Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Increased self control without increased willpower

Here is a fascinating bit of work from Magen et. al., who show that a simple cognitive reframing of the classic immediate or delayed gratification test makes energy requiring willpower less necessary.
In our paradigm, instead of presenting choices in a traditional hidden-zero format (e.g., “Would you prefer [A] $5 today OR [B] $10 in a month?”), choices are presented in an explicit-zero format, which references the nonreward consequences of each choice (e.g., “Would you prefer [A] $5 today and $0 in a month OR [B] $0 today and $10 in a month?”). Including future outcomes in all choice options has been argued to reduce the attentional bias toward immediate rewards that contributes to impulsive behavior.
Here, then, is their abstract:
People often exert willpower to choose a more valuable delayed reward over a less valuable immediate reward, but using willpower is taxing and frequently fails. In this research, we demonstrate the ability to enhance self-control (i.e., forgoing smaller immediate rewards in favor of larger delayed rewards) without exerting additional willpower. Using behavioral and neuroimaging data, we show that a reframing of rewards (i) reduced the subjective value of smaller immediate rewards relative to larger delayed rewards, (ii) increased the likelihood of choosing the larger delayed rewards when choosing between two real monetary rewards, (iii) reduced the brain reward responses to immediate rewards in the dorsal and ventral striatum, and (iv) reduced brain activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (a correlate of willpower) when participants chose the same larger later rewards across the two choice frames. We conclude that reframing can promote self-control while avoiding the need for additional willpower expenditure.

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