The usual way that laypeople and researchers alike think about self-control is as a battle between “hot” impulsive forces, such as craving, and “cold” calculating ones, such as a distant goal to be healthy. But research has not consistently supported that hot-cold dichotomy. For example, the hot and cold processes are not always opposed to one another during self-control, and brain activity during self-control indicates more complexity than just two systems operating in opposition.
A new series of papers provides an alternative perspective that squares better with the psychological and neuroscientific data: self-control is no different from any other type of choice. What we call “successful” or “failed” self-control is really just the output of a general choice process that has been extensively studied within psychology and behavioral economics (see figure).
In this model, different attributes of a choice (the tastiness of one food option or the healthiness of another) are dynamically assigned values, and the value accumulates over time as the decision is made. This accumulation process can be characterized by relatively simple computational models (such as a “drift-diffusion” model), and those models capture some important features of self-control, such as how it changes under time pressure and why it feels like being pulled in two directions at once. Neuroscience research implicates the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) as one locus of value accumulation, and has begun to document how other regions represent the value of various choice features and how those regions interact with the vmPFC to influence self-control.
Recasting self-control as a form of choice generates new insights into how self-control can be improved based on what we know about choice from other fields. Well-studied anomalies in the valuation process become relevant to self-control. For example, choices that are linked to the self hold higher value (the “endowment” effect), and the value of a gain delivered in the future is less than the value of an equivalent gain delivered in the present (the “delay discounting” effect). Knowledge such as this, about how humans translate material gains into subjective value, can now be used to develop new interventions to promote self-control.
Value-based decision making provides a simple new way to understand self-control. It provides a specific neurocomputational mechanism for a phenomenon that remains poorly understood even after thousands of years of study, and provides an infusion of new ideas into the psychological literature on self-control. We hope that this series of paper will spur a new wave of research that leverages the knowledge about value-based choice to find new ways to help people succeed at self-control.