Elliot T Berkman Ph.D.

The Motivated Brain


What Is the Value of Self-Control?

The intriguing link between self-concept and self-control

Posted Nov 05, 2013

Think about the last time you were tempted to do something that you otherwise wouldn’t do, like eat that piece of candy, stay up that extra hour, or sit in front of the TV instead of go for a run. The traditional way that many of us think about these situations is in terms of the yin and yang of a dual mind, one part motivated by temptation and the other by control. The id and the superego. Somewhere in your mind, these two forces fight it out in a winner-takes-all battle for control over your behavior. This account is compelling because it feels so real. Who hasn’t had that experience of being “of two minds”, such as when you drag yourself out of bed in the morning? But, however right it feels, the dual mind theory is wrong. In this post, I’ll try to convince you why.

An alternative explanation of the mental battle between temptation and control is a simple comparison among options in which the most valued option is chosen. Temptations derive their value from hedonic pleasure and immediate gratification, and self-control derives its value from the more abstract rewards of self-efficacy and goal progress. Importantly, even though they derive from very different sources, the short-term, concrete rewards of temptation and the long-term, abstract benefits of self-control could theoretically be compared on equal footing in the units of “value”. All we would need to make this apples-to-apples comparison is some way of converting different types of reward (e.g., hedonic pleasure versus self-efficacy) into a common currency of value.

Now here is where the neuroscience comes in. One of the most important discoveries in the last decade about the neuroscience of decision making has been a centralized value system located primarily in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or vmPFC. Much of this work has been done by a fantastic group at CalTech led by Antonio Rangel, which has repeatedly found that the vmPFC encodes the subjective value of several different types of rewards, and that the value reflected in vmPFC contributes heavily to the decisions we ultimately make. Another social neuroscientist, Jamil Zaki, has shown that activity in the vmPFC represents the value of money, but naturally in a way that differs depending on who is the recipient of the money; all other things being equal, the threshold of activation in a participant’s vmPFC is much lower when he or she is the recipient than when someone else is. Both of these lines of work implicate the vmPFC as the final destination of a neural pathway that coverts disparate choice options into a common form of value.

The implication of a common neural value signal is transformative to our understanding of self-control. Instead of being about a battle between willpower and temptation, self-control reduces to a question of the comparative value of the two options. Rangel and Todd Hare presented strong evidence for this idea in a paper in Science, laying the foundation for understanding self-control in terms of value. Overcoming temptations is all about learning to increase the value of long-term, abstract rewards to the point that they’re greater than the value of short term, concrete rewards. In terms of goal pursuit, the most pressing question to answer now is how to push the value of self-control over that tipping point.

In a word, the answer is self. Or, more specifically, the answer is our identity or self-concept including our definition of who we are and who we want to be. According to one classic theory of goals by Charles Carver and Michael Scheier, achieving a desired identity (e.g., to be a kind person) is the most valuable kind of goal we pursue because it represents the ultimate long-term motivation; keep asking yourself, “why do I want this?” for any goal, and eventually you’ll end up with a self-concept answer. Another theory posits that the discrepancy between who we are (the “actual self”) and who we want to be (the “ought self” and the “ideal self”) generates emotions ranging from fear and dejection to elation and satisfaction, which in turn fundamentally drives our behavior. In both of these theories, identity-related goals are expected to carry a high degree of value because they are fundamentally self-relevant.

The overlap between

The vmPFC is the convergence point between "value" and "self"

Identity and value are also intertwined in the brain. The figure to the left, which I generated using Tal Yarkoni’s innovative NeuroSyth tool for automated meta-analysis of neuroimaging data, depicts the brain regions that are active during both self-processing (248 studies total) and during value computation (717 studies). The vmPFC—the region involved in the common value computation—is the largest area of overlap. At a neural level, thinking about identity looks an awful lot like considering value.

The highly shared representation of identity and value is not an evolutionary coincidence. On the contrary, the shared representation serves the purpose of imbuing our identity goals—which are by definition long-term and abstract—with subjective value so they can sometimes outweigh the disproportionate value of immediate temptations in the heat of the moment. There is some indirect evidence for this idea, such as the fact that thinking about core values can prevent the fatigue of self-control that occurs with repeated use (so-called “ego depletion”), but until now those results had been puzzling. But based on the brain data, a novel hypothesis is that thinking about core values (“self-affirmation”) is likely to activate the vmPFC value region, which in turn nudges our decisions toward long-term, self-related goals and away from short-term temptations. If so, there may be is a simple yet powerful implication for goal pursuit: increase the value of your most important goals by connecting them to your identity and self-concept.


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Social & Affective Neuroscience Lab at the University of Oregon