Course Notes Motivation and Self-Regulation

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Course Notes Motivation and Self-Regulation

On this page, take note of some additional info about achievement motivation that you will need to succeed on course assignments.

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When we feel motivated, it is because our drives, instincts, or beliefs are directing our actions and behaviors, pushing and pulling us to reach a goal or desired outcome. But unlike a lab rat experiencing motivation to reach the cheese at the end of a maze, we have mostly long-term goals or desires that require sustained motivation over time. These goals require us to overcome multiple failures or barriers. As we’ve read about in the last couple of pages, certain beliefs help us sustain motivation, but self-control over our behaviors and responses is also key. On this page, you will read more about self- regulation, the multifaceted process through which we control our thoughts and actions to achieve goals and conform to standards.

Components of Self-regulation

Self-regulation is a process of controlling our behaviors, thoughts, and emotions in order to reach specific goals or standards of behavior. It’s tempting to think of self- regulation as simply willpower or self-control, which is the ability to stop ourselves. Self-control is required to politely refuse dessert when we are on a diet. But self- regulation is required if our goal is to maintain a healthy diet over many years. When we exercise self-regulation, we are deciding what actions to take (or to avoid) to achieve a goal, and we are constantly monitoring our progress. According to Roy F. Baumeister and Kathleen D. Vohs (2007), self-regulation has four components: standards, motivation, monitoring, and willpower.


Standards are what we use to measure our success. They are the goals, rules, principles, or expectations against which we compare our progress. When standards are clear, we are better able to regulate our behavior and to adjust when necessary, and we experience greater self-efficacy and motivation.




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Motivation, in this sense, is the reason we are doing something. It may be the drive or desire behind achieving our goal. Or it may be the value that a task holds for us. According to Baumeister and John Tierney (2011), it is not enough to have clear standards and self-efficacy, or to be capable of effective monitoring and self-control. If we don’t care about why we are doing something, we fail to self-regulate.


Monitoring is vital for self-regulation. People who are self-regulated keep one eye on the standard and monitor how well they are progressing toward that standard. As they monitor, they receive the feedback necessary for them to adjust their behavior. This feedback can come from their own thoughts, from other people, or from the task itself.


Willpower is the ability to change and resist urges. It is the energy that is required to exert control over our behaviors. According to Baumeister and Tierney, the strength of our willpower will depend in part on some innate individual differences (consider the personality trait of conscientiousness). But similar to Dweck’s mindset, willpower can be developed through practice. Small acts of self-control may increase our ability to exert willpower over time (Baumeister & Tierney, 2011). However, Baumeister and Tierney believe that we have a limited amount of willpower, and that exercising too much self-control can deplete our ability to exert willpower in a future task. This is why, after a stressful day at work when you may have refrained from yelling at an annoying co-worker, you may find yourself more likely to give in to your desire for ice cream, even though you told yourself you wouldn’t.

Multiple-Choice Question

Which of the following BEST describes self-regulation?

the external tools used to best manage one’s time in order to accomplish many tasks in the same period of time the willpower and self-control to stop unwanted behaviors or habits the instinct to achieve a goal or desired outcome at any cost a series of actions related to managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in order to achieve a specific outcome or standard

Correct. Self-regulation is a process of controlling our behaviors, thoughts, and emotions in order to reach specific goals or standards of behavior.



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Self-Regulation in Practice

Consider how these four components may be used by college students to complete their degrees. First, the students would need to identify a standard. For some students, the standard may simply be to graduate, no matter how long it takes. Others may have a standard such as wanting to finish with a specific GPA or within a specific time frame. The motivation for the task may differ by person, too. Many students may be motivated by the new job opportunities or salary increases that a college degree can offer, while others may be more motivated by the personal challenge. Either way, the students will need to monitor their progress toward the goal. They should complete assignments on time and check their understanding of the material by studying and engaging in self- quizzing. They may need to adjust their schedules or try different study techniques to help them achieve their standards. And of course, the students will need to exert willpower on the days or weeks when they find it hard to read the material, engage with the discussions, or complete the assignments. They may be tempted to prioritize their social lives or binge-watch a new television series, but these times are opportunities to exercise self-control.

Multiple-Choice Question

A psychology student would like to earn an A on his paper, so before he begins to write, he examines the resources that his instructor has provided. He reads the sample paper to get a sense of the scope of the assignment, carefully reviews the instructions, and refers to the grading rubric when writing and also when revising his paper. He even sets up an appointment with a tutor at the writing center to get feedback. Which component of self- regulation do his actions BEST illustrate?

willpower metacognition monitoring motivation

Correct. The student is monitoring his behavior by comparing his paper to the standards set in the sample paper and rubric so that he can achieve his goal of earning an A.



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