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Self-Centeredness May Sabotage Self-Control, Study Finds

Overcoming egocentric bias may play a role in practicing impulse control.

Source: Romanova Natali/Shutterstock

A new study identifies a unique brain mechanism that improves self-control by projecting your decision-making outcomes onto a "future self." This cognitive process uses theory of mind to override the egocentric bias of self-serving wants and desires in the present tense. The October 2016 report by researchers at the Department of Economics University of Zurich and the University of Dusseldorf appears in the journal Science Advances

To pinpoint the brain regions associated with self-control, study participants were asked to choose between a smaller payoff given immediately or a larger payoff given in the future—while the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) was essentially turned ‘on’ and ‘off’ using a non-invasive technique. Participants were also given the choice between making a selfish and Machiavellian decision that only benefitted oneself or a magnanimous decision that benefitted the participant slightly but benefitted another person more.

The results of this experiment suggest that resisting the impulse to take an immediate payoff rather than delay gratification for a larger payoff—or to share your good fortune with others—both involve the TPJ, a brain region used to put yourself in someone else’s shoes while practicing theory of mind.

The researchers were surprised to discover that the same brain area used to practice theory of mind towards others also plays a crucial role in situations requiring self-control when nobody else is present.

Temporo-Parietal Junction Is Key to Theory of Mind and Prosocial Behaviors

John A. Beal/Wikimedia Commons
Temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) circled in red. 
Source: John A. Beal/Wikimedia Commons

Historically, the neurobiological roots of self-control were considered to be seated solely in the frontal lobes of the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Among other functions, this brain area is involved in emotion regulation, impulse control, and setting long-term goals.

The latest research on future-oriented behavior and self-control identifies another key player: the temporo-parietal junction, a brain region that allows us to practice theory of mind, empathize with others, and drives prosocial decision-making.

Until now, most hypotheses on the neurobiological underpinnings of self-control have focused on the ability of our prefrontal cortex to encode higher-order goals using executive function and cognitive control. Recently, however, scientists have begun to deconstruct how the interplay of the PFC and other brain regions influences impulsive behavior and self-control.

For example, last week, an animal study on behavioral inhibition by neuroscientists at Dartmouth College reported that risky teenage behavior during adolescence may be linked to an imbalance between specific regions of the PFC and the nucleus accumbens (NAC). The NAC plays a central role in reward-seeking behaviors and addiction. The fact that our PFC is not fully developed until the later teens or early 20s might explain why most teenagers lack the self-control of adults.

The Dartmouth researchers found that during adolescence, low activity in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) region of the PFC and high activity in the NAC is associated with a lack of behavioral inhibition. Now, it appears that the TPJ may also play a pivotal role in self-control by directing attention to one's future needs using theory of mind to flash forward and put oneself in his or her own shoes days, weeks, or years down the road. 

In a statement to University of Zurich, lead author Alexander Soutschek explained the findings,

"From a neural perspective, the temporo-parietal junction may represent the own future self like another person. This means that the same brain mechanisms may be necessary to be patient for a future gain and for being able to share with another person."

For this study, Soutschek and colleagues temporarily disrupted brain activity in the TPJ using a non-invasive technique called “transcranial magnetic stimulation.” When brain activity in the TPJ region was disrupted, study participants tended to make more impulsive decisions (i.e. choosing an immediate payoff for short-term gain) and were more selfish (i.e. choosing the payoff for themselves only). They were also less capable of putting themselves in someone else’s shoes and taking another person’s perspective using theory of mind.

After connecting all the dots, it appears that the most effective neurocognitive process for delaying gratification may involve a one-two punch that engages both the PFC and TPJ. First, self-control processes that help someone make wise long-term decisions activate the executive functions of the prefrontal cortex to consciously override the temptation of an immediate reward using free will.

Second, engaging the TPJ may help to overcome egocentric bias by creating an avatar of your future self whom you can visualize benefitting from delayed gratification and the value of practicing self-control to obtain long-term rewards in the future.  

Overcoming Present Tense Self-Centeredness Increases Self-Control

The ability to overcome self-centeredness and do the right thing for others engages the temporo-parietal junction. Interestingly, shifting your focus away from your immediate wants and needs—by flashing forward to the long-term needs of your future self in the third person—is a cognitive leap that also engages the TPJ brain region used to practice theory of mind towards others. 

In the abstract of their study, the researchers conclude, “Our findings substantiate a fundamental commonality between the domains of self-control and social decision-making and highlight a novel aspect of the neurocognitive processes involved in self-control.”

The latest discovery on the role of the TPJ in overcoming self-centeredness by focusing one's attention on the well-being of your future self could lead to the development of a wide range of therapeutic interventions designed to minimize impulsive behavior and increase self-control in disorders such as addiction and OCD.