Rephrasing choices could boost self control

June 24, 2014 by Marcia Malory report
Brain activity related to valuation and exertion of willpower were both influenced by choice framing. (A) Activity in reward-related dorsal and ventral striatum was greater for choices made in the hidden-zero than the explicit-zero frame. (B) Differences in striatal activity across framing formats correlated with individual differences in the size of the behavioral framing effect. Credit: (c) PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1408991111

(Medical Xpress)—Do you want to avoid chocolate until you've lost weight or leave your savings in the bank earning interest rather than splurge on an expensive gadget? You might think using willpower is the best way to control yourself and avoid temptation. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Eran Magen at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and his team report that thinking about your choices in a different way can be a more effective means of achieving self control than using willpower.

Magen and his team looked at two potential methods of encouraging delayed gratification.The first, , involves consciously delaying rewards, despite distractions and temptations, in order to achieve a better outcome. Using willpower can be very demanding. Therefore, it is often ineffective. The second method involves rewording the description of possible outcomes. The researchers thought this method would be more effective, because it would create a more automatic change in behavior.

To test this theory, the team performed an online experiment in which they asked 182 volunteers to choose between receiving a small amount of money that day or a larger amount later. They phrased the question in two ways. With some subjects, they used a "hidden-zero" format, asking, for example, "Would you prefer to receive $6.00 today or $8.50 or in 46 days?" An "explicit-zero" format was used with the other subjects, with the question phrased as, "Would you prefer to receive $6.00 today and $0 in $46.00 days, or $0 today and $8.50 in 46 days?" The researchers found that subjects who responded to the explicit-zero format question were more inclined to delay their reward than those who answered the hidden-zero format question were.

Magen's team then asked 23 volunteers similar questions. These volunteers received fMRI scans. The team found that activity in regions of the brain associated with rewards, the dorsal and ventral striatum, was higher when subjects made choices based on questions in the hidden-zero format than when they made choices based on questions in the explicit-zero format. Of the subjects that chose delayed rewards, those that responded to hidden-zero format questions experienced greater activity in the , a brain region associated with willpower, than subjects who answered explicit-zero format questions. These findings suggest that the subjects who answered presented in the hidden-zero format were working harder to control themselves.

The researchers note that correlates with good health and with financial, academic and social success. They believe that by reframing choices, experts in a variety of fields, including public policy, could enable people to apply more self control throughout their lives, deferring instant gratification in favor of achieving long term goals.

Explore further: Want to stick with your diet? Better have someone hide the chocolate

More information: Behavioral and neural correlates of increased self-control in the absence of increased willpower, Eran Magen, PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1408991111

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.

Related Stories

Want to stick with your diet? Better have someone hide the chocolate

July 24, 2013
If you are trying to lose weight or save for the future, new research suggests avoiding temptation may increase your chances of success compared to relying on willpower alone. The study on self-control by researchers from ...

Study indicates willpower not depleted by use nor replenished by food

August 20, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—A team composed of researchers from Stanford University and the University of Zurich has found evidence that suggests willpower is not depleted by use, nor replenished by glucose. In their paper, published ...

Give thanks, and prosper

April 1, 2014
It's a classic experiment: Sit a kid in front of a single marshmallow and tell him that if he waits a few minutes to eat it, he can have two. The videos of these experiments are overwhelmingly entertaining: The kids squirm ...

Delaying gratification, when the reward is under our noses

October 22, 2013
How can some people resist the attraction of immediate pleasures and pursue long-term goals, while others easily succumb and compromise their ultimate expectations? A recent study led by researchers at the Brain and Spine ...

Creatures of habit: Disorders of compulsivity share common pattern and brain structure

May 29, 2014
People affected by binge eating, substance abuse and obsessive compulsive disorder all share a common pattern of decision making and similarities in brain structure, according to new research from the University of Cambridge.

Recommended for you

Researchers crack the smile, describing three types by muscle movement

July 27, 2017
The smile may be the most common and flexible expression, used to reveal some emotions, cover others and manage social interactions that have kept communities secure and organized for millennia.

Even babies can tell who's the boss, UW research says

July 27, 2017
The charismatic colleague, the natural leader, the life of the party - all are personal qualities that adults recognize instinctively. These socially dominant types, according to repeated studies, also tend to accomplish ...

Infants know what we like best, study finds

July 27, 2017
Behind the chubby cheeks and bright eyes of babies as young as 8 months lies the smoothly whirring mind of a social statistician, logging our every move and making odds on what a person is most likely to do next, suggests ...

Negativity, be gone—new online tool can retrain your brain

July 27, 2017
Anxiety and depression can have devastating effects on people's lives. In some cases, the mental disorders lead to isolation, poverty and poor physical health, things that often cascade to future generations.

Research aims to shape more precise treatments for depression in women

July 27, 2017
Among women in the United States, depression is at epidemic levels: Approximately 12 million women in the U.S. experience clinical depression each year, and more than 12 percent of women can expect to experience depression ...

Very preterm birth not associated with mood and anxiety disorders, new research finds

July 27, 2017
Do very-preterm or very-low-weight babies develop anxiety and mood disorders later in life? Julia Jaekel, assistant professor of child and family studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Dieter Wolke, professor ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jun 24, 2014
An interesting article, but the questions that were asked are really garbled in print. If this were cleaned up it would be a lot easier to follow.
not rated yet Jun 24, 2014
"The researchers found that subjects who responded to the explicit-zero format question were more inclined to delay their reward than those who answered the hidden-zero format question were. "

How much more?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.