Neuroimaging used to shed new light on how we use self-control

smelling cakeNot eating that tasty treat when we are on a diet can be extremely hard for some people. It takes a lot of self-control to stop us from performing bad habits that ultimately will harm us in the end. Sadly, time and time again, most of us succumb to our inner desires despite knowing better.

A team of researchers wanted to know more about this inner struggle of the mind and body and set out to design a study to find the answers. With the use of neuroimaging, our various decision-making processes can be identified and perhaps shed some light on the intricacies of self-control.


Neuroimaging allows scientists to track a person’s pattern of thinking by viewing images of the structure and function of the nervous system.

“I think it’s exciting because once you have a handle on the neuro systems, once you have a way of measuring them, you can start really asking interesting questions,” said Samuel McClure, Associate Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University.

Controlled by the brain

Self-control has long been thought to be controlled by the frontal lobe. It is the part of the brain that is primarily responsible for much of our executive functioning.

How the brain influences our behavior has been quite difficult to study. But with the aid of neuroimaging, researchers are now able to isolate set behaviors as they occur in real time. This helps to eliminate confounding factors that may prevent accurate data collection.

The study in question first asked a group of subjects to choose between a small amount of money now and a large amount of money later. During this task, the area thought to be responsible for self-control (pre-frontal cortex) was activated in the subjects’ brains. But when an option for a bigger reward was introduced, the activity in this area increased significantly. This phenomenon is known as the magnitude effect.

The experiment was then repeated but instead asked the participants to rate their level of hunger. The researchers found that hunger was significantly affected whether they were willing to wait for a larger reward or take a smaller reward right away. Those reported being hungrier were more likely to take the smaller reward rather than wait.

The last of the experiments involved the participants imagining they had won money in a raffle. They were then given the option to take the money immediately or wait a month for a larger pay out, while also justifying their decision.
It was found that those asked to provide a reason were more likely to be patient, preferring to wait.

Implications of knowing how we operate

Understanding how self-control works could provide possible avenues for promoting positive decision-making problems, such as in the case of obesity and addiction. Much of these issues are related to self-control.


Knowing how the environment influences self-control could lead people to make choices they truly want to make. The
researchers gave examples like additional bike lanes in cities to encourage more people to exercise or adding calorie information to menus so restaurant patrons will more likely adhere to their diets.

“One thing that’s really exciting about cognitive neuroscience is that it allows you to get at some of the basic mechanisms that control brain function and are linked to interesting and important behaviors,” said McClure. “And I think we’ve identified some critical levers that you can manipulate to help people out.”

Related: How to combat overeating


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