What are the neuropsychological mechanisms of self-control?

Published on October 13, 2022 – Self-control is key to happy and healthy lives. Understanding psychological processes that enable self-control can inform interventions which support self-control in the context of health behaviors like healthy eating. A new ACHC publication leads us to re-consider theoretical models of self-control.

In daily life, we frequently face tempting situations in which we need to exert self-control in order to keep following healthy long-term goals like a healthy diet and long life rather than give in to short-term temptations like a tasty treat. How we exert this self-control is of great interest for the development of effective interventions which aim to support this process. However, how exactly our minds exert self-control is difficult to self-report for lay study participants. Over the last decade, researchers have used functional neuroimaging in conjunction with self-report methods to better understand the psychological drivers of self-control. A seminal study published by Hare and colleagues (2009) in Science has solidified scientific interest in a dual-process model of self-control which suggests that expected rewards like a tasty chocolate cookie are encoded in our brain’s value system (specifically ventromedial prefrontal cortex, VMPFC) which guides our decision-making. To exert self-control, we require the involvement of other brain regions associated with executive control (namely the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex; DLPFC), which interacts with VMPFC in order to help us down-regulate the perceived value of the treat. This study has had significant impact on the literature in guiding the theoretical focus of the field and inspiring many follow-up studies. However, it has never been directly replicated.

ACHC researchers Christin Scholz and Hang-Yee Chan, together with their co-authors conducted a pre-registered direct replication of this important work, which has now been published in Human Brain Mapping. They were able to replicate findings pertaining to the role of the brain’s value system in guiding decision-making about food items. However, the replication data did not provide strong support for the hypothesized role of DLPFC. The researchers conclude that “the replication results rather point to the conceptualization of self-control as either automatic and “effortless” or as a (simple) form of value-based decision-making. At a minimum, our results support the idea that it is not the dlPFC that is responsible for increasing the weight of the longer-term attributes into the choice.” This work highlights the crucial role of replication in the scientific process and emphasizes the importance of continued academic discussion comparing dual vs. single-process models of self-control.

For the publication click here.
For the pre-registration click here.
For the data click here.