March 1, 2021

Quantifying the subjective cost of self-control in humans

Since Odysseus committed to resisting the Sirens, mechanisms to limit self-control failure have been a central feature of human behavior. Psychologists have long argued that the use of self-control is an effortful process and, more recently, that its failure arises when the cognitive costs of self-control outweigh its perceived benefits. In a similar way, economists have argued that sophisticated choosers can adopt pre-commitment strategies that that tie the hands of their future selves in order to reduce these costs. Yet, we still lack an empirical tool to quantify and demonstrate the cost of self-control. Here, we develop and validate a novel economic decision-making task to quantify the subjective cost of self-control by determining the monetary cost a person is willing to incur in order to eliminate the need for self-control. We find that humans will pay to avoid having to exert self-control in a way that scales with increasing levels of temptation and that these costs are modulated both by motivational incentives and stress exposure. Our psychophysical approach allows us to index moment-to-moment self-control costs at the within-subject level, validating important theoretical work across multiple disciplines and opening new avenues of self-control research in healthy and clinical populations.

 bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience

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