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New Ideas in Psychology 30 (2012) 155165

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New Ideas in Psychology

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A conceptual framework for understanding self-regulation in adults

Meagan B. MacKenzie, Peter G. Mezo*, Sarah E. Francis
Psychology Department, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. Johns, NL, Canada A1B 3X9

a b s t r a c t
Executive function
Intrinsic motivation
PsycINFO classication:

Multiple models of self-regulation have been posited, yet despite the apparent overlap
between them, there is no common theoretical framework to unite the many theories.
Authors in the area of self-regulation research have noted the lack of cross-eld
communication due to the absence of a conceptual framework and of common terms to
describe self-regulatory processes (Bandura, 2005; Boekaerts, Maes, & Karoly, 2005;
Karoly, Boekaerts, & Maes, 2005). The objective of the current review is to propose
a common lexicon and a comprehensive model to integrate and organize the extant selfregulation research, thereby facilitating the understanding of self-regulation. The proposed
model revisits classic cybernetic theory (Wiener, 1948), and is composed of a reference,
input, comparator, and output. Each of these components is represented in current selfregulation theory, and is discussed as it relates to self-regulation models and ongoing
empirical research.
2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Research in self-regulation has been continuous since at

least the late 1950s (e.g., Miller, Galanter, & Pribram, 1960;
Powers, Clark, & McFarland, 1960). During this time, not
only has empirical evidence for self-regulation accumulated, but so, too, have the theoretical models designed to
explain self-governing behavior. As a result, it has repeatedly been contended that there is a need for a conceptual
framework within the self-regulation literature in order to
organize and clarify theoretical denitions (Bandura, 2005;
Boekaerts et al., 2005; Karoly et al., 2005) and to draw
parallels across domain-specic bodies of research
(Bandura, 2005; Boekaerts et al., 2005; Boekaerts, Pintrich,
& Zeidner, 2005b; Locke & Latham, 2004; Pervin, 1989, pp.
473479; Vancouver & Day, 2005; Vohs & Baumeister,
2004; Wood, 2005). Therefore, the objective of this
review is to investigate the correspondence between published cybernetic-based self-regulation theories and
a prototypical model of self-regulation based on cybernetic
* Corresponding author. Tel.: 1 709 737 4345; fax: 1 709 737 2430.
E-mail addresses: (M.B. MacKenzie), mezo@, (P.G. Mezo), (S.E.
0732-118X/$ see front matter 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Cybernetics, which can be dened as a theory of

mechanical system regulation, has been a guiding force for
models of self-regulation in psychology (Austin &
Vancouver, 1996); however, current self-regulation
research no longer consistently refers back to the theories
of its origin (Austin & Vancouver, 1996; Cervone, Shadel,
Smith, & Fiori, 2006). Self-regulation theory, as based on
cybernetic theory, is composed of four elements organized
in a linear feedback loop. These four components are the
reference, input, comparator, and output (Carver & Scheier,
1982, 1998; cf. Wiener, 1948). Simply stated, the reference
is the value towards which self-regulation is directed. It can
be a plan, a standard of comparison, a goal, or an ideal.
References may be internally or externally generated, and
can exist at many levels of abstraction. Input is the
perception of ones current state (cognitive, affective, or
behavioral) relative to the reference. Input can range from
non-conscious to metacognitive processes. The comparator
is the component responsible for the cognitive phenomena
occurring between input and output; the intermediary
process of the comparator involves calculating any
discrepancy between the input and the reference. Finally,
the output is the response component based on the presence or absence of a discrepancy as calculated by the


M.B. MacKenzie et al. / New Ideas in Psychology 30 (2012) 155165

comparator. If there is such a discrepancy, there will be

a response, such as an effort or action, to reduce or correct
the inconsistency. This effort produces information available to be attended to and constitutes feedback for subsequent input. If there is no discrepancy, there will be an
action taken to terminate the feedback loop.
The present conceptual analysis aims to illustrate the
utility of using a cybernetic-based model of self-regulation
to integrate existing models of self-regulation. This integration has three benets: (1) to provide a more parsimonious description of self-regulation processes, (2) to better
identify weaknesses in the self-regulation literature, more
specically, where theories may have omitted descriptions
of specic self-regulation components, and (3) to promote
research across self-regulatory domains that may be relatively insulated from one another. This goal of integration
will be achieved by illustrating how model-specic
research programs are consistent with individual components of the framework. More specically, each of the
theories of self-regulation identied in this paper contains
one or more of the basic self-regulation components. In
each case, the specic exemplar will be discussed and
integrated in reference to other specic exemplars of the
same self-regulation component.
The use of a common conceptual framework will benet
researchers in three ways. First, the establishment of
a common framework promotes parsimony and ease of
communication within the broad area of self-regulation
research. Second, a common framework will allow for the
identication of gaps in the literature. Namely, it will
facilitate the identication of areas where empirical study
is sparse within current theories of self-regulation or areas
where, for example, theories omit full consideration of one
of the basic self-regulation components. Finally, a framework that integrates current theories into common
components may aid researchers in forming novel research
questions that bridge self-regulation theories and promote
advances within given domains of research in selfregulation.
1. Identication of current theories of self-regulation
Multiple methods were used to identify theories of selfregulation for inclusion. First, a PsycINFO database search
was employed to nd any edited books in the area of selfregulation using the major subject headings of self-regulation, OR self-management, OR self-control. These terms were
used for this search as some authors have noted that these
terms may be used interchangeably within the selfregulation literature (Boekaerts et al., 2005b; Vohs &
Baumeister, 2004). This search yielded two handbooks
(i.e., Baumeister & Vohs, 2004; Boekaerts, Pintrich, &
Zeidner, 2005a). Twelve references cited within these
books that describe a theory of self-regulation were identied and obtained.
Next, PsycINFO was again utilized to search for published review articles in this area. To identify pertinent
review articles, key terms related to self-regulation were
again used (i.e., major subject headings of self-regulation,
OR self-control, OR self-management, AND review as the
publication type). These terms were entered with the

following search limits: peer-reviewed journals, journal

articles, published in English, human subjects, and adulthood. After reviewing titles and abstracts of 1275 search
results, two review articles pertaining to adult humans
were identied and obtained (i.e., Austin & Vancouver,
1996; Cervone et al., 2006). Within these reviews, 22 articles that describe a theory of self-regulation were
A nal database search was conducted using PsycINFO
to identify any models or theories not included in the
aforementioned works. This search employed relevant
major subject headings (self-regulation, OR self-control OR
self-management) and the same search limits as used in the
review article search. This search yielded 2534 results in
PsycINFO year 1958 to the present. Subsequently, a thorough title and abstract review was used to identify relevant
theoretical articles. As a result, an addition eight potential
theories of self-regulation were identied for possible
Theories were examined and included if they were
congruent with the theoretical denition of self-regulation
used herein, including at least one component of the
cybernetic-based self-regulation theory, as well as the
operation of feedback within the specic theory. The
components of the cybernetic-based self-regulation theory
could be either formalized, or explicitly discussed in the
theoretical paper, or the components could be nonformalized but necessary, or implicitly included in the
respective models. With regards to including a model in
this review, at least one component of the cybernetic-based
model must be explicitly discussed. Following this literature search process, 16 of 42 theories were identied for
integration into the aforementioned cybernetic model of
self-regulation. See Table 1 for a list of models and theories
and how their components map onto the conceptual
framework of cybernetic-based self-regulation theory.
2. Component one: reference
Selecting a reference value is the rst stage of the
conceptual framework for self-regulation. This component
is found in nearly all of the examined theories, although the
reference is dened in different ways. Ten theories of selfregulation have a formalized, or explicit, reference
component (i.e., Ajzen, 1985, 1991; Carver & Scheier, 1982,
1998; Higgins, 1987; Feather, 1982; Festinger, 1942; Ford,
1987; Frese & Zapf, 1994; Gollwitzer, 1990; Mischel,
Shoda, & Rodriguez, 1989; Royce & Powell, 1981; see
Table 1), and six others have an implicit, or non-formalized
goal concept embedded within their respective theories
(i.e., Bandura, 1986; Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994;
Gross, 1999; Kanfer, 1970; Kanfer & Karoly, 1972; Klinger,
1975; Martin & Tesser, 1989; see Table 1).
The reference component is central to a cyberneticbased theory of self-regulation because it initiates the
feedback loop. The reference is the ideal goal towards
which organisms strive, and this striving sustains the selfregulatory process. Different researchers choose to focus on
and describe different features of the reference component,
each of which will be reviewed in detail below. Some selfregulation theories focus on the hierarchical nature of the

Table 1
Self-regulation theories as they parallel the cybernetic-based self-regulation framework components.

Ajzen, 1985, 1991

Bandura, 1986
Baumeister et al.,

Ford, 1987
Frese & Zapf, 1994

Gollwitzer, 1990

Gross, 1999
Higgins, 1987




Implicit: perception of behavior

Implicit: comparison of behavior and expected


Perceived behavioral control





Input function


Ego depletion
Glucose depletion
Limited resources
Increasing strength

Implicit: perception of

Whether performance meets

Success or failure





Outcome inuences both context and capability


Implicit: Perception of

Implicit: Evaluation of achievement

versus ideal goal

Outcome inuences implementation intentions

Attentional deployment

Cognitive change

Response modulation

Actual self

Actual vs. Ideal

Actual vs. Ought



Different types of chronic discrepancies are

with different motivational predispositions
Anxiety and depression associated with

Implicit: perception of actual

Implicit: perception of actual

Implicit: comparison of actual

behavior and goal
Implicit: comparison of actual
behavior and goal

Goal, standard, or reference

value is set
(Value)(Expectancy) Motivation
Goal is determined by
a) expectancies and
b) valence
Context beliefs
Capability beliefs
Goal development
Orientation towards goal
Generation of plan
Decision to adopt plan
Implementation intentions
(forming explicit goal
plans triggers conscious and automatic
goal-directed behavior)
Situation selection
Situation modication
Ideal self
Ought self
Own standpoint
Other standpoint

Kanfer, 1970; Kanfer & Karoly, Implicit: Goal

Klinger, 1975
Implicit: Goal
Martin & Tesser,

Implicit: Goal

Mischel et al., 1989

Metcalfe & Mischel,

Hot system associated with

impulse control
Cool system associated with planning
and goal-setting
Goals in a hierarchy:
Sensory, motor, cognitive, affective, style, &

Royce & Powell,



Failure to attain goal results in distress and

Non-attainment of goals results in:
Repetition, problem solving, end-state
negotiation for abandonment, and learned



M.B. MacKenzie et al. / New Ideas in Psychology 30 (2012) 155165

Carver & Scheier,

1982, 1998
Feather, 1982
Festinger, 1942

Outcome expectancy
Attitude towards behavior
Social inuence
Self-efcacy determines the
goals that are set
Choice depletes resources



M.B. MacKenzie et al. / New Ideas in Psychology 30 (2012) 155165

reference component, ranging from concrete to abstract

goals (e.g., Carver & Scheier, 1982). Other theories focus on
dual systems for reference establishment: one is related to
impulse control, and the other to effortful and deliberate
planning (Mischel et al., 1989). Alternatively, in some
theories the source of goals may be described as relatively
internal or external to the self, as discussed by Ajzen (1985)
and Higgins (1987). Finally, theories also differ with respect
to whether predictors of goal motivation include both selfefcacy and expectancy of goal attainment (Ajzen, 1985,
1991; Bandura, 1986; Feather, 1982; Festinger, 1942; Ford,
1987). The varying ways in which the reference is
described in the literature will be discussed.
2.1. Reference hierarchies
References or goals vary on a continuum of specicity,
such that some goals are more abstract than others (Carver
& Scheier, 1982, 1998; Frese & Zapf, 1994; Gollwitzer, 1990;
Powers, 1973; Royce & Powell, 1981). This hierarchical
system ranges from lower-order subgoals such as get
promoted at work to abstract higher-order goals, such as
life satisfaction. Each of these distinct reference points
operates within an independent self-regulatory feedback
loop; more specically, there is an individual selfregulatory process for each goal that is set. Miller et al.
(1960) rst wrote about hierarchic goals in the context of
self-regulation, and they, in addition to Powers (1973),
noted that broad abstract goals can be subdivided into their
less abstract elements.
Carver and Scheier (1998) expanded upon this concept
by naming and describing different levels of the goal hierarchy. These levels include principles, programs, and
sequences, which refer to Be goals (e.g., be thoughtful),
Do goals (e.g., prepare dinner for a friend), and Motor
control goals (e.g., slice broccoli), respectively. Similarly,
Royce and Powells (1981) self-regulation theory also
represents a hierarchical organization. These authors have
characterized goals as ranging from sensory and motor,
such as basic elements of behavior, to cognitive and affective, such as perception and emotion, to style and values,
such as a sense of mastery and helping others.
Finally, Gollwitzers (1990) implementation theory
dictates that smaller, lower-order goals facilitate the
completion of higher-order goals, by examining whether
completing lower level tasks related to higher-order tasks
would make those higher-order actions more likely to be
completed when encountered. Gollwitzer and Brandsttter
(1997) used a student sample, asking participants to watch
a video of confederates making racist statements. Those
participants who were told to identify where they would
provide a counterargument (lower-order task) were better
able to articulate a counterargument (higher-order task)
than those who did not identify such an opportunity. This
evidence demonstrates that goals lower in the hierarchy
may in fact aid in the completion of higher-order goals.
Although the theories referenced above indicate specic
ways in which lower-order goals are related to higher-order
goals, it must be noted that these theories do not exhaustively illustrate the ways in which lower- and higher-order
goals are related. For example, a lower-order goal might

serve as a means to a higher-order goal or a higher-order

goal could direct an individuals behavior towards performing a subset of lower-order goals. Moreover, the
workings of the reference component might vary as
a function of the types of goals involved and the manner in
which they are interrelated.
2.2. Dual systems: impulse control versus effortful planning
The establishment of the reference has been described
within a dual-systems paradigm where one of these
systems is related to impulse control, and the other is
related to effortful and deliberate planning (Mischel et al.,
1989). These two systems have been proposed as two
distinct types of self-regulatory behavior. Impulse control
can be described as an avoid goal where the objective is
to evade a stimulus. An example of impulse control is
avoiding a tempting dessert when dieting. Conversely,
effortful planning can be characterized as a more deliberate
approach goal. This would be exemplied by a person
choosing not to eat a tempting dessert because he/she has
chosen to work towards living a healthy lifestyle. Both
situations may have identical reference values; however,
the individual frames the task as either an approach or an
avoid task. The emphasis on this avoid/approach
dichotomy emerges as a theme within the self-regulation
literature as it relates to the reference component.
Notably, Mischel has theorized that there are two
systems at work within self-regulatory processes (Metcalfe
& Mischel, 1999). This Hot/Cool Systems theory posits a Hot
system, which specializes in emotional and reactive
responses (e.g., impulse control), and a Cool system, which
specializes in cognitive and reective responses (e.g.,
effortful planning). Based on these specializations, reference values can be set by the Hot system, such as appetite
suppression, or they can be set by the Cool system, such as
planning to lose a dress size by the end of the year. Other
researchers have also dened self-regulation using notions
similar to the Hot system, such as impulse control and
delay of gratication (i.e., Baumeister et al., 1994; Hofmann,
Friese, & Strack, 2009; Loewenstein, 1996).
2.3. Source of reference value: internal versus external
A third feature of the reference component that some
researchers describe in the self-regulation literature is that
goals may be established either internally or externally
(e.g., Austin, 1989). By denition, goals are ideas about
future states that the individual wishes to attain. However,
it must be noted that goal attainment is a process rather
than an end state (Bickhard, 2009); accordingly, the individuals goals will change in form and substance with
continued interaction with the environment. Similarly, the
choice of a particular goal may be inuenced by varying
degrees by external inuence. Hence, external goals are
those primarily established by an individuals social environment, such as families, schools, and religious organizations. Goals of internal origin are those which an individual
ostensibly sets for him or herself.
One of the determinants of goal motivation according to
Ajzens Theory of Planned Behavior (1985) is social

M.B. MacKenzie et al. / New Ideas in Psychology 30 (2012) 155165

pressure, or the subjective norm, to perform the target

action. Higgins (1987) Self-Discrepancy Theory also
emphasizes social inuences but highlights the discomfort
that occurs when there is an inconsistency between
a persons self beliefs and societal norms. In this regard,
Self-Discrepancy Theory addresses both externally and
internally derived references. This theory is characterized
by a constant calculation of the discrepancies between
ones actual self and ones ideal or ought self. The ideal self
is dened as ones own belief about who he/she would
ideally like to be. This can be seen as an internally-generated reference value. Conversely, ones ought self is referred
to as the representation of who he/she ought to be
according to someone else. Thus, the ought self is the
externally-generated counterpart.
2.4. Predictors of commitment to the reference
Finally, there is a body of work within the selfregulation literature which addresses predictors of goal
commitment. The two constructs that have been distilled
from this characteristic of self-regulation are self-efcacy
and expectations about goal attainment. Indeed, Wofford,
Goodwin, and Premack (1992) conducted a meta-analysis
to examine the precursors and consequences of goal
commitment. They examined 78 goal-setting studies, and
two of the antecedent variables that were signicantly
associated with greater goal commitment were selfefcacy and expectancy of goal attainment.
2.4.1. Self-efcacy
Developed within the context of Social Cognitive
Theory, self-efcacy is a motivational factor and is dened
as belief about ones own capabilities to effect change in
specic tasks (Bandura, 1986, 1991). Similarly, Festingers
(1942) Aspiration Theory states that the degree to which
one aspires towards a goal is partly determined by the
extent to which one believes he/she is capable of success.
The construct of self-efcacy may also be construed in
Ajzens Theory of Planned Behavior. Namely, in Ajzens
theory, one of the determinants of goal intentionality is
perceived behavioral control, or the belief that one has
control over the behavior in question. Accordingly, it has
been found that providing performance feedback (i.e.,
information used for self-efcacy) in addition to a goal
resulted in increased levels of motivation compared to
those who do not receive performance feedback (Bandura
& Cervone, 1983). Other studies have used performance
feedback and have found similar results indicating that
those who have a strong belief in their own capabilities are
highly motivated to achieve their goals (e.g., Cervone &
Peake, 1986; Jacobs, Prentice-Dunn, & Rogers, 1984; Peake
& Cervone, 1989; Weinberg, Gould, & Jackson, 1979).
2.4.2. Expectancy of goal attainment
Theories of self-regulation have also specied that ones
expectancy of success is a determinant of levels of
commitment and motivation towards a given reference
value. These notions are found in Fords (1987) theory of
Personal Agency Beliefs and Feathers (1982) Expectancy
Value Theory, which both state that ones expectancies of


success predict motivation towards a goal. One of the three

variables which combine to predict likelihood of goal
attainment in Ajzens (1985) Theory of Planned Behavior is
attitude towards the behavior, and refers to the degree to
which a person evaluates the behavior in question as
favorable (i.e., one is likely to succeed) or unfavorable (i.e.,
one is not likely to succeed). The degree to which one
believes that he/she will experience success in a given task
has also been empirically linked to goal motivation. Several
meta-analyses and reviews have supported an expectancy
value model of goal commitment, which suggests that goal
commitment is a function of the expectancy that a goal can
be achieved (Klein, 1991; Locke, Shaw, Sarri, & Latham,
1981; Wofford et al., 1992).
In summary, despite the varying descriptions and
characterizations of the reference, this component of the
cybernetic-based self-regulation model is explicitly present
in 10 of the 16 models and is implicit in the remaining six of
the theories of self-regulation discussed in this review. This
reference component is dened and described in various
ways, yet the denition of the reference as a goal to strive
towards is a common element across the theories. The
ubiquity of this component, in addition to the existing
common description of the reference, supports the assertion that the reference is indeed an integral component
within a meta-model of self-regulation.
3. Component two: input
The input component provides the self-regulatory
process with information about actual events. A
cybernetic-based framework requires input, as this is the
information that is fed back into the self-regulatory loop.
This information is central to self-regulation, as it would be
impossible to regulate behavior without perceiving actual
behavior. This information is then compared to the reference component, or the ideal behavior, later on within the
These perceptions of behaviors and events provide
a comparison point relative to the reference. This information can be cognitive, behavioral, or affective; yet, it is all
treated as input within the system. Additionally, this
information may be non-conscious, such as outside
conscious awareness, or it can be metacognitive, such as
knowledge about ones own thoughts. The process of selfregulation (i.e., the steps that one follows when engaging
in self-regulatory processes) is understood to be the same
regardless of the specic type of input. However, an
important distinction between a system that operates nonconsciously and one that is capable of metacognition is the
planful or purposeful nature of the self-regulation process.
Specically, in a conscious system, the individual has an
awareness of the relative success of the process. In such
cases, the impact of the self-regulation process on behavior
can build systematic momentum, as has been noted in
instances in which self-monitoring alone is a sufcient
facilitator of behavior change (Febbraro & Clum, 1998). A
behavioral system will continue to operate in a nonconscious manner, but bringing it into conscious awareness
creates the conditions for change. Six models of selfregulation include input as a distinct component in their


M.B. MacKenzie et al. / New Ideas in Psychology 30 (2012) 155165

theory (i.e., Bandura, 1986; Carver & Scheier, 1982, 1998;

Frese & Zapf, 1994; Gross, 1999; Higgins, 1987; Kanfer,
1970; Kanfer & Karoly, 1972), and ve models include
input as a non-formalized, or implicit component (i.e.,
Ajzen, 1985; Festinger, 1942; Klinger, 1975; Martin & Tesser,
1989; Royce & Powell, 1981; see Table 1). These various
descriptions of input are discussed below as they pertain to
theories of self-regulation.

3.1. Affective and cognitive/behavioral input

Self-regulation theorists have noted that there are
different types of input entering the self-regulatory feedback loop. For example, Gross (1999) only considers the
role of affective input in his model of affect regulation.
Conversely, other authors (Ajzen, 1985, 1991; Bandura,
1986; Carver & Scheier, 1982, 1998; Higgins, 1987; Frese &
Zapf, 1994; Festinger, 1942; Kanfer, 1970; Kanfer & Karoly,
1972; Klinger, 1975; Martin & Tesser, 1989) emphasize
input of cognitive or behavioral events. The different
descriptions of the input component converge to produce
a multi-faceted characterization of the nature of information entering the self-regulation system.
3.1.1. Affective input
Grosss (1999) model of emotion regulation focuses on
the perception of ones own affect. One of the tenets of
Grosss theory, which involves an explicit input component,
is attentional deployment; this refers to how individuals
direct their attention in a situation in order to regulate their
emotions. Emotion regulation may be achieved by using
cognitive strategies such as distraction. The benecial
effects of using distraction as an emotion regulation
strategy have been supported by Blagden and Craske
(1996), who found that engaging in distracting tasks
following an anxious mood induction led to a reduction in
3.1.2. Cognitive/behavioral input
Kanfers (1970; Kanfer & Karoly, 1972) and Banduras
(1986) self-regulation models include self-monitoring as
a component of the behavior change process. Selfmonitoring is characterized as a deliberate and purposeful shift in attention specically towards ones own
behavior. Carver and Scheiers (1982; 1998) model of selfregulation mirrors this conceptualization of selfmonitoring with their input component.
Empirical evidence in clinical psychology supports the
importance of self-monitoring, or input, in the process of
behavior change. This is evident in research evaluating
Rehms (Fuchs & Rehm, 1977) self-management therapy for
depression, which emphasizes self-monitoring as a therapeutic mechanism. This body of research has provided
empirical evidence that self-monitoring is an integral part
of this treatment modality, and that it may contribute to
treatment gains (Kornblith, Rehm, OHara, & Lamparski,
1983; Rehm et al., 1981). Similarly, Febbraro and Clum
(1998), in their meta-analysis examining self-regulatory
components, found that self-monitoring was an important component of self-regulation based treatments.

3.2. Range of awareness

3.2.1. Non-conscious input
Bargh (1990; Bargh & Gollwitzer, 1994) has put forth
a theory of automatic self-regulation, which incorporates
aspects of non-conscious perception. His Auto-Motive
model of Self-Regulation suggests that self-regulation
must be largely automatic, due to ndings that support
the notion that conscious self-regulation is a limited
resource. That is, wilful, nonautomatic, self-regulation uses
up a nite amount of resources, yet individuals can still
regulate some aspects of their behavior (Baumeister,
Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998; Muraven, Tice, &
Baumeister, 1998).
Empirical studies using this model have supported the
notion that non-conscious input can contribute to
behavior change. Chartrand and Bargh (1996) used
a priming manipulation, where information is presented
that does not enter conscious awareness. They presented
either memorization or impression formation stimuli in
their experiment. Participants were given a word
scramble task with target priming words embedded,
and then read a list of behaviors performed by some
target person. Those who were primed with an impression formation goal remembered more of the targets
behaviors and organized the behaviors around personality
traits more so than those who were primed with
a memorization goal. Similarly, Moskowitz (2002) conducted an experimental study and found that when goalspecic words were primed, attention was selectively
drawn to goal-relevant items in a Stroop-like task. These
ndings converge to demonstrate that individuals selfregulatory behavior can be altered by non-conscious
input, or primed information.
3.2.2. Metacognition
Metacognition has been dened as knowledge about
ones own cognitive phenomena (Flavell, 1979). Metacognition is particularly salient in the models which
emphasize cognitive input, as discussed above. Higginss
(1987) self-discrepancy theory emphasizes cognitive
aspects, such as thinking about the way an ideal or an ought
self should think, and comparing these ideals to actual
thought. In addition, in Grosss (1999) model of emotion
regulation, cognitive change is described as a strategy for
manipulating emotions. This process is characterized by
rst thinking about internal cognitive events and then
deciding to alter these events. It is a purposeful modication of ones metacognitions.
To conclude, these varying depictions of the input
component converge to provide a more multi-faceted
characterization of this component within the cybernetic
model by incorporating affective, cognitive, and nonconscious aspects. As with the reference, the presence of
input as a structure in 11 self-regulation theories provides
support for the assertion that the cybernetic-based selfregulation model may provide the most parsimonious
description of self-regulatory behavior. It may also be noted
that ve models do not include an input component, either
explicitly or implicitly, suggesting that this may be an area
warranting further research.

M.B. MacKenzie et al. / New Ideas in Psychology 30 (2012) 155165

4. Component three: the comparator

The comparator is the third component of the proposed
framework for self-regulation systems where the input, or
perceived actual behavior, is compared to the reference, or
desired goal. This component takes in information from the
reference and the input, and manipulates it in order to
inuence the following and nal part of the self-regulatory
process: output. As with the previous two components,
models of self-regulation either include this as a formalized
component, as in six of the theories (i.e., Bandura, 1986;
Carver & Scheier, 1982, 1998; Frese & Zapf, 1994; Gross,
1999; Higgins, 1987; Kanfer, 1970; Kanfer & Karoly, 1972),
or as an implicit part of their theory, as in four of the models
(i.e., Ajzen, 1985, 1991; Festinger, 1942; Klinger, 1975;
Martin & Tesser, 1989; see Table 1).
Theorists have discussed the comparators function in
different ways, such as Carver and Scheiers (1982; 1998)
comparator and Kanfers (Kanfer, 1970; Kanfer & Karoly,
1972) notion of self-evaluation. Other theorists have discussed discrepancies as having either a narrow or a broad
range of focus (i.e., Higgins, 1987; Carver & Scheier, 1982,
1998, respectively). Regardless, all authors who include
a comparator-like function characterize this component as
an evaluative mechanism.
4.1. Discrepancies
The primary function of the comparator is to calculate
the difference between the input and the reference. Carver
and Scheiers control theory of self-regulation (1982; 1998)
explicitly describes the comparator, or the evaluative
mechanism in their model. This component has the
singular task of evaluating the divergence between the
input and reference. There is no action being taken, merely
a calculation for use in the nal component (output).
Kanfers (1970; Kanfer & Karoly, 1972) and Banduras (1986)
models of self-regulation share similar descriptions of selfevaluation as it exists within their respective theories.
Specically, both conceptualize this component as
a process which compares the reference value to the input.
Ajzens (1985), Festingers (1942), Klingers (1975), and
Martin and Tessers (1989) models of self-regulatory
behavior include implicit components of the comparator.
These four theories describe types of output behavior
which occur in the event of an extreme discrepancy
between actual and desired behavior. A discrepancy must
be calculated within a comparator component; therefore,
by necessity, these models include such a process, although
it is implicitly described.
4.2. Range of comparisons
The calculation of the discrepancies between the
reference and the input may range from narrow to broad.
More specically, the discrepancy between reference and
input can be calculated by examining a specic type of
behavior or more general categories of behavior. The selfdiscrepancy model as proposed by Higgins (1987) species that a comparison does take place, but it is of very
narrow focus. The only comparisons ever made in this


model of self-regulation are a) between ones actual self

(input) and ones ideal self (internally-generated reference), and b) between ones actual self and ones ought
self (externally-generated reference). Higgins focuses on
a broad and abstract range of behavior, namely personality, yet the cybernetic model still applies to his theory,
as the cybernetic loop can be used for the entire hierarchy of goals, as discussed above. In contrast, Grosss
(1999) model of emotion regulation examines only
affective cues, thus remaining within a narrow range of
events; yet the cybernetic model applies to Grosss
approach as well.
Many of the theories in this review do not identify
a specic range of comparison; rather, they state that
discrepancies can be calculated in a particular domain
based on a given set of circumstances. These theories
postulate that the ideal behavior is compared to the desired
behavior without any elaboration on the types of input
selected for the comparison (Ajzen, 1985, 1991; Bandura,
1986; Carver & Scheier, 1982; 1998; Festinger, 1942;
Kanfer, 1970; Kanfer & Karoly, 1972; Klinger, 1975; Martin
& Tesser, 1989). Accordingly, this may be another area
warranting more extensive future research.
In sum, the comparator is commonly described as an
evaluative mechanism across many theories of selfregulation. Researchers may portray this component as
calculating a discrepancy amongst a discrete set of behaviors or as calculating a discrepancy amongst less strictly
dened behaviors. Regardless, this component is explicitly
present in six of the models, and implicitly present in four,
thereby strengthening the contention that the cyberneticbased self-regulation model is a useful model for explaining self-regulatory behavior.
5. Component four: output
Output processes are likely the most tangible component of the conceptual framework as they are, in many
cases, observable behaviors. The fourth and nal component of the conceptual framework is characterized as the
response or action based on the results of the comparators
calculation, described above, and is explicitly present in
thirteen of the self-regulation models (i.e., Ajzen, 1985,
1991; Bandura, 1986; Baumeister et al., 1994; Carver &
Scheier, 1982, 1998; Higgins, 1987; Festinger, 1942; Ford,
1987; Frese & Zapf, 1994; Gollwitzer, 1990; Gross, 1999;
Kanfer, 1970; Kanfer & Karoly, 1972; Klinger, 1975; Martin
& Tesser, 1989; see Table 1).
Self-regulation theories have conceptualized output as
either sustaining or terminating behavior, namely, either
continuing or exiting the self-regulatory feedback loop. If
the self-regulatory loop is sustained by output, information
is produced which constitutes feedback that promotes
continued self-regulation. In the event that there is no
discrepancy between the reference and the input, a termination action will be performed in order to exit the selfregulatory loop.
Constructs such as self-efcacy and self-reinforcement
emerge as important in the discussion of output, as they
relate to the feedback component of this model, because
they inuence long-term learning. In addition, Baumeister


M.B. MacKenzie et al. / New Ideas in Psychology 30 (2012) 155165

(Baumeister et al., 1994) provides a useful functional view

of the output constituent, particularly in terms of depletion
of self-regulatory resources. Thus, these varied views and
descriptions of output behaviors and beliefs converge to
illustrate the nature of output and its important feedback
role in the maintenance of self-regulatory behavior.
5.1. Sustaining and terminating responses
Different types of output, or responses, can occur based
on the type and amount of discrepancy calculated in the
comparator component described above. There can be
responses which sustain the self-regulatory feedback loop,
or there can be actions which terminate the feedback loop.
For example, Carver and Scheier (1998) discuss feedback
loops as closed (i.e., the output continues until the
discrepancy is eliminated). They also provide for the
possibility of goal abandonment, which is equivalent to
a terminating response. In the Test-Operate-Test-Exit
(TOTE) model proposed by Miller et al. (1960), the exit
component of the TOTE similarly constitutes termination
behavior. Higgins (1987) discusses goal abandonment in
this model, stating that discrepancies between ones ideal
and actual selves may cause affective distress, which in turn
precipitates a termination action. In sum, Carver and
Scheier (1982; 1998), Miller et al. (1960), and Higgins
(1987) discuss termination responses in terms of goal
attainment; however, the TOTE model does not address
goal abandonment specically.

Banduras (1986) and Kanfers (1970; Kanfer & Karoly, 1972)

models of self-regulation, empirical studies investigating
Rehms self-management therapy provide support for the
self-reinforcement component of this model (e.g., Fuchs &
Rehm, 1977; Rehm et al., 1981; Fleming & Thornton, 1980).
5.4. Self-efcacy and controllability of the environment
As mentioned previously in regard to the reference, selfefcacy is an important motivational factor. Self-efcacy
can also be conceptualized as an output belief, as characterized by Bandura (1986), who denes self-efcacy as
a domain-specic belief about ones ability to inuence
change. Stated another way, perceived success in the
output component and associated self-reward may
enhance self-efcacy for the self-regulated behavior and
may thus produce feedback that helps support the selfregulatory process. Thus, self-efcacy can be seen as
a self-regulatory process which contributes to long-term
behavior change, such that repeatedly learning that one is
efcacious may affect ones beliefs about similar situations
in the future. Moreover, this conceptualization of selfefcacy is similar to Ajzens (1985) output variable of
controllability of the environment. In this manner, both
Ajzens (1985) and Banduras (1991) models of selfregulation are posited on the supposition that if an individual believes that his/her actions may actually have an
effect on the environment, change is more likely to occur.

5.2. Emotional and cognitive responses

5.5. Self-regulatory strength model

Other self-regulation models have emphasized the

emotional and/or cognitive valence of a discrepancy in the
comparator when characterizing the nature of the output
response. Higgins (1987) discusses how discrepancies
between ones ideal and actual selves may cause emotional
distress, such as anxiety and/or depression. Festinger
(1942) writes about output as being a sense of success or
failure which is contingent on the discrepancy between
ones actual and desired behavior. Similarly, the output
component in Klingers (1975) model is also feelings of
distress and depression when ones goal is not met. Martin
and Tesser (1989) discuss several types of cognitive events
which constitute output after a perception of nonattainment of goals, namely rumination, problem solving,
negotiation for abandonment, and learned helplessness.

Baumeisters Self-Regulatory Strength Model (Baumeister

et al., 1994) differs from some of the other theories discussed
thus far in that it describes a function of self-regulation,
rather than describing a series of interconnected components or processes. Specically, this theory postulates that
self-regulation is dependent on limited resources, and if
those resources are depleted, self-regulation becomes more
unlikely. In other words, self-regulation processes are like
a muscle: strong at rst, with strength decreasing with use,
and requiring rest to restore original effectiveness.
Schmeichel and Baumeister (2004, pp. 8498) suggest
that the state of ones self-regulatory strength (i.e.,
depleted or not) will impact whether an individual chooses
to engage in continued self-regulatory behavior. Baumeister et al. conducted a study of the strength model
within an emotion regulation paradigm (Muraven et al.,
1998). In this study, participants initially viewed a sad
lm clip. The participants in the experimental condition
were instructed to control their emotions, while the control
participants were instructed to watch the clip naturally.
Following the lm clip, all participants were given a handgrip device to squeeze for as long as they could. Those who
had to control their emotions had less physical stamina and
were less able to persist with the task than the other
participants. These ndings indicate that output behavior
(e.g., regulation of ones emotion) in one domain of selfregulatory behavior can have important implications for
the successful operation of self-regulation in another
domain (e.g., squeezing a handgrip device).

5.3. Self-reinforcement
Self-reinforcement is dened as the self-administration
of a reward or punishment based on the outcome of the
discrepancy calculation computed by the comparator. Selfreinforcement is central to Banduras (1986) and Kanfers
(1970; Kanfer & Karoly, 1972) models of self-regulation.
These authors describe this component as central within
the process of self-regulation, as it assists in long-term
learning. More specically, self-reinforcement may be
conceptualized as a variant of operant conditioning, in
which repeated self-administered rewards facilitate
behavioral change. Just as with the other components of

M.B. MacKenzie et al. / New Ideas in Psychology 30 (2012) 155165

In sum, one may conceptualize the output component

as capable of both sustaining and terminating behaviors, as
increasing beliefs about ones own self-efcacy, as
a predictor of self-reinforcement, and as depleting limited
resources. This comprehensive picture of the output
component is provided by examining a range of descriptions put forth by authors in the self-regulation literature.
Thirteen authors deemed this component important for
explicit inclusion within their respective theories, and this
consensus supports the inclusion of output within a metamodel of self-regulation.
6. Conclusions
Researchers in the area of self-regulation have stated
that there is a lack of a common lexicon (i.e., Bandura,
2005; Boekaerts et al., 2005; Boekaerts et al., 2005b;
Vancouver & Day, 2005; Vohs & Baumeister, 2004; Wood,
2005), and have argued that there is a need for a theoretical unication using common components (i.e., Karoly
et al., 2005). The objective of this paper was to demonstrate the value of using a cybernetic-based self-regulation
model to organize all models of self-regulation. It is hoped
that this organization benets researchers in three ways:
(1) to provide a more parsimonious description of this
behavioral process, (2) to better identify gaps in the selfregulation literature, namely, where theories may have
omitted addressing specic self-regulation components,
and (3) to stimulate research across self-regulatory
domains that have heretofore been relatively insulated
from each other.
The cybernetic-based self-regulation model was used to
organize current models of self-regulation because cybernetic theory served as an important theoretical touchstone
for these theories (Carver & Scheier, 1982; 1998). Each of
the four components of the cybernetic-based self-regulation model is either explicitly or implicitly present in most
of the models of self-regulation. As such, the current review
of this self-regulation literature has illustrated how each
component of the cybernetic-based common model is
consistently found in various models of self-regulation,
across various domains of psychology.
By illustrating the components of a cybernetic-based
model of self-regulation within models of self-regulation,
one may see how the cybernetic model provides a parsimonious framework. This common model systematically
integrates other theories, and is a clear and simple way to
describe and explain the process of self-regulation. A
parsimonious framework provides the benet of
combining and integrating theories to create a more thorough understanding of self-regulation, as well as generating a universal lexicon of terms. Additionally, analyses
involving parsimonious explanations are often preferable,
for as the number of parameters increase, falsiability of
the model and its specic hypotheses may become more
Applying the common cybernetic-based conceptual
framework allows for the integration and understanding of
self-regulation theories, therefore allowing researchers to
identify gaps in the literature. By organizing elements of
theories in a common model, researchers are better able to


identify which components have less empirical support,

and thus can direct their studies towards areas which may
be underdeveloped. For example, researchers whose
theories that only implicitly included components of the
cybernetic-based model can now focus their efforts on
developing and empirically strengthening those areas of
their respective models. Specically, future research may
be designed to further develop current models that have
not addressed each of the four common components.
Several self-regulation theories do not formalize each
component; rather, one must extrapolate to determine that
a component is present, yet implicit, within a given theory.
For example, Kanfer, in his (1970; Kanfer & Karoly, 1972)
theory of self-management does not explicitly discuss the
reference component, yet his discussion of self-evaluation
implies that an individual is comparing the discrepancy
between an ideal and an actual behavior. Additionally, in
examining this body of literature, one can also surmise that
there appears to be a paucity of research addressing the
characteristics and operation of the comparator. Future
research should focus its efforts to develop and evaluate
theoretical models of the comparator. For example, if the
comparator is not accurate when comparing the ideal and
the actual behaviors, it may lead to difculties and distress
in everyday life when the individual feels as though the
ideal may never be achieved.
Finally, the use of the cybernetic-based model of selfregulation may allow for researchers to form novel
research questions. By integrating existing models of selfregulation, researchers may now identify connections
between and within theories that may not have been
apparent earlier. This in turn may lead to the development
of new inquiries within the area of self-regulation, thus
advancing the eld. The inclusion and development of
Baumeister et al.s (1994) description of the ego strength
model into the cybernetic-based model may elucidate the
way the self-regulation process operates in specic settings
and to relate this to the more general four component
model. Moreover, the use of a common framework may
contribute to a cross-fertilization of models, because
models often used in one domain of psychology may be
applied to other areas. For example, Banduras (1986)
model of self-regulation is most often found within the
industrial/organizational psychology literature. There is no
reason why Banduras model, including the self-efcacy
component, may not be equally applicable in other
domains of psychology. For example, researchers could
further investigate Banduras model and the role of selfefcacy as it pertains to behavioral change in a clinical
context. Thus, diverse theories of self-regulation could
augment their empirical support by being applied to
a variety of psychological domains.
Although this review has taken an initial step towards
integrating a broad range of theories of self-regulation, it
must be acknowledged that numerous other potential
theories of self-regulation exist that did not meet the
criteria for inclusion into the present analysis. Specically,
to be included in the present analysis, a model of selfregulation must have at least one component of
cybernetic-based self-regulation theory, as well as the
operation of feedback within the specic theory. Only 16 of


M.B. MacKenzie et al. / New Ideas in Psychology 30 (2012) 155165

42 potential models of self-regulation were found to be

consistent with this theoretical denition, thus emphasizing the fact that theories of self-regulation span a diverse
range of disciplines and literatures and are challenging to
synthesize into a single common model. Indeed, studies of
self-regulation can be found in areas spanning from executive function to inhibition to goals and values. More
comprehensive integrations of broad ranges of theories
address important cross-cutting theoretical questions that
speak to these limitations (e.g., Bickhard, 2009). In sum,
this conceptual analysis has proposed and supported
a return to a cybernetic-based model for use as a framework for self-regulation theory. Moreover, many existing
models of self-regulation have been integrated using the
four components of the common model, and the varying
descriptions of the components in these models have been
illustrated. This theoretical paradigm can be adopted by
authors in this area in order to frame their research ndings
and to provide a vehicle for dialog among researchers in
different domains of psychology.

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