Under what circumstances does autobiographical memory enhance self-control?
Self-control is an important skill because it helps us regulate many of our behaviours, such as how much we eat and drink. Limiting our intake of food and drink is sometimes difficult to do, however. One explanation for why self-control can be difficult is because the value for good health is discounted because it’s delayed, whereas the reward of food and drink are immediate. This is known as delay discounting: larger, future rewards (e.g. saving for a future holiday) decrease in value with the increase in delay and thus people sometimes pick a smaller, sooner reward instead (e.g. needless shopping now). Using a delay discounting paradigm, this study examined whether autobiographical memories can enhance self-control. Study 1 was a replication study and found that cuing participants to retrieve positive, episodic memories enhanced self-control. This effect was only evident in one out of two delay discounting measures used, however. Building on these findings, Study 2 and 3 investigated whether the amount of episodic detail in specific autobiographical memories and a positive self-concept contribute to the effect of autobiographical memory enhancing self-control. The amount of episodic detail recalled was not related to self-control and results about a positive self-concept were inconclusive. Unexpectedly Study 3 also yielded a non-significant result for positive, episodic memory enhancing self-control. Participants in Study 3 were, however, significantly more tired than participants in Study 1, raising the possibility that they were less engaged in the task. This pattern of findings suggests that the effect of autobiographical memory on self-control is fragile, and is possibly influenced by factors such as participant fatigue. Potential reasons for the fragile effect and inconclusive results, and a potential way forward are also discussed.