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!

One Thought on “Choice behaviour: governed by self-control resources or something else…?

  1. Fascinating as always! Thanks for sharing, Jess.

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