Importance of Internal Control

You’ve mostly likely had an experience when you’ve felt completely out of control with our emotions. This inner turbulence may have been expressed through crying, angry shouting, or illogical actions. Generally, when we look back on that incident, we’re embarrassed. Learning about the importance of internal control and how we can self-regulate can reduce, if not eliminate, events like that.

What is Internal Control?

Internal or inhibitory control is a mental process that allows you to modify your responses to situations you find yourself in. These responses can be classified as natural such as jumping when startled or habitual, like overeating in response to stress. Developing internal control can help moderate the behavior or reaction to certain stimuli.

Self-control is primarily located in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This section allows you to plan, evaluate alternatives, and avoid impulsive action. Your level of internal control changes over your lifespan and can be improved with defined practice.

What is the Importance of Internal Control?

Understanding the importance of internal control can help you make an effort to improve your self-regulation.

Internal control improves:

  • Individual well being
  • Relationships
  • Society

Individual well being

Our well-being is improved through better mental and physical health. Those who control their internal impulses are healthier. They are less anxious and have lower levels of depression.

People with a low level of internal control are often more impulsive and engage in risky behavior. They tend to be short-sighted when examining the results of their behavior and can be insensitive towards others.

Children who have low levels of self-control are less happy and compliant. They have a lower level of educational achievement and more likelihood of developing substance abuse when they are older. As adults, these children are more apt to be overweight, smoke, and have extended hospital stays. They are also more inclined to be using social welfare services rather than maintaining economic independence while being more predisposed to committing crimes.

On the other hand, those who can alter undesired impulses and behavior have a flourishing social, mental, and physical state of well-being. Having a high level of internal control allows the person to regulate his or her emotions, behavior, and thoughts. This self-regulation is necessary to become healthy and well-adjusted members of society.


Internal control improves our relationships by making us more attractive to others. Healthy, well-adjusted individuals want to be in relationships with others like themselves.

Internal control implies that we are trustworthy and make concerted efforts to keep our impulses in check. Those who have a high level of internal control react to conflict moderately and are forgiving. They are less likely to display abusive or violent behavior and become addicted to harmful substances. What’s not to like about that?

Furthermore, those who have self-control tend to have a more balanced view of the relationship and their role in it. They are not codependent nor domineering, but loving, as a good partner should be.


On a larger scale, internal control helps society to function as it should, benefiting everyone that lives within that society. People who can control their impulses tend to be more generous and are more considerate of those around them. Societal laws and norms work better when each individual is continually self-monitoring their behavior.

The problems that plague society, like personal debt, drug use, or obesity, can only be managed through internal control. The government might set up laws that carry a resulting punishment for non-compliance. However, people who can not control their impulses will still find a way.

Gender Differences in Internal Control Development

Women seem to have a larger capacity to use their internal control and thus have more success in changing habitual or undesired behaviors when compared to men. Adding other stimuli, such as listening to music, also affected the results differently when compared by gender.

Women were able to maintain modified behavior when listening to music successfully and were able to speed up their reaction times. On the other hand, the addition of music caused male test study subjects to slow down.

These inherent differences in processing may help the development of alternative treatments for neuropsychological disorders, including addition and impulsive behavior, in which males and females have different levels of susceptibility in developing.

Some studies have suggested that women are less impulsive only during the small window of fertility they experience each month. In the evolutionary scheme of things, being less impulsive when they are fertile contributes to the likelihood of choosing a responsible mate to help with child-rearing.

However, other studies comparing pre-pubescent boys and girls found similar differences in their levels of internal control. Girls outperform boys on math and sound awareness activities predicted by their self-regulation measurement.

Genetics and Age Components of Internal Control

One study of children ages 7 to 16 has postulated that about 70% of our internal control stems from genetics. Therefore, children of those who have poor internal control also develop low self-regulation behavior.

Other studies have found a correlation between parental self-control as models and the children’s internal control. This correlation seems to indicate that it is a learned behavior rather than a genetic predisposition.

Age is a factor in the development of internal control as well. Adolescents that are between the ages of 15 and 19 seem to have the lowest self-control, compared to older participants in a study about Internet addiction, substance consumption, and anxiety-depression.

Studies suggest that early intervention can help children and young adults predisposed to low self-control strengthen their level of internal control. The perception of the limits of our internal control seems to change as we age. The older we are, the more we believe that our self-control is unlimited.

How Can Internal Control be Improved

Since there is ample evidence that we have some influence on our levels of self-control, it’s essential to look at how we might improve our internal control.

The three components to improving internal control are:

  • Self-monitoring
  • Standards or goals
  • Strength of will

Self-monitoring is when you keep track of your actions, feelings, and thoughts. The standards or goals are what guide you toward the result you want to achieve. The strength of will is the energy needed to control our impulses. It can be negatively influenced by stress and mental exhaustion.

There are several ways that internal control can be improved or moderated. Human behaviorist research B.F. Skinner analyzed nine ways that humans use in their efforts to control their impulses. The method employed often depends on the type of behavior you hope to change. Regardless of the manner used, internal control training can improve the amount of self-control of an individual.

Physical Aid

Using a physical aid to make a response easier or more difficult is also known as a physical prompt. For instance, if you are trying to break the habit of putting your hands into your pockets during a presentation, sewing your pockets shut will prevent that from happening. Over time, you will adopt an alternate behavior whether or not you wear clothes with pockets or not.

Chewing gum is another example where one behavior, smoking, is replaced with another to reduce the urge to give in to the call and light up.

Altering Stimuli

Removing distractions from view and adding regular reminders are two ways to change behavior to support internal control. The Elaborated Intrusion (EI) theory suggests that removing visual reminders can inhibit cravings to some extent. So if you are trying to give up smoking, ridding the house of all cigarettes might help you develop more internal control about this addictive behavior.

Conversely, if you want to cut back on your alcohol consumption, hanging out at a bar with friends who are drinking will reduce the level of internal control you have, increasing the strength of the desire and likely leading you into temptation.

Self-deprivation and Satiating

An individual can control natural responses by regulating his or her behavior. For example, if overeating is a behavior that you wish to change, you can alter your eating patterns so that you aren’t starving at a particular meal by eating small, healthy snacks at regular intervals. Your body feels satiated, which reduces excess consumption at mealtime.

Self-deprivation can also be used to alter natural responses. For instance, refraining from eating meat during a religious observation such as Lent, alters your usual pattern of behavior. In this case, the motivation behind it is a religious constraint.

Influencing Emotional Conditions

Our emotional state can be influenced by music, books, movies, and memories. We can control the response by choosing the triggers that affect that response. For instance, if you want to feel energized, listening to upbeat music is a better choice than perhaps watching a tear-jerker movie.

Our attitude about certain activities can also alter our mood and improve our internal control. If we look at a task as a puzzle to be solved rather than a tedious time-waster, our attitude improves as does our inner motivation to complete it.

Averse Stimulation

If you’ve ever become ill after eating something and then been unable to even look at the food without feeling sick, then you’ve experienced averse stimulation. Your body has taken it upon itself to protect you from that particular food item.

Humans can provide the parameters for averse stimulation for behavior control as well. Punishment is one example. If a particular behavior results in a penalty, then the likelihood of repeated behavior is reduced, in a way strengthening internal control.

If the punishment is not considered prohibitive, however, the behavior and subsequent self-regulation don’t work. An example would be the effect of jail time after DUIs (drinking under the influence). The pleasurable emotional response that drinking provides may not be counteracted by the potential punishment of an additional prison stint.


Specific drugs can affect your internal control processes. Methylphenidate, also known as Ritalin, improves internal inhibitory control, as does Atomoxetine. Both are often used to treat the impulsiveness commonly found in those with ADHD by sustaining attention and vigilance.

Mood altering medications such as benzodiazepines and tranquilizers, and barbiturates prohibit good internal control by slowing mental processing, reducing concentration and causing depression.

Unfortunately, using medications to alter the level of internal control of a person may come with additional serious side effects. Furthermore, the effect only continues as long as the person is taking the medication.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning involves the process of weakening or strengthening behavior through reinforcement or punishment. The targeted action is strengthened by positive reinforcement and lessened through negative reinforcement.

Abstinence reinforcement is commonly used in the treatment of drug addiction. This type of conditioning can be done, for example, by requiring random drug-tests as a requirement of gainful employment.

One study demonstrated how chronic fatigue and cognitive performance could be altered using operant conditioning. The use of consistent social reward was able to reduce fatigue complaints as well as improve mental processing.


Self-punishment does not imply physical pain, although it has been interpreted that way by some. Self-punishment is something the individual does to him or herself after the unwanted behavior occurs. For instance, putting a dollar into the swear jar after swearing is an example of financial self-punishment.

The rationale behind the punishment is to improve internal control through negative reinforcement to prevent a recurrence. Self-punishment can also be seen as a form of atonement for misdeeds. When the perceived criminal act affects another person, atonement can improve the potential for forgiveness given by the wronged party.

Because self-punishment is based on an internal sense of morality, developing internal control is essential so that the punishment is not self-inflicted for what might be considered petty misdemeanors. This type of behavior could happen if the individual has extremely rigid internal control. Young adults who engage in cutting are sometimes using self-punishment after a transgression to inflict self-harm.


When the urge to do something that you wish to avoid becomes intense, the act of refocusing can help lessen it. Take, for example, the desire for a piece of chocolate a dieter may have. Instead of dwelling on the longing, increasing the possibility of caving in, perhaps a brisk walk outdoors will reduce the craving.

The idea in refocusing is to do something incompatible with the standard response, which sometimes can be challenging. This method of internal control is particularly useful when it relates to emotional responses.

Emotions often are experienced in opposing pairs, like love and hate or fear and anger. Instead of experiencing a fearful response to outside stimuli, a person who refocuses might become angry, thereby negating the fright completely.

The Importance of Internal Control at School

Since internal control includes the alignment of feelings, actions, and thoughts with goals even when faced with more exciting alternatives, it is an essential aspect of academic success. Self-control can help you improve course grades and standardized achievement test performance, which in turn can better your chances of finding work that you enjoy after schooling.

Internal control will guide your choices so that they align more with academic achievement. So even though playing video games or socializing with your friends is much more entertaining than that English paper due tomorrow, self-regulation will prompt you to do the report first.

Your child isn’t too young to work on his or her self-regulation skills. Early childhood and adolescence are two critical developmental periods for internal control mechanisms. Teachers can play a predominant role in this development by providing responsive and warm interactions, along with consistency and positive discipline.

How Can Students Improve Internal Control

Students can improve internal control by planning how to spend your time, monitoring your time use, and redirecting your attention when you aren’t using the time effectively.

Training yourself to complete seemingly unrelated tasks is effective in improving overall self-control. One study had students perform tasks using their non-dominant hand for two weeks. Aggression levels decreased, indicating an improvement in self-regulation.

Taking control of your environment can help improve internal control. This environmental modification means eliminating possible distractions or temptations. For example, don’t do homework in the same room the game console is in. You’ll have more success in controlling your impulses this way.

Yet another way to work on internal control is to make mental contracts with yourself. Instead of phrasing less than fascinating tasks as a question (Should I do my homework now or after dinner?), make them statements (I will do my English assignment as soon as I get home.) You can also create a contract with incentives. (After I finish my English assignment, I can watch my favorite movie.)

The Importance of Internal Control at Work

It stands to reason that work success, just like academic achievement, depends a great deal on internal control. Since more than ⅓ of our lives are spent at work, and it is estimated that 25 percent of our waking hours are spent in moderating impulses, there’s bound to be quite a bit of overlap between the two.

As mentioned, self-control is essential in goal achievement. Work is a set of smaller and more extensive tasks with deadlines, which, in a sense, are goals. Self-monitoring, self-motivation, and internal control make it possible for the timely completion of these tasks.

A job well done often leads to praise (positive reinforcement) or promotion (reward), which further inspires an employee to excel at internal control. Then when work objectives are not met, then punishment or negative reinforcement results.

The development of internal control at work can be improved by identifying triggers to our self-control. Determining these hot buttons can be done by observing:

  • Our behavior when faced with the trigger
  • The psychological emotions that we feel
  • Physical reactions to the stressor
  • The mental pictures that flash in our minds
  • The internal dialogue that results

We may react with one or several of these responses when faced with something that challenges our internal control. Once you are aware of your hot buttons and reactions, you can strengthen your internal control by adopting more effective methods of self-control.

For instance, when you see someone who systematically pushes your buttons at work, you may turn the other direction, thus avoiding any challenge to your self-control. Or when you missed a deadline, that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach serves as a type of self-punishment, causing you to be more proactive with the next assignment.

When you have a handle on your reactions, you’ll be able to create a healthier and more productive work environment.

The Importance of Internal Control in Personal Relationships

The quality of our relationships is of paramount importance to a happy life. As mentioned previously, internal control makes us better partners, thereby attracting well-adjusted friends and romantic love interests.

Self-control also contributes to creating a balanced view of the other person. Those with internal control don’t over or under dedicate time to working on the state of the relationship. Partners do not become obsessed or needy but maintain a healthy sense of self within the parameters of the relationship.

Well-balanced partners also are accommodating. They can inhibit destructive responses to the other person and find ways to react constructively. Through this control of actions, a more genuine and open interaction is possible.

Another study found that people in a relationship who had low levels of internal control were more willing to sacrifice time and effort on behalf of their loved ones but less willing to forgive transgressions.

What seems to be a paradox can be explained by the idea that their emotions cause them shoulder more of the burden initially impulsively. Still, they are not able to view the relationship as a whole entity, focusing more on the individual aspects of it. A relationship such as this may help with day to day tasks, but over the long haul may lead to an imbalanced partnership.

The Importance of Internal Control in Health Matters

The opposite of having internal control is indulgence. Indulgence can harm your health, both physically and emotionally.

Indulging in a second container of ice cream might make you feel better in the moment, but it does not contribute to your body’s health. Therefore, a person with internal control might still have the urge to eat that ice cream but will have the self-control to moderate the amount.

Addiction is another type of indulgence. Addicts are unable to see the long-reaching effects of their immediate satisfaction. Without this internal control, they are helpless to quit. One study showed that those who were able to think abstractly about the health concerns of smoking reduced their cigarette consumption.

Internal control gives you a measure of mastery over your emotions as well. Students who demonstrated self-control were able to reduce test anxiety and performed better as a result. Internal control is a predictor of resilience as well. Resilience is the ability to recover after a traumatic experience, coupled with a belief in your capability to manage the challenges life throws at you.

Related to that, people who feel that they are in control of their emotions tend to be happier, as well as more creative, and more productive than those who do not. Thus internal control benefits both you both physically and emotionally.

The Importance of Internal Control in Personal Finances

Being in-debt lowers our sense of well-being drastically. Ineffective management of personal finances because of a lack of impulse control contributes to economic hardship, which affects happiness levels.

A combination of preventive and intervention strategies can help you get a handle on your finances. Preventive strategies include budgeting, monitoring, and reducing your instant access to money. For example, it’s harder to buy something you can’t afford if you’ve left your credit card at home.

Interventive strategies are things like harnessing your willpower and not giving in to an impulse buy and cultivating a savings account, not spending down to the last cent. Self-controlled financial behaviors such as these are positively correlated with financial preparedness and status.


Benjamin Franklin understood the importance of internal control, as evidenced in the motto “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” Being able to override our impulses provides us with health benefits, aids us in achieving our academic and financial goals as well as giving us the wisdom to conduct ourselves maturely in our relationships.

Our quality of life is dependent on these factors. Internal control gives us the ability to reduce the factors that reduce our quality of life, like addiction, obesity, and obsessive relationships. Self-regulation also allows us to improve those aspects that add to our quality of life, such as academic and financial success, balanced relationships, and a healthy lifestyle.

Predictors of internal control are evident in preschool children. Although there are some genetic and gender predispositions, self-control can be strengthened with consistent effort.

We can learn to monitor our actions, choosing better alternatives than giving in to urges. We can improve our resilience to difficulties through the development of internal control. Therefore, we must understand the importance of internal control so that we, too, can become healthy, wealthy, and wise.

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