Self-Regulation Strategies Improve Self-Discipline in Adolescents: Benefits of Mental Contrasting and Implementation Intentions

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Given the increasing evidence that self-control influences academic performance, it is important to try to increase the self-control of children.

Of most interest are motivation strategies which have an immediate impact and don’t require a substantial time investment (e.g. unlike meditation).

This study evaluated the impact of the combination of mental contrasting and implementation intentions on academic performance.

Mental contrasting is the act of visualizing the desired future and then visualizing the obstacles that stand in the way of that future being realized. Implementation intentions is the act of defining what actions to take given a set of triggers (e.g. ‘when I'm in the kitchen at 6 pm, I will study; when I'm confused at work, I will ask for clarification).

Both techniques have been found to be effective in adults. This study examined their combined effectiveness in an academic setting.

66 students were given a PSAT workbook, with 10 practice tests to be optionally completed during their summer break.

Students in the mental contrasting + implementation intentions condition completed 60% more questions than students in the control. It's important not to get too excited – the results are unlikely to generalize without significant change to the experimental protocol. Still, this study shows the potential effectiveness of easy self-control techniques.

If I had answered 60% more questions on my PSAT workbook, I might have scored as well as my older sister (she got a perfect score…).

Click here to learn more about self-control.

Study Details

Hypothesis: The combination of Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions will increase the goal achievement of adolescents.

Method: 66 10th grade students were given a PSAT workbook, with 10 practice tests to be completed over the summer. All students were asked to indicate: the importance of completing the workbook, their expectation of completing the workbook, 2 benefits of completing the workbook, and 2 obstacles from completing the workbook.

The students in the control condition wrote an essay about an influential person in their life.

The students in the experimental condition were first instructed to mentally contrast and vividly imagine both the benefits and obstacles to completing the PSAT workbook that the wrote down before. The students were then instructed to create 2 implementation intentions of the form ‘If [obstacle] then I will [solution]' and one of the form ‘If [location/time], then I will [work on x]'.

After the summer, workbooks were collected and marked for completion.


Students in the experimental condition completed 60% more practice questions.  

Concerns: Small sample size.

Questions: What is the individual contribution of each method? How well do these results generalize to other tasks? To other demographics? Are these two skills binary or continuous, showing additional efficacy after training? What other skills could be usefully combined with these two? Process visualization? Gamification? Operant conditioning? Ego-depletion?    

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Duckworth, A. L., Grant, H., Loew, B., Oettingen, G. & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2011). Self-regulation strategies improve self-discipline in adolescents: Benefits of mental contrasting and implementation intentions. Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology31(1), 17-26.

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