New paper on how we think about “self-control” in the brain

Read the full article here:

Self-control dilemmas typically involve tradeoffs between short-term, hedonic considerations and longer-term or more abstract standards and values. For example, dietary decisions often require weighing the immediate pleasure of a tasty treat against personal or societal goals favoring healthy eating. Understanding when, why, and how people choose normatively-preferred responses (e.g., healthy over unhealthy eating, etc.) has represented a central goal of the decision sciences for decades.

What role do regions like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) play in normative behavior (e.g., healthy eating, generosity)? Some models suggest that dlPFC activation during normative choice reflects controlled inhibition or modulation of default hedonistic preferences. In a new eLife paper, we develop an alternative account:

We show that evidence accumulation models predict trial-by-trial variation in dlPFC response across three fMRI paradigms and two self-control contexts (altruistic sacrifice and healthy eating). Using these models to simulate a variety of self-control dilemmas generated a novel prediction: although dlPFC activity might typically increase for norm-consistent choices, deliberate self-regulation focused on normative goals should decrease or even reverse this pattern (i.e., greater dlPFC response for hedonistic, self-interested choices). We confirmed these predictions in both altruistic and dietary choice contexts. Our results suggest that dlPFC response during normative choice may depend more on value-based evidence accumulation than inhibition of our baser instincts.

Overall, the data provide more support for the view that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is involved in reading out the evidence in favor of different choice alternatives than the view that this region implements control processes that bias choices towards normative goals.