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ASU researchers gain new insight into self-control using neuroimaging

Nueroscience gives a more accurate picture of why we make certain choices.
Self-control can be augmented when people are asked to justify their decision.
August 31, 2017

McClure and Ballard find self-control varies depending on how important a decision is, or whether people are asked to justify choice

Grocery shopping while hungry is a bad idea, often leading to regrettable surrender to momentary cravings. Yet we fall victim to this pitfall time and again, despite our rational mind knowing better.

ASU Associate Professor of psychology Samuel McClure and researcher Ian Ballard wanted to know why. Their paper, “More is meaningful: The magnitude effect in intertemporal choice depends on self-control,” published today in the journal Psychological Science, may provide some answers. In it, the duo detail how they were able to use neuroimaging to show that self-control varies depending on how important a decision is, and that it can be augmented when people are asked to justify their decision.

“I think it’s exciting because once you have a handle on the neuro systems, once you have a way of measuring them, you can start really asking interesting questions,” McClure said. Superior to behavioral experiments, brain imaging allows scientists to “track [a person’s actions] down to the particular neuro systems and start thinking about why they function that way.”

Scientists have long agreed that self-control is just another example of executive functions, a set of mental skills that help us do things like set goals, manage time and pay attention. They are controlled by an area of the brain called the frontal lobe.

But trying to understand more about factors that might influence behaviors thought to be controlled by executive function — such as self-control — has been extremely difficult because the only way to do so was through behavioral experiments that required outside manipulation of executive functions, making it hard to separate the effects of manipulative factors from the effects of a person’s behavioral change.

For example, if a researcher wanted to know how anger affects a person’s ability to drive, they might play loud music to manipulate the person into becoming angry. However, though loud music might indeed make someone angry, it could be their inability to focus because of the music rather than their state of anger induced by the music that affects their ability to drive.

“That’s where neuroimaging comes in,” McClure said. “Because if you can isolate some set of behaviors that are related to self-control, then you can see which brain areas correspond to those behaviors. Then you don’t have to manipulate behavior, you can just measure it to see how those brain areas are related to self-control processes.”

So for his and Ballard’s study, they first asked a group of subjects to make a choice between a small amount of money now or a large amount of money later. They found that not only did the pre-frontal cortex area of the subjects’ brains — the area thought to be responsible for engaging self-control — show heightened activity when making the decision, but that the activity was even greater when the option of a larger reward was introduced, a phenomenon known as the magnitude effect.

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Researcher Ian Ballard (left) and ASU Associate Professor of psychology Samuel McClure were able to use neuroimaging for the first time ever to show that self-control varies depending on how important a decision is, and that it can be augmented when people are asked to justify their decision. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

They then repeated the experiment but followed it by asking the participants to rate their level of hunger, and found that hunger significantly affected whether they were willing to wait until later for a larger reward or take a smaller reward now, with those who reported being hungrier more likely to take the smaller reward now.

Finally, they asked participants to imagine a scenario in which they won money in a raffle. They could either take the money right away or wait a month for a larger sum. Before they made their choice, they were told they had to justify it with an explanation. They found that when participants were asked to justify their choice, they displayed significantly more patience, preferring to wait for the larger sum of money. 

McClure and Ballard said the results of the study have implications for broad societal issues, such as obesity and addiction.

“A lot of these things are self-control problems,” McClure said. “We don’t really understand how it is that the environment shapes how much control you have — although I think people who own restaurants and convenience stores know very well the opposite of that.

“So from a basic science standpoint, there’s a lot of interest in economics about how should we structure the environment to help people make the choices they really want to make?”

That could mean adding more bike lanes on city streets to encourage people to exercise or adding calorie information to menus, something the FDA required all restaurants with 20 or more locations to do beginning in May.

It could also help to change the way you look at information, Ballard said. In particular, the magnitude effect, wherein people respond more to larger numbers, comes into play.

“If you’re trying to lose weight, it’s kind of disappointing when you only lose half a pound in two weeks,” he said. “But if you set a goal to lose 500 grams a week, you feel more accomplished.”

The seemingly larger number — 500 grams, as opposed to 1 pound — is more likely to stimulate self-control in relation to a diet or exercise regimen, according to the researchers. Simply looking at the information differently can lead to a different outcome.

McClure and Ballard also recently received funding to conduct research on ADHD using the same theories and neuroimaging methods. They hope their work will eventually lead to interventions for such disorders, as well as insights into how to habitize good behaviors, such as running every morning.

“One thing that’s really exciting about cognitive neuroscience,” McClure said, “is that it allows you to get at some of the basic mechanisms that control brain function and are linked to interesting and important behaviors … and I think we’ve identified some critical levers that you can manipulate to help people out.”

 
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ASU center focuses on human values through filmmaking.
ASU center to host public screening of new documentary on transgender life.
ASU center approaches 12th year of connecting film to issues of race, gender.
August 31, 2017

Group focuses on how film and media shape society's ideas about human values

For nearly a dozen years, ASU’s Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture has prompted scholarly discussions on the role of cinema, media and music in society and has paid tribute to some of the 20th century’s most enduring entertainment icons. Faculty and students have performed countless hours of community outreach.

The center focuses on the roles film and media play in shaping popular culture, including ideas about race, gender, sexuality, human values and other social issues embedded in entertainment.

“It’s not our job to say if something’s good or bad, but it is important for people to be aware of the full context and complexity of what they see and hear,” said Peter Lehman (pictured above), founding director of the Center for Film, Media and Popular CultureThe Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture resides within the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.. “With good critical analysis, we can challenge misconceptions, help make distinctions and contribute to the evaluation and re-evaluation of popular entertainment as serious art.”

Since its inception in 2005, the center has brought together a team of ASU faculty and experts to build partnerships with the Phoenix-metro community and the entertainment industry. The center sponsors community film screenings, lectures and special events; supports students through scholarships and internships; pursues research grants and entrepreneurial industry partnerships; and hosts faculty fellows from around the world.

This month the center will screen a new documentary called “TRANS*CEND: A Journey from Gender to Self,” about transgender or nonbinary people struggling for authenticity, acceptance and equality in Memphis, Tennessee.

The free Sept. 15 screening at Sun Studios in Tempe will be the fifth time the documentary has been screened publicly, according to Shelby Elwood, the director of the film.

“Filmmakers are just as thoughtful, innovative and socially conscious as novelists or poets and have helped erase the distinction between so-called ‘fine art’ and popular entertainment,” Lehman said. “It’s a superficial distinction that doesn’t do film, television and popular music justice."

The center mixes scholarly pursuits and has fun at the same time. Last year it co-hosted with Arizona HumanitiesArizona Humanities is a non-profit organization that fosters discussions on books, films and poetry; provides grants to humanities education; and promotes literacy through reading events for children and families, according to its website. the U.S. premiere of “Roy Orbison: One of the Lonely Ones” at a nearby movie theater, followed by a discussion with British documentary filmmaker Jeremy Marre. 

“Peter has such a wonderful way about himself where he can use conversation and engage people in a non-threatening way where it has the potential to open up safe questioning and dialogue,” said Ellie Hutchinson, program manager for Arizona Humanities, who has partnered with the center since 2015.

Hutchinson said working with the center offers Arizona Humanities' audience more well-rounded programming.

A few years before, they honored filmmaker Blake Edwards with a tribute concert in collaboration with the ASU symphony, which played music selections from his films at ASU Gammage. During the concert, ASU President Michael Crow awarded Edwards an honorary degree. His wife, actress Julie Andrews, was on hand to enjoy the festivities.

The center became part of a major ASU initiative in the Western film genre in 2016. Lehman, a Western film scholar, was invited to join a group of ASU faculty and administrators to create a partnership between the university and Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West to acquire a 5,000-piece Western film memorabilia collection valued at $6 million. The purchase puts ASU in position to boost research from several fields and help dispel stereotypes and misconceptions of American Indians.

Museum CEO and Director Mike Fox called the center “an excellent collaborative partner” and says the Rennard Strickland Collection of Western Film history is a good starting point. 

“We want the collection to serve as a catalyst for conversation and reflection that deepens people’s understanding of the West and themselves,” Fox said.

The center and museum will team up again in a few months to co-host a Nov. 2 screening of “Redskin,” a historically important 1929 Western film about Native Americans.

Lehman emphasizes that building relationships between the center, the Phoenix metro arts and museum community, its advisory board and industry partners is a key part of who they are.

“We’ve laid the foundation for expanding to the next level, including attracting business and corporate sponsors and donors both within the local community and in Hollywood,” Lehman said.

Trans*cend: a Journey from Gender to Self

What: The Southwest premiere of the documentary, followed by a discussion.

When: 7-9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 15.

Where: Sun Studios of Arizona, 1425 W. 14th St., Tempe.

Admission: Free.

Details: azhumanities.org/event/transcend-film-screening-discussion-tempe

 

Top photo: Peter Lehman, founding director for the Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture, stands with pieces from the Rennard Strickland Collection of Western Film inside the Scottsdale Museum of the West on Aug. 10. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now