The skill of self-control

Synthese:1-23 (forthcoming)
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Researchers often claim that self-control is a skill. It is also often stated that self-control exertions are intentional actions. However, no account has yet been proposed of the skillful agency that makes self-control exertion possible, so our understanding of self-control remains incomplete. Here I propose the skill model of self-control, which accounts for skillful agency by tackling the guidance problem: how can agents transform their abstract and coarse-grained intentions into the highly context-sensitive, fine-grained control processes required to select, revise and correct strategies during self-control exertion? The skill model borrows conceptual tools from ‘hierarchical models’ recently developed in the context of motor skills, and asserts that self-control crucially involves the ability to manage the implementation and monitoring of regulatory strategies as the self-control exercise unfolds. Skilled agents are able do this by means of flexible practical reasoning: a fast, context-sensitive type of deliberation that incorporates non-propositional representations (including feedback signals about strategy implementation, such as the feeling of mental effort) into the formation and revision of the mixed-format intentions that structure self-control exertion. The literatures on implementation intentions and motivation framing offer corroborating evidence for the theory. As a surprising result, the skill of self-control that allows agents to overcome the contrary motivations they experience is self-effacing: instead of continuously honing this skill, expert agents replace it with a different one, which minimizes or prevents contrary motivations from arising in the first place. Thus, the more expert someone is at self-control, the less likely they are to use it.
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Archival date: 2021-01-27
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