Category Archives: Brain/mind

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!

Depleted cognitive self-control: impact on ethical decisions

I have previously written about how self-control can be depleted, leading to impulsive actions that prioritise short-term, less-than-ideal gains. Some research suggested that this might be because people fail to put together a plan of action that would prevent the lapse of self-control occurring, and that self-control might be re-established if, when in a tempting situation involving a choice between two conflicting options, we take the time to think about our long-term goals and the specific details of how we want to achieve them.

A lapse of self-control can have undesirable consequences for the individual. Persistently valuing enjoyable but unhealthy foods rather than prioritising longer term dietary goals could result in all sorts of negative health outcomes; persistently valuing the thrill of an impulse purchase over a more considered, thoughtful approach to buying items can result in a lot of money wasted and a whole lot of space taken up by things you don’t want or need. But what about further consequences to impaired self-control? When your self-control is depleted, what sort of wider impact might that have?

When it comes to self-control and ethics, it looks like there might be a problem. Gino and colleagues (including Dan Ariely – a research psychologist and behavioural economist whose pop science books on decision-making you might have come across before) conducted a series of experiments to find out what effects depleted self-control would have on moral awareness and behaviour (“Unable to resist temptation: How self-control depletion promotes unethical behaviour” in the journal Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes). Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that depleted self-control had consequences for behaviour and choices in a range of ethical situations – short-term, unethical choices with a quick pay-off were prioritised over longer-term, more ideal goals. You can imagine the potential magnitude of the consequences of that in the real world.

In one experiment, Gino and colleagues examined whether self-control depletion led research participants to cheat on a problem-solving task (they could cheat by overstating their performance, which would get them more money at the end of the task, so there was a financial incentive to cheat). Self-control was depleted by showing one group of participants a soundless video of a woman being interviewed, with irrelevant words appearing as subtitles at the bottom of the screen – these participants were instructed to focus on the woman’s face and ignore the words, which requires plenty of self-control (you can do the Stroop test to see just how difficult it can be to ignore written words and how much control you need to exert to ignore them). Another group, the control group, was shown the same video but weren’t given any instructions – they could look wherever they wanted on the screen. The results? 34% of participants in the self-control depletion group cheated by overstating their performance, whereas only 13.7% of participants in the control group cheated – a significant difference.

Subsequent experiments revealed that self-control depletion actually made participants less aware of ethical situations and ethics-related concepts – once self-control was worn down, the topic of ethics was kind of de-prioritised and placed at the back of the mind.

Still, in that initial experiment, only 34% of people cheated after being depleted in self-control. What could be an influencing factor in who does or doesn’t cheat when given the opportunity? A person’s individual sense of morality and ethics probably plays a role, and the researchers investigated this by using a questionnaire to assess how central a sense of ethics/morality was to each participant – how strongly their self-identity hinged on this sense of being a moral and ethical person.

Again, the findings are perhaps unsurprising. Individuals with a strong moral identity (ones who considered it important for themselves to feel that they were caring, compassionate, fair, friendly, generous, helpful, hardworking, honest and kind) didn’t cheat that much more when their self-control was depleted compared to when their self-control wasn’t depleted. People with low moral identity cheated much more after depletion relative to when they weren’t depleted.

It’s interesting to consider how this might apply to other ethical situations we might encounter in daily life. When, as consumers, we have the option to purchase something of ethically dubious provenance (for example, clothing from high street retailers who are known to have a poor track record in terms of ethical production lines or sustainable use of environmental resources), are we more likely to choose the less ethical option if our self-control has been worn down? The experiments conducted by Gino et al. demonstrated that self-control can be worn down in different, seemingly irrelevant ways (such as having to ignore the presentation of words, or having to write an essay that doesn’t contain certain letters of the alphabet) and still have an impact on ethical choices. So after a long day at work and exerting self-control in order to stay focused and productive, we’re all probably pretty cognitively depleted, and that might mean impaired ethical awareness and increased favour towards unethical options that offer swift pay-off. Gino and colleagues also demonstrated, in a final experiment, that resisting the temptation to cheat depletes self-control as well – so trying to prioritise an ethical choice might wear you down to the point where you make an unethical one. And this is complicated by the influential factor of identity – all these things may only be an issue for you in proportion to how important a particular ethical position or issue is to you and your identity.

It’s difficult to predict how generalisable the results of the Gino et al. study are to other ethical situations – cheating for monetary gain is one quite specific scenario, but there are plenty of other contexts and quandaries of an ethical or moral nature, and the stakes might be sufficiently different to change the effects of self-control depletion on moral/ethical choices (consider how complicated it might be to examine the effects of self-control depletion in a situation with ambiguous moral outcomes, such as the classic moral dilemma, the trolley problem). The main implication of this study’s findings, however, is that depleted self-control does seem to lead to prioritising short-term, unethical options that have quicker pay-off (such as receiving more money at the end of the experiment) over long-term, ethical options with less clearly defined pay-off (such as maintaining an ethical and fair approach in life and whatever satisfaction and benefits might be derived from that). Additionally considering the self-control depletion research I previously discussed, which found that lapses of self-control seem to be due to poor planning of responses to resolve the conflict between choices, a few recommendations might be made:

(1) Avoid having to make choices with an ethical component following an activity that might have depleted your self-control, e.g. if you aim to be an ethical consumer, try not to go shopping after a long day at work when you are likely to be cognitively depleted.

(2) If having to make that choice when you’re depleted is unavoidable (e.g. you have to purchase a birthday present for a friend, and the friend’s birthday is tomorrow, and you really want to give your friend the present tomorrow, meaning you have to buy something tonight directly after work, even though it has been a really tough day and you are probably very much cognitively depleted!), have a mental action plan of how you would achieve your long-term goal of being a more ethical consumer and consider those details when you are tempted to purchase an item that doesn’t fit well with your more ideal goals.

(3) Purposefully direct your attention to alternatives as part of your mental action plan. If you dwell too much on the less ideal item you’re thinking about purchasing, the effort to resist purchasing it could be enough to wear down your self-control until you cave in and buy that not-so-brilliant option anyway.

Ownership, loss aversion, the endowment effect, and lava lamps

Do you ever see things for sale on eBay with prices that seem astonishingly unrealistic? I get daily emails of newly listed items containing my saved search terms and sometimes the prices are just ridiculously optimistic. Not only that, but the items turn up again and again and again, re-listed and re-listed and re-listed, often at the same price. I know that some of the items will be from consignment sellers who have probably agreed with a client on a set price and to re-list indefinitely until the item sells, but a lot of the listings are just from individuals clearing out their homes and offloading the things they don’t want any more. Just sometimes at prices so high that the items never sell.

What might be responsible for some of these crazy prices is the endowment effect, a psychological phenomenon in which people typically demand a lot more in order to relinquish an item they already own than they would be willing to pay for the item if they didn’t already own it.

In the classic study of the endowment effect by Daniel Kahneman and colleagues, research participants were given a mug and were then offered the opportunity to sell it or to trade it for something of equal monetary value. However, once the participants were given ownership of the mug and felt like it was theirs, they typically expected twice as much money in order to be willing to part with it than they were willing to pay for the mug when they didn’t own it. So when they don’t own the mug, maybe they think it’s worth $5, but when they do own the mug, they expect someone to pay them $10 for it.

One explanation for the endowment effect is loss aversion – owners of items expect the pain of relinquishing the items to be greater than the enjoyment of acquiring the items, so they need extra financial compensation to soften the blow of parting with the item. However, an alternative explanation is related simply to ownership and the possibility that owners might associate the items with themselves, so they are reluctant to part with an item because of this personal connection – not necessarily because they expect to feel any pain from the loss.

Morewedge and colleagues investigated the endowment effect in terms of the loss aversion account versus the ownership account, to see which was more likely to be the real explanation. The problem, of course, is the fact that sellers are usually owners, so even if you just want to look at whether loss aversion occurs when someone considers selling an item, you’re kind of incidentally looking at ownership to some extent too. You need to add some extra factors in to get a clear picture of what’s going on.

Firstly, what if you create a new type of person – someone who’s a buyer but also an owner? Does such a person, i.e. one who is selling a mug but also happens to own another identical mug that they aren’t selling, behave more like a owner-seller (because they are an owner too) or more like a non-owning-buyer (because they are a buyer as well)? The researchers found that owning a mug actually resulted in buyers valuing the mug as much as sellers, which suggests that the high value that sellers place on the mug isn’t because of loss aversion – for instance, a seller might think a mug is worth $10, but someone who wants to buy that mug and already owns an identical mug also thinks the mug is worth $10. It appears to be the ownership that increases the mug’s perceived value; it can’t be loss aversion, since the buyer isn’t losing the mug.

Another clever way to tease apart the issue of loss aversion vs. ownership is to introduce additional parties – brokers who do the bargaining and dealing on behalf of the buyers and sellers. The researchers got some of the research participants to act as brokers to do a deal (on mugs again) on behalf of clients, so these brokers were buying or selling a mug without owning it. The researchers also gave some of the brokers identical mugs to the ones they had to buy or sell, so some brokers were buying or selling a mug they didn’t own but they also happened to own an identical mug. If the loss aversion account of the endowment effect is true, then sellers’ brokers should value the mugs more than buyers’ brokers, since sellers’ brokers will see their client’s sale as a loss and buyers’ brokers will see their client’s sale as a gain. However, if the ownership account is true, then buyers’ brokers and sellers’ brokers should value the mug more when they themselves own identical mugs to the one being bought/sold, compared to if the brokers don’t themselves own identical mugs.

The results showed that, again, owning the mug was the key factor here, and that buyers’ and sellers’ brokers valued the mug that they were buying or selling more if they themselves owned an identical mug. Again, it looks like ownership is the key factor in how valued an item is, rather than loss aversion. So maybe when those items turn up on eBay with crazy prices attached, what we’re seeing is the price for someone to be willing to relinquish something they connect with themselves. You might say it’s a bit like severing a tiny part of their identity, hence the premium price placed on the act.

Also, I just want to congratulate the study’s authors for getting what is essentially an ode to lava lamps into their paper, questioning the very nature of the human connection to lava lamps in language so imbued with poetic imagery and faint melancholy:

“Because the people who own lava lamps demand more to give them up than the people who do not own lava lamps will pay to get them, deals go unmade and storage lockers remain filled with lava lamps that are destined never again to glow. [...] We do not know if people store their lava lamps because parting with them is such sweet sorrow, but we do know that they store them because they like them and that they like them because they’re theirs.”

Familiarity breeds affection

Why is it that you can look at something for months and months and have no discernible affection towards it, and then one day – you love it! You need to buy it and own it! It needs to be in your life! All of a sudden your attitude is totally transformed. It all seems a bit suspiciously impulsive, and it’s hardly the mentality of the thoughtful, circumspect consumer that many people would like to be. But it does happen from time to time, and it leads one to wonder – what flips the switch? Why do feelings of relative indifference transform into sudden admiration and a compulsion for ownership of the desired object? It might have something to do with a cognitive bias called the mere-exposure effect.

The mere-exposure effect describes how people tend to have a more favourable view of things they are familiar with; hence, merely being exposed to something can make you like it more than things that you haven’t been exposed to. Plenty of research over the decades has established it as a robust psychological phenomenon that is evident in a wide variety of contexts. For example, in one experiment, participants who weren’t familiar with Chinese characters were shown a series of them and asked to rate them. In the exposure stage, one group of participants was shown the same 5 characters five times each, and another group of participants was shown 25 different characters once each. In the testing stage that followed, all participants were shown a series of images – including a mix of characters they had just seen in the exposure stage and characters they hadn’t seen in the exposure stage – and were asked how much they liked each one. The liking ratings for characters the participants had seen before was higher than the ratings for the characters they hadn’t seen before. Also, the liking ratings were higher in the group who had seen the same 5 characters five times (so the characters felt more familiar) than in the group that had only seen 25 different characters. So the more you see something, the more it feels familiar and the more you like it. The group that saw the same 5 characters five times each also reported feeling happier after the experiment than the group that saw 25 different characters – evidence that simply creating feelings of familiarity can have a positive effect on your mood.

The twist here is that the participants weren’t even consciously aware of the characters they had seen in the exposure stage. Each character was flashed up for just 5 milliseconds – way too fast for anyone to consciously see. So during the subsequent testing stage, when the characters were flashed up for 1 second each and participants rated how much they liked each character, the participants had no idea which characters they had or hadn’t seen just before. They couldn’t recognise any of the characters as being familiar. Despite that, their brains had still performed basic visual processing of the characters, and subsequently the characters that participants had been exposed to during the exposure stage somehow implicitly felt more familiar and were consequently more greatly liked.

This means that even things that fly under your radar are being processed by your brain, and the more you see something, the more you might end up liking it, even if you’re not sure why. Of course, this isn’t true of absolutely everything – we don’t like everything we’re repeatedly exposed to, and sometimes being exposed to something too much is a bad thing because it creates too many associations and it all gets a bit confusing. But the mere exposure effect could have some sort of influence in driving us to like and desire things we might have otherwise been quite indifferent to.