYoung et al 100 item "Big five aspects scale" & linked background.  A second is the short form of Angela Duckworth's "Grit scales" - if you want to see how you compare with others on the "Grit scale" take it online at Seligman's "Authentic Happiness website".  Thirdly, and most commonly, I use the 13-item "Brief self-control scale" given in Tangney et al's 2004 paper "High self-control predicts good adjustment, less pathology, better grades, and interpersonal success" and freely viewable/downloadable from the Baumeister & Tice Social Psychology Lab publications page.

(the "brief self-control scale" is downloadable as either a Word doc or a PDF file; the "grit scales", assessing ability to commit to longer term projects, are downloadable as PDF files; assessment of the broader quality of "conscientiousness" as part of the big five personality assessment is downloadable as a Word doc or a PDF file, as too is the additional "background details" sheet as Word doc or PDF file).

The next post in this sequence is "Self-control, conscientiousness, grit ... the importance of training" 

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will power

You've made some excellent points. I work with Incentive Use Disorders and found a lot helpful here. Thanks!

will power

Thank you Bill.  And good luck with the work you're doing too.  With best wishes, James