Choice behaviour: governed by self-control resources or something else…?

Several of my recent posts here have been about self-control, the mental resource that allows you to make choices that align with longer-term, more ideal goals rather than ones that prioritise shorter-term and more immediately rewarding options – like deciding to cook something healthy for dinner (which can be time-consuming but is in keeping with the longer-term goal of having a healthier lifestyle) rather than grabbing a burger and fries from some fast food place (which, although convenient and perhaps more hedonically rewarding for some people, isn’t necessarily a great choice from a longer-term perspective). I’ve described some of the many, many ways in which the self-control resource might be temporarily depleted, and I’ve outlined some strategies for how to improve your chances of still succeeding in making the more ideal choice even when your mental resources of self-control have been worn down.

I guess it might be surprising then if I were to tell you that maybe self-control isn’t a resource – maybe it isn’t a thing that gets used up and then replenished, depleted and then restored.

When trying to understand human behaviour from the perspectives of psychology and neuroscience, it’s useful to try to formulate models and concepts to test, as this gives researchers a framework with which to work and allows them to examine how this framework responds to different challenges and manipulations. The framework is usually devised initially as a way of explaining a bunch of existing research results that seem like they might all be the product of the same, or similar, processes in the brain. Unsurprisingly, though, when you’re trying to figure something out for the first time and you’re really not sure what’s going on, you might come up with a framework that seems to describe the existing results, but ultimately it might prove to not be the right explanation. As more research is done, new results might not seem as willing to fit into the framework as you expected. It’s not that the framework was horrible and terrible and obviously ill-conceived from the start – maybe it honestly did explain all the results at some point in the past. But as we develop a better understanding of the underlying processes, and as we refine our knowledge and do increasingly sensitive experiments to flesh the framework out, we might start to realise that it was kind of a coincidence that the original framework explained the results, and we need to come up with alternative ideas and theories that explain not only those older results, but the newer, awkward ones too.

It seems we might have reached that point for re-modelling the theoretical framework of self-control (and, as likely as not, we will reach that point again and again as our understanding progresses and the framework needs reworking and refinement). Inzlicht and colleagues put forward an opinion piece, ‘Why self-control seems (but may not be) limited’, in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences earlier this year, in which they proposed an alternative way of thinking about self-control: when you have done something mentally difficult and demanding, your brain wants to balance that out by driving you to do something more enjoyable and rewarding. So when you perform a task that takes mental effort and focus, you might then be motivated to switch to doing something less taxing and more inherently enjoyable. Inzlicht and colleagues propose that you aren’t using your self-control “resources” up when you make the decision to prioritise short-term, rewarding goals; your brain is just saying “enough of this difficult thing, let’s do something fun”. It’s about switching from one mode (being willing to do something challenging and difficult, things that you have to do) and switching to a different mode to balance that out (taking the easy and more rewarding option of doing the things you want to do).

Inzlicht and colleagues argue that this mode-switching between “have to” and “want to” would drive useful and adaptive behaviour, particularly from an evolutionary perspective. For example, it would have been evolutionarily beneficial for individuals to not become too easily engaged in focusing on tasks, but to be spontaneously driven to disengage from tasks and seek other opportunities, and thereby learn more about their environment by being motivated to explore it. However, I have to say that I have never been a fan of evolutionary explanations in psychology – there is far too much room for speculation and not enough basis for actual testable hypotheses.

While the evolutionary value of “have to” vs. “want to” modes remains a possibility but is quite impossible to test directly, Inzlicht et al. suggest a more intermediate account (rather than the grand overarching evolutionary account) of why these modes might be useful:

“Balancing exploitation versus exploration serves an adaptive function that leads to a general tendency to prefer balance between cognitive labor and cognitive leisure, or between mental work and mental rest. According to labor supply economics, the fact that time is limited leads people to prefer some optimal balance between externally rewarded labor and inherently rewarding leisure. Recent research suggests that cognitive control is intrinsically aversive, having inherent disutility.”

Furthermore, Inzlicht et al. remind us of the mind’s tendency to be very easily influenced, and how this influence can be used to make the effects of “self-control depletion” miraculously disappear. For example, Job et al. (2010) found that a person’s beliefs about whether or not self-control is limited affect their actual ability to implement their self-control. If you don’t believe self-control is limited, you’re not as prone to lapses of judgement that would usually be attributed to depleted self-control. And if you think it’s limited but are simply told by researchers in a study that it’s not, then you start to make fewer of those lapses of judgement too. In short, your beliefs on the subject can influence your behaviour, which shouldn’t really be the case if self-control is a fixed resource.

So we are perhaps driven to engage in more enjoyable, rewarding pursuits not because we have used up our self-control resources and have experienced an inability to fight off a lapse in judgement, but simply because the feelings of fatigue, boredom and negative emotion that might come from doing something mentally demanding prompt us to seek out something more enjoyable and leisurely. This is an interesting alternative to the “resource” theory of self-control and seems to make sense at face value. However, a lot of research still has to be done before we can dig a hole for self-control resources in the graveyard of punctured theories. Inzlicht et al.’s paper was an opinion piece, and while their concept of mode-switching does explain a lot of the results they discussed, there is much to be tested within the rough framework they have proposed in order to methodically and comprehensively flesh it out.

For example, if our brain undergoes switches between “have to” and “want to” modes, then the research so far hasn’t really explored what prompts the switch back in the other direction – from the leisurely and enjoyable “want to” to the mentally demanding, task-focused “have to”. Is taking the easy, enjoyable option eventually so boring and dull that we want to be more challenged and we switch back to the “have to” mode? Self-control research has primarily focused on lapses of self-control, whereas switching from “want to” to “have to” mode would be a reassertion of self-control. Research simply hasn’t looked much at that to date.

And what sort of timecourse does the mode-switching follow? How much is it driven by internal factors (i.e. just natural fluctuation in the state of the brain) and how much is it driven by external factors (for example, you switch into “have to” when you suddenly realise you’ve got a deadline and you can’t procrastinate any longer). Is the timecourse of mode-switching predictable? How can we track it?

But perhaps the thing to keep in mind is this: despite the proposition of this hugely different framework, and despite the chance that it might ultimately prove to be a more accurate explanation of behaviour when someone chooses a short-term, inherently rewarding goal over a long-term, more ideal goal… it doesn’t really change any of the strategies for dealing with that behaviour. In my previous posts on self-control, I mentioned that evidence suggests strategies such as having a mental plan to enact when you feel tempted to go with a less-than-ideal choice. Regardless of the framework for understanding that choice-making behaviour, having a mental plan helped people prioritise the longer term, more ideal goals. Did it do that by helping to somehow replenish self-control resources? Or did it do that by somehow encouraging the brain to stay in the “have to” mode? There are a lot of hypotheses to generate and test before we can tell whether the mode-switching framework better explains behaviour than the self-control resource framework, and maybe even both could ultimately be wrong. Time will tell!

Mortality o’ersways their power: effects of mortality salience on choice

Self-esteem is a powerful driver of behaviour. When your self-esteem is diminished – which can result from myriad different causes, from failing to achieve a task you set for youself, to a harsh comment from someone, or any situation that makes you feel vulnerable or disempowered in some way – you are strongly motivated to rectify the situation and restore your self-esteem. From a psychological perspective, the main way to do this is by reasserting your identity and beliefs in some way, either by disparaging the identities and beliefs of people who don’t share the same ones as you, or by doing things that bolster yours.

What does that mean for consumer behaviour? Previous research has a lot to say about how people change their consumption choices when their self-esteem is diminished by mortality salience – that is, being reminded of their mortality. It might seem harsh to be reminding research participants of their mortality, but a lot of us probably have our mortality made salient multiple times per day. Reading a news article about a fatal car crash or watching a TV show about a murder investigation would be examples of things that would prime us to be more aware of our mortality, and perhaps respond in slightly different ways to things we subsequently encounter. It seems subtle, but that sort of priming can have a powerful effect.

Mortality salience can also come from profound, obvious events – a fair amount of mortality salience research was done following the terror attacks of September 11, when people were reminded acutely and en masse of their mortality. Arndt and colleagues have discussed why consumption in the US jumped by 6% in the months following September 11, suggesting that people acted to enhance their self-esteem via materialism and consumption. The relationship between mortality salience and consumption behaviour is a bit more complicated, though – as you might guess, you’re not going to improve your self-esteem and reassert your values by doing something you don’t care about, so if you’re very non-materialistic then your response to mortality salience won’t be to indulge any materialistic urges. We would act according to our personal values and according to how we think those vaules are perceived by others.

Self-control, which I previously wrote about here and here, could also play a role. When self-esteem is challenged and you make efforts to reassert it, self-control resources could be depleted. That means that if your priority is to bolster your self-esteem by reasserting key parts of your identity, you might funnel your cognitive resources into the domains of your identity that matter most to you, which could leave hardly any cognitive resources for the domains that don’t matter. For example – if eating well is important to you but being financially prudent isn’t, a hit to your self-esteem might cause you to focus more intently on purchasing and eating good food, but maybe you spend way more money than you needed to on way more food than you need because saving money isn’t important to your identity and you self-control was diminished.

These ideas about mortality salience, choice, self-esteem, personal values and self-control were tested to some extent by Ferraro and colleagues in their paper “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die: Effects of mortality salience and self-esteem on self-regulation”. The researchers investigated how mortality salience affected people’s choice-making, taking into account whether the participants might base their self-esteem on things like their body image or their virtuous behaviour (such as donating to charity or making a socially conscious and responsible decision). Participants had their mortality made salient by being asked by the researchers to do things like recall what they were doing and how they felt when they first heard about the September 11 attacks.

The results were in keeping with what you might expect: for example, increased mortality salience caused women to choose chocolate cake over fruit salad if they didn’t strongly base their self-esteem on body image (relative to a more neutral control condition, where mortality was not made as salient), whereas women who did base their self-esteem on body image tended to opt for the fruit salad rather than the chocolate cake (very interestingly, mortality salience had no effect on the chocolate cake vs. fruit salad choice in men, which demonstrates the importance of considering potentially relevant differences between particular groups). In another experiment, participants were given the opportunity to donate part of the money they earned from participating to a charity. Participants who had scored highly in terms of valuing virtue and charity and social consciousness in themselves donated a greater portion of their earnings in the high mortality salience condition (relative to a control condition), whereas those who scored lower and didn’t value that sort of virtue in themselves as much donated less when their mortality was made salient. In short, the evidence supports the notion that mortality salience affects behaviour and causes people to make choices in line with the personal values on which they base their self-esteem.

It is impossible to avoid being made aware of our own mortality in all sorts of ways in daily life, so mortality salience will inevitably affect our behaviour in some way, whether it be subtly or overtly. However, simply being aware of this and being mentally prepared might minimise the impact. For example, as I’ve written about previously, having a basic plan in the back of your mind can help in situations where you might be tempted to priortise short-term, less ideal goals when your self-control is depleted – now that we are aware that a hit to our self-esteem might suck up a lot of our cognitive resources and efforts in order to reassert our personal values and beliefs, having such a plan to guide behaviour and minimise the likelihood of poor choices might be more valuable than ever.

Cultural capital: science vs. art

I know that quite a few readers of this blog are interested in the concept of cultural capital – the idea developed by Pierre Bourdieu that non-financial, cultural assets facilitate social mobility and open up opportunities and privileges that might not otherwise be accessible. Dressing a certain way, adopting a certain accent when you speak, driving a particular brand of car – these sorts of things can facilitate your social connections and status. Cultural capital clearly plays a big role in consumption, from conspicuous consumption (i.e. buying identifiable luxury goods in order to broadcast messages to others about your taste, class or economic position) to Veblen goods (i.e. items that are perceived to be desirable because of their high cost and potential exclusivity, and the higher the price of the item, the greater the demand). Making particular consumption choices can enable people to increase their cultural capital, which they can then leverage for potentially significant social effects.

To some extent, cultural capital is often thought of in terms of more arts-based values. The way you decorate your home, the books you read and discuss, the brands and designs you choose to buy, the clothes and accessories you have in your wardrobe – these are all ways of accumulating and conveying cultural capital in what Bourdieu called the “objectified” component of cultural capital, or the objects you own that somehow signify your cultural capital. Sometimes this conceptualisation does seem to skew discussions about cultural capital towards more arts-based things, so what I hadn’t really considered before is how science might be seen as cultural capital. (I’m assuming you guys are interested in science if you’re reading this blog in which I describe, you know, scientific studies and research.)

Conveniently enough, there’s a seminar coming up on just that topic: Moving beyond an arts-based conceptualisation of cultural capital? Debating the concept of ‘science capital’ at the Science Museum in London. I will probably be there and I can certainly report back, if people are interested! But in the meantime, it’s interesting to try to think more broadly about how science (including maths and technology) could be considered to be, or could be used as, cultural capital.

I guess it’s obvious for Bourdieu’s “institutionalised” category of cultural capital, i.e. academic qualifications. For that variety of cultural capital, I think sometimes science could be more powerful than arts, since I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard of anyone being laughed at for having, say, a science PhD, whereas I’ve encountered plenty of derogatory attitudes towards art PhDs (e.g. I know of someone who has a PhD in fiction writing, for which she wrote a short sci-fi novel and then wrote a thesis on the themes of her novel – and I know multiple people who find this various combinations of hilarious, ridiculous and offensive).

For the “objectified” category of cultural capital, i.e. objects that people acquire, I guess cultural capital would be in the form of things like having a microscope or telescope at home, having subscriptions to science magazines and journals, having relevant textbooks on the bookshelf. Perhaps even owning and embracing particular bits of technology, e.g. being an early adopter of new technology, or having particular apps on your smartphone (but maybe not having a Google Glass since everyone seems to hate people who wear Google Glass). It’s a bit difficult to convey any sort of scientific sensibility through dress, though… unless you wear a lab coat, but that’s not really feasible or appropriate the majority of the time – although we do know from the classic (and horrifying) Milgram experiments that a lab coat seems to imbue the wearer with an aura of authority. But lab coats aren’t really, say, dinner party attire (or maybe I just need to go to better dinner parties).

As for the “embodied” category of cultural capital, i.e. aspects of your ways of thinking and your character – what would examples of that be? I guess the ability to critically evaluate information in a systematic and logical way would be valuable in terms of contributing to cultural capital. Maybe a skeptical, evidence-based approach to forming judgements and making decisions? Using technical language in the relevant context?

Any thoughts on things that might be considered science-based cultural capital? And are they more or less powerful than the more arts-based ideas of cultural capital? Do pitch in – I know some of you readers out there are very knowledgeable about these sorts of social theories!

MOOC on neuroeconomics

Slightly short notice, but for any of you who might be interested in learning more about how the brain makes decisions, there’s a massive online open course starting tomorrow (June 23) on the topic of neuroeconomics. I have no idea if the course is any good, but it would probably be at least a decent primer on the neuroscience and psychology of how the brain evaluates and processes evidence in order to make a decision – from the level of neurons (e.g. “Neural representation of the subjective value, basal ganglia and choice value” which would cover how information about your ongoing behaviour and its consequences feeds into the basal ganglia, which then assess whether the outcomes of your behaviour are better or worse than expected, and then provide that evaluation back to the more frontal brain regions to come up with a plan for subsequent action – like should you change your behaviour because the outcome was poorer than you expected?) to the interpersonal level and group interactions (social psychology and group dynamics/behaviour are always fascinating to study – they were certainly some of my favourite undergraduate courses when I was at university).

If you end up doing the course, let me know how it goes!