Self-regulation theories describe how people regulate the setting and pursuit of goals. In the realm of health behavior change, it is a useful lens for understanding what happens after someone is motivated, say, to lose weight. How can they structure a program that will actually lead to weight loss? This post examines the key elements of the theory and then considers how other people can enhance self-regulation processes.
While Bandura and Locke and Latham are the biggest names in self-regulation and goal-setting, and I’ve used some of their work, particulary Locke and Latham, in the past, the paper that I found most useful in preparing this post comes not from the health literature but from organizational psychology. Though sometimes a little dense, its focus on how each of the constructs in theories of self-regulation are measured helps to clarify and pin down those constructs.
Vancouver, J. B. and D. V. Day (2005). “Industrial and Organisation Research on Self-Regulation: From Constructs to Applications.” Applied Psychology: An International Review 54(2): 155-185.
While there are lots of refinements, the key claims of self-regulation theories are:
- More specific goals and proximate (in time) goals lead to greater effort
- More challenging goals lead to greater effort.
- Goal commitment moderates the effect of specificity and challenge.
- Predictors of goal commitment include: attainability, importance, and public commitment.
- High self-efficacy leads people to develop, accept, or commit to more challenging goals, give more effort toward realizing those goals, persist in the face of setbacks, and raise goals in the face of success. Locke and Latham refer to this as the high-performance cycle, because success breeds self-efficacy which leads to more challenging goals which breeds success, and thus greater self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a belief about the person’s ability to perform well at a particular task. It is distinguished conceptually from actual capability (self-efficacy is a belief, which may be wrong), from goals (aspiration for performance), from intended level of performance, and from “expectancies” (belief about the value of the outcome that will occur if the goal is achieved.) In practice, it is sometimes hard to distinguish self-efficacy from all of these other concepts. For example, when people self-report their self-efficacy, they may actually be reporting their intentions or their goals.
- Performance feedback is critical because people try to reduce discrepancies between goal and performance. People vary in the extent to which they seek and accept feedback. There are theories about the effects of different kinds of feedback, but the empirical evidence for those theories is mixed.
- People sometimes strive to reduce other discrepancies as well:
- Between performance on a previous instance and the level of the next goal
- Between performance and expected level of performance (which may differ from the goal)
- Between self- and external- assessments of performance
- There are also theories about the effects of orientation toward different types of goals (learning vs. performance) but Vancouver and Day argue that the studies showing better outcomes of learning-orientation may be due to choice of tasks where a learning-orientation is more helpful.
With that background, then, where can social elements fit into self-regulation? At first, it sounds like an oxymoron: it’s self-regulation, after all. But I think there are roles for social elements.
First, public commitments can increase commitment to one’s personal goals. There is some controversy about this, however, as some people have argued that publicly announcing one’s goals can backfire if there won’t be public accountability for achieving them. I’ll take up that controversy up in a future post.
Second, consider social comparisons, which is certainly an important enough topic that I will devote a future post to it. Comparisons can be useful in the process of setting goals, through self-assessment (what goals are other people in similar circumstances setting) and self-enhancement (wow, I’m good, since I’m setting higher goals than those other people). The drive toward self-improvement can also push people toward setting more challenging goals, if they are inspired by seeing that someone else has improved by setting challenging goals.
Comparative performance feedback can also function similarly to enhance self-efficacy, through self-assessment (I did as well as can be expected, given the difficulty of the task as revealed by others’ performance) and through self-enhancement (wow, I’m good, since I’m better than those other people). Of course, comparisons can also undermine self-efficacy, if others are performing better.
Goal and performance comparisons can also create a competitive drive. Rather than striving to reduce the discrepancy between one’s performance and one’s goal, someone else’s performance can serve as the target. With the right competitor, this can provide just the right challenge level. But if the competitor is too good or too bad, it may not be as effective.
Third, other people can be a good source of performance feedback. Sometimes, objective monitoring is possible, as when people where pedometers that automatically record and upload step counts. In other cases, people self-report, can be prone to errors, due to forgetting, misperceptions, or self-deception. The power of real-time food-logging tools, for example, is that they give people a better chance to record all of the food they eat rather than trying to recall at the end of the day. In some cases, other people may be more reliable monitors than self-report. For example, if I set a goal of smiling and making eye contact with students more often during my class lectures, I will get more reliable performance feedback by having a teaching assistant count for me than if I try to count for myself.
Fourth, other people can be a source of social rewards. The things I’ve read recently about self-regulation haven’t directly addressed the power of rewards delivered upon goal completion, so I need to dig a little further. But other people can be an important source of rewards that motivate effort toward completing goals. For example, expectations of friends celebrating successes or noticing failures can be effective rewards or punishments. And mere social contact with others can be used as a small reward to give oneself. For example, there’s been a lot of online chatter among students lately about software such as RescueTime that temporarily disables access to distractions like games, email, and Facebook. Perhaps people could set up access to these as rewards that they unlock when they achieve certain daily health behavior goals, such as taking a walk.