I'm a layman when it comes to the cognitive sciences. I've read some number of popular self-help books, but not any academic journals. I've noticed that many times a book suggests some techniques for willpower, anxiety management etc., but will never list them out in a prioritized fashion.

While there might be some variation based on the circumstances and the individuals involved, I feel like a one or a few techniques should always dominate the list. The effectiveness of techniques that deal with different cognitive issues is most likely somwhat geometrically distributed (all else being equal), i.e., most of the time they obey the power law (most techniques are moderately effective, but a few are really effective).

In particular I'm currently interested in effective techniques for willpower. I'm aware of which techniques are recommended (split a task into subtasks, positive self-talk and many more), but what are their relative effectiveness? Are there some well-executed studies out there that determined which techniques work comparatively better?

What are effective and generalizable self-regulatory skills and strategies?

How do their relative efficacy compare?

  • $\begingroup$ I've edited this to be a little more amenable to answering by cognitive science, since your examples suggested "self-regulation" is the closest matching concept. If it changes the nature of your question, please revert. $\endgroup$ Mar 23, 2015 at 7:57
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    $\begingroup$ Answering a question like this can be problematic because individual and contextual differences likely account for a large part of the variability in the relative effectiveness of self-regulatory strategies. If we ignore these differences, then we might run into trouble with the fallacy of uniform efficacy. $\endgroup$
    – mrt
    Mar 23, 2015 at 8:01
  • $\begingroup$ @mrt Not to gotcha you here, but ... that seems like the basis for an informative answer? $\endgroup$ Mar 23, 2015 at 8:20
  • $\begingroup$ I haven't read that paper yet, but my conjecture is that minds are dissimilar, but they are not that dissimilar when it comes to the forces of willpower. The "uniform efficacy" Pareto chart for willpower would probably work well for most people. $\endgroup$ Mar 23, 2015 at 8:23
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    $\begingroup$ @WuschelbeutelKartoffelhuhn There is no Pareto chart, because as mrt said, it doesn't really make sense to make one. I still think the question has informational value as a springboard for explaining why that is. $\endgroup$ Mar 23, 2015 at 8:29

1 Answer 1


Regarding reducing one's anxiety, a "meta-analytic review" by Cheng et al. (2014) published in a fairly high-impact venue suggests that coping flexibility is the stuff that matters... when it comes to coping outcomes, of course. (As the joke goes, madness is doing the same thing and expecting different results.) What exactly coping flexibility is isn't so easy to pin down, but apparently some conceptions of that notion are better than others:

Researchers have conceptualized coping flexibility in diverse ways: as a broad coping repertoire, a well-balanced coping profile, cross-situational variability in strategy deployment, a good strategy–situation fit, or the perceived ability to cope with environmental changes. [...] Studies adopting the perceived ability or strategy–situation fit conceptualization yielded moderate effect sizes, whereas those adopting the broad repertoire, balanced profile, or cross-situational variability conceptualization yielded small effect sizes.

The notion of strategy–situation fit seems largely derived from the CAPS theory. For a more recent (quantitative) work of that kind see e.g. Kato (2012).

The meta-analysis by Cheng et al. also identified a small role played by individualism (and age):

In addition, the positive link between coping flexibility and psychological adjustment was stronger in samples from countries lower (vs. higher) in individualism and samples with higher (vs. lower) average ages. Individualism and age explained 10% and 13% of the variance, respectively.

(Cheng et al. also conducted a quantitative analysis of publication bias for the set of studies they considered and concluded that "publication bias is not a concern".)

Having said that coping is basically reducing your own stress, which is not the same thing as achieving some externally set goal (e.g. meeting society's expectation in some regard). I'm not sure what research has to say with respect to "willpower" strategies for the latter. Clearly if one considers unreasonable goals in some societies (e.g. eliminating homosexuality) probably no such "willpower" strategy is going to work. It would be more interesting how less incongruent goals fare; from Koestner et al. (2014)

research has begun to show that support for autonomy facilitates goal progress, whereas more directive forms of support appear to be less consistently helpful, or even unhelpful.

There's a substantial body of work on the effects of goal setting. I'm not incredibly familiar with it, but one highly cited line of work by Locke and Latham (see 2006 update or the Wikipedia page on it) finds that setting high bars is better than "best effort" approaches as far as achievements go.

There's also a substantial body of work on conflicting goals, e.g. see Fishbach and Dhar (2005), but such research doesn't seem to involve ranking strategies. Note that reducing your own anxiety and achieving some externally imposed goal may well be conflicting goals.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the well-researched response. The spirit of the question deals with relative efficacy of self-regulatory techniques. There are many different self-regulatory techniques that have shown some small empirical support (I've identified over 10); Cheng et al. (2014) only evaluates two subtypes of one of them (albeit a rather broad one), and Locke et al (1981) evaluates three subtypes of one. Rather than this "intra-evaluation" of individual techniques, I was looking for "inter-evaluation" among the different techniques. $\endgroup$ Aug 26, 2018 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ Since the question has gone unanswered for over three years, and the study I'm looking for is unlikely to exist, I'll 'accept' your answer in a few days unless someone can find a source that does look at an "inter-evaluation" among an array of different techniques. $\endgroup$ Aug 26, 2018 at 20:46
  • $\begingroup$ @WuschelbeutelKartoffelhuhn: yes, it's a broad topic. Hoping for a more integrated view seems too much to ask of the current literature. $\endgroup$ Aug 27, 2018 at 7:10

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