The Network for Integrated Behavioural Science  
University of Nottingham


Self-control failure occurs when an individual experiences a conflict between immediate desires and longer-term goals, recognises psychological forces that hinder goal-directed action, tries to resist them but fails in the attempt. Behavioural economists often invoke assumptions about self-control failure to justify proposals for policy interventions. These arguments require workable methods for eliciting individuals’ goals and for verifying occurrences of self-control failure, but developing such methods confronts two problems. First, it is not clear that individuals’ goals are context-independent. Second, facing an actual conflict between a desire and a self-acknowledged goal, a person may consciously choose not to resist the desire, thinking that spontaneity is more important than self-control. We address these issues through an online survey that elicited individuals’ self-reported judgements about the relative importance of self-control and spontaneity in conflicts between enjoyment and health-related goals. To test for context-sensitivity, the judgement-elicitation questions were preceded by a memory recall task which directed participants’ attention either to the enjoyment of acting on desires or to the satisfaction of achieving goals. We found little evidence of context-sensitivity. In both treatments, however, judgements that favoured spontaneity were expressed with roughly the same frequency and strength as judgments that favoured self-control.

Details: Behavioural Public Policy 

Authors:   Kevin Grubiak, Andrea Isoni, Robert Sugden, Mengjie Wang and Jiwei Zheng

This publication had media coverage in the Daily Telegraph (31 January 2022) and i (5-6 February 2022 pp 38).



Posted on Tuesday 8th February 2022

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