Incarcerated Individuals' Self-control: Changes Across Incarceration and Relation to Post-release Substance Dependence

Shannon W. Schrader

Advisor: June P Tangney, PhD, Department of Psychology

Committee Members: Tara Chaplin, Jerome Short

Online Location,
December 22, 2021, 11:30 AM to 01:30 PM


Self-control reflects the capacity to control, modify, or override impulses in favor of behavior that will further long-term goals (Baumeister & Heatherton, 1996). Self-control has received deserved attention in the scientific literature for decades. Deficits in self-control are linked to a wide array of negative outcomes including substance misuse, deviant behaviors, and unsafe sexual practices (see de Ridder et al., 2012 for a meta-analysis). Historically across fields, self-control has been regarded as a unitary construct, most closely reflecting the ability to inhibit urges. Recently, however, research has begun to distinguish between two related but distinct dimensions of self-control – inhibitory self-control and initiatory self-control (de Ridder et al., 2011; Hoyle & Davisson, 2016).  

            Papers 1 and 2 examine the two dimensions of self-control in a longitudinal sample of adults involved in the criminal legal system. Paper 1 examined whether incarcerated individuals leave jail with more or less self-control than when they were initially incarcerated. On average, both inhibitory and initiatory self-control increased during incarceration, with inhibitory self-control exhibiting greater increases than initiatory self-control. In addition to examining changes in self-control on average, Paper 1 tested whether a range of psychological, social, and demographic variables predicted shifts in self-control. For inhibitory self-control, age predicted increases while Factor 2 psychopathy, shame, antisocial features, anxiety, borderline features, and depression all predicted decreases. Regarding initiatory self-control, years of schooling predicted increases while shame, anxiety, borderline features, and depression all predicted decreases in initiatory self-control.

Paper 2 utilized cross-lagged structural equation modeling to examine the directionality of the relationship between self-control and substance dependence across three timepoints. A unidirectional model in which self-control predicted subsequent substance dependence best explained this relationship. This unidirectional model fit best when considering both types of self-control – inhibitory and initiatory self-control. Results were consistent across males and females. The link between initiatory self-control and substance dependence was stronger for Black participants than White participants. 

Overall, results suggest that jail-based interventions to maximize both dimensions of self-control could be worthwhile. In addition, individuals could be prioritized for certain interventions based on whether their specific self-control deficit lies in inhibitory self-control or initiatory self-control.