Johanna Shapiro, PhD

Psychology has had a long and stormy relationship with concepts relating to human agency. Willpower, will, and self-control have all been part of the battle. Late nineteenth century psychology textbooks still discussed will and self-control in terms of the individual as an initiator of action. American psychology after G. Stanley Hall, and German psychology after Ach and Lewin, moved away from those notions toward concepts ofdrive and motive and voluntary and involuntary physiological responses. This trend represented an effort in psychology to disavow its parent, philosophy, and avoid potential mentalistic and teleological concepts of human action.

But the concept of self-control will not go away. It is an essential component of philosophy related to classic terms such as choice, free will, determinism, and self. Self-control is relevant in law and society in the sense of personal responsibility for one’s actions, competence to stand trial, and punishment and consequences for behavior, It plays a role in religious and spiritual traditions where concepts of self-restraint, internal self-regulation, and management of external behavior (e.g., right speech, right action) are integral.

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