Self-Generated Thought and Self-Control

Self-generated thinking (SGT) is what we use to evaluate past experiences in order to plan for the future.

It allows a self to escape the here and now, an ability that would seem to matter a great deal for self-control. How and why self-generated thinking matters for self-control is the central question we investigate in this project. We start from the assumption that in order to understand the nature of self-control we should begin by asking what component psychological mechanisms or capacities a creature must have in order to behave in self-controlled ways. Smallwood and colleagues have shown that self-generated thoughts that occur when the mind wanders are not idle, but play a crucial role in the formation and realisation of long-term plans, like the decision to quit smoking.

SGTs can disrupt our current goals (when we are reading an article, for instance), obstructing our attempts at performing a task to the best of our abilities. Crucially, however, SGTs also allow us to think over a problem, imaginatively enacting different possibilities on the basis of our past experiences, finding a solution that would allow us to move forward in our lives. It remains unclear, however, (i) what the specific mechanisms are that support this process and, (ii) under what conditions SGTs interfere with an individual’s pursuit of their goals. The main aim of this pilot project is to address each of these questions, and so determine the mechanisms and boundary conditions through which SGT leads to better self-control.


Project team: 
  • Dr Tillman Vierkant (Philosophy, Edinburgh)
  • Dr Julian Kiverstein (Neurophilosophy, Amsterdam)
  • Dr Jonathan Smallwood (Psychology, York)
Project duration: 
3 years
Funded by Eidyn/PPLS