“Optimal decision-making requires self-control.”
The right choice is often in direct conflict with the easy choice — or worse, the tempting choice. What’s going on in the brain when we successfully choose to go against the easy/tempting choice and go with the optimal one?
Hare, Camerer, and Rang take a look at the neurobilogy of self-control in their paper, Self-Control in Decision-Making Involves Modulation of the vmPFC Valuation System.
“Every day, individuals make dozens of choices between an alternative with higher overall value and a more tempting but ultimately inferior option. Optimal decision-making requires self-control. We propose two hypotheses about the neurobiology of self-control: (i) Goal-directed decisions have their basis in a common value signal encoded in ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), and (ii) exercising self-control involves the modulation of this value signal by dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to monitor brain activity while dieters engaged in real decisions about food consumption. Activity in vmPFC was correlated with goal values regardless of the amount of self-control. It incorporated both taste and health in self-controllers but only taste in non– self-controllers. Activity in DLPFC increased when subjects exercised self-control and correlated with activity in vmPFC.”
NOTE: below they use “SC” to mean people who used self-control and “NSC” for people who didn’t.
Here were the four main hypothesis being tested:
- “First, activity in vmPFC should be correlated with participants’ goal values regardless of whether or not they exercise self-control.”
- “Second, activity in the vmPFC should reflect the health ratings in the SC group but not in the NSC group.”
- “Third, the DLPFC should be more active during successful than failed self-control trials.”
- “Fourth, DLPFC and vmPFC should exhibit functional connectivity during self-control trials.”
The big idea is that the DLPFC appears to modulate the signal from the vmPFC when you are exercising self-control, and it doesn’t when you are not exercising self-control.
There’s been a debate about how this process works. On the one side, McLure, et al. “have proposed that intertemporal choice involves the interaction of multiple independent valuation systems.” On the other side, “Kable and Glimcher have argued that there is a common valuation system and that the values that guide behavior are computed in the vmPFC-striatal network.”
These results help to bridge the gap a bit:
” Like Kable and Glimcher, we find strong evidence for the existence of a common valuation signal in the vmPFC that drives choices regardless of the degree of self-control deployed by the participants. Like McClureet al ., our results suggest that the DLPFC plays a critical role in the deployment of self-control.”
Clearly we’ll need to see a lot more data to feel like anything conclusive has been shown. But this is a solid step in the direction of a deeper understanding of the neurobiological basis of self-control and its relation to decision-making.
Now go lift something heavy,
PS. The photo is of a Preuss’s Monkey looking guilty…