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Self-Regulation: Getting It All Wrong

motherandchildonbenchPsychologists today love to study self-regulation. It is important, they say, for people to be able to regulate their emotions, their impulses, and their behaviors.

The renowned child psychologist Jerome Kagan has a problem with the way some psychologists think about and study self-regulation. Actually, he has lots of problems with what lots of psychologists – including some of the most esteemed in the field – are doing in their research and theorizing. That was clear from the excerpt from his new book, The Human Spark: The Science of Human Development, published at Salon.

Kagan believes that psychologists assume too much consistency in our self-regulation. Citing research, he notes that:

“…Eli Tsukayama and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania found that few adults regulate inappropriate, impulsive decisions across the domains of work, social relationships, sex, gambling, and investing money. Most who admit to making impulsive decisions in one domain—say, eating too much at restaurants—are not impulsive when spending money or working. Tiger Woods effectively regulated impulsive decisions in most areas of his life but failed to activate that property when he was tempted by sexual desire.”

When psychologists speculate about certain children of “single parents” and their purported problems with regulation aggression, Kagan has a problem with that. Here he is discussing one particular subset of such children:

“It is misleading to argue, as a few psychologists do, that youths from poor, single-parent families living in urban neighborhoods with drug dealers, pimps, and rival gangs do not regulate their aggression as well as children from comfortable, affectionate, two-parent families living in safer small towns. The latter youths encounter far fewer occasions where they have to regulate inappropriate actions. A marble in a groove is not effectively regulating its perfectly straight motion.”

I love that last line. It reminds me of that quip about being born on third base and thinking you hit a triple.

By the way, there’s a provocative interview with Kagan at PBS. If you start reading it, don’t stop until you get to the end where he suggests solutions to the problems he’s discussing.

Mother and child on a bench image available from Shutterstock.

Self-Regulation: Getting It All Wrong

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single." Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2013). Self-Regulation: Getting It All Wrong. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from


Last updated: 5 Jun 2013
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