According to Baumeister (2002; 2012), self-control (closely related to self-regulation and willpower) is a person’s capacity to alter one’s responses, especially to align with standards, ideals, values, morals and social expectations. Furthermore, he views self-control as a deliberate, conscious and effortful action. To understand lapses in self-control, Baumeister et al. (2007) provide evidence using the Strength Model, which analogically resembles the role of muscles and the energy system in the human body. Specifically, failure of self-control is due to it being a limited resource like a muscle that becomes fatigued by exercise. This article will relate to the phenomenon known as, 'ego depletion' and how it applies to soldier and leader behaviour and performance. Finally, the article will offer ways to improve and restore self-control.

Military context

While Baumeister’s research explains self-control in relation to physiological life choices, his results are also applicable to ethical behaviour. Narrowing self-control to a military context, the study of 'Just War Theory' provides a format to understand the necessity for self-control and regulation when assessing morality during war. Notably, in International Humanitarian Law, or 'Jus in Bello' describes the expected moral conduct of soldiers during war, based on:

  • Distinction of direct actions towards combatants actively engaged in acts of war
  • Proportionality to ensure the action in not excessive to achieve the outcome intended
  • The military necessity to defeat an enemy.

These criteria convey responsibility onto soldiers and leaders to discharge their duties ethically once war has started. If not applied, the consequences of decisions can be catastrophic. Requiring competence, proficiency, practice, training and alertness, soldiers expend effort when creating options, making decisions, planning and executing orders. Military training has a reputation of achieving each of these through a continuum that delivers individual and collective capability. However, self-control receives little focus other than it being an implied and expected attribute during military operations.

Strength Model

To visualise self-control, Baumeister bases his Strength Model or Ego Depletion Theory (Baumeister et al., 1998) on the analogy of self-control acting like a muscle or energy system that fatigues as the body uses it. He says, every person has a limited amount of self-control endurance and as it is exhausted, the more difficult it becomes to make the right or good decisions. The Australian Defence Force expects behaviour (including ethical decision making) to be purposeful, team-focused and accountable. Behaviour should value others and allow soldiers and the organisation to learn and improve. Fundamentally, making decisions consistent with Defence Values (2021) should be well-practised, so soldiers expend minimal energy determining right and wrong, leaving them to reliably fulfil mission requirements.

Research and experiments (Vohs et al., 2008; Vohs and Heatherton, 2000; Muraven et al., 1998) consistently record similar observations of ego depletion. That is, a person who completes a task that requires self-control, willpower or regulation has less energy to complete a follow-on task (related or unrelated to the original task, physical or intellectual). In turn, this can lead to incomplete work or below-standard performance.

One example (among many) - A group of experiment participants were divided into two smaller groups. In the choice-condition, one group was asked to make many choices between products and offered a reward on completion of the task. The other group was in the no-choice-condition and asked only to record their feelings and opinions about eight advertisements (no choice) and also offered a reward at the end of the experiment. Once both groups had completed their tasks, each participant was asked to submerge his/her arm into icy water for as long as they could. The time lapsed served to demonstrate the length of self-control. The results of the experiment showed those who were in the choice-condition group held their arms in the water for a significantly shorter time than the no-choice-condition group. This evidence is consistent with numerous other experiments that show a person’s self-control is reduced when exposed to making decisions, using willpower or self-regulating during a prior task. Baumeister assigns this finding to his Strength Model that likens the drop in self-control to the fatiguing effect when muscles are used to their capacity.

Military leaders should be conscious of this vulnerability and include mitigations that consider the risk to performance. Baumeister’s Strength Model poses a logical explanation that a person’s self-control will be sub-optimal until the resource is replenished. Not limited to Just War Theory, leaders should anticipate that routine situations, decisions and behaviour will also be susceptible to low levels of self-control. Daily, soldiers engage in depleting situations like: garrison duties, training activities, exercises, and courses where soldiers think, decide and choose; therefore, self-control is persistently fatigued. To optimise self-control endurance, soldiers and leaders should understand why ego depletion occurs and how to improve and restore this limited resource.

How to improve and restore self-control

Kahneman and Tversky (2013) discuss decision making in terms of the 'experience value' (degree of pleasure, pain or satisfaction) and “decision value” (anticipated outcome and attractiveness of options). These human behaviour considerations cast uncertainty over the reliability of thinking and behaving in a way that meets organisational expectations. Kahneman and Tversky’s variables rely on humans making judgements that are construed alongside personal understanding and desires that may be at odds with the organisation’s values. This level of choice requires self-control, regulation and willpower but, as discussed, come from a limited resource of “energy”.

Like muscles and the human energy system, self-control can be replenished for subsequent use. Awareness and training are essential for leaders to equip themselves and their soldiers with knowledge and tools that address a depleted self-control function. These include:

  • Self-control training regime. Denson, Capper, Oaten, Friese and Schofield’s (2011) research targeted aggressive behaviour but is applicable to control other behavioural outputs. Broadly, the research found that specific training and exercising taught participants to identify the signs of self-control depletion and associated unsatisfactory behaviour. Over time, regular exercising resembles a rehearsal mode that alerts people to identify recurring environments and conditions.
  • Practice logical reasoning. Bertrams and Schmeichel (2014) concluded that people who practice daily logic exercises show better self-control after a depleting task. However, once practice stops (after one week), the benefits diminish. Like an unused muscle, if it is not worked it will lose strength. 
  • Create a positive mood or emotion. Tice, Baumeister, Shmueli and Muraven (2007) repeatedly found that creating positive emotions in people after a depleting task re-energised them for subsequent tasks.
  • Improve vitality through motivational variables. Ryan and Deci (2008) define vitality as a person’s sense of enthusiasm, aliveness, feelings of vigour, positive emotion and calm energy that contribute to behavioural and health outcomes. In that context, they found that greater performance and persistence (willpower, regulation) resulted when people were encouraged to work autonomously, were competent and understood purpose.
  • Self-affirmation of core values. Schmeichel and Vohs (2009) found that self-affirmation reinforces a person’s belief they are valued, competent, good and capable of free choice. Like creating a positive mood or emotion, self-affirmation counteracts ego depletion through reflection on one’s core values and beliefs, which re-energises confidence and reconnects with purpose.
  • Replace glucose levels, rest and sleep. Baumeister, Vohs and Tice (2007) discuss the effort expended when using self-control and making choices. This taxes glucose reserves. Subsequently, they explore the benefits of replacing glucose levels to replenish energy levels used during depleting activities (physical or intellectual). Likewise, Baumeister (2002) identifies that rest and sleep restore the self’s resources.

Leader Action

Finally, Baumeister and Heatherton (1996) describe three ingredients for self-regulation. These can be pathways for success or failure, depending on leader action:

  • Standards – Communicate consistent values, goals and other specified requirements that are understood
  • Monitor – Supervise and compare the actual state of performance to the standards
  • Operate – Identify failure of meeting the standards then apply suitable action that introduces change to address failure.

Reflecting on the ingredients for self-regulation and the research findings for restoring self-control, leaders should:

  • Understand what is expected by the organisation. Know and apply the standards
  • Establish and communicate the requirements of individuals and the team to meet organisational goals
  • Be present and active to know individuals’ strengths and weaknesses
  • Know what is important to your soldiers and let them know what is important to you and the organisation
  • Design training and practice sessions to regularly exercise self-control
  • Anticipate deviation from the purpose, lead by example to show what right looks like and encourage learning from mistakes
  • Provide frequent feedback to soldiers that follows a “glass half full” approach
  • Be innovative and involve soldiers to create change that improves performance

Everyone has capacity to self-regulate but it comes from a limited resource. Individuals should monitor this and develop ways to restore their self-control. Likewise, leaders should incorporate methods to develop their soldiers to minimise the consequences of ego depletion.