Monday, June 1, 2009

Angels and Demons in Our Heads

For those attempting to diet, quit smoking or save regularly, but find it impossible, recently concluded research has unlocked the inner workings of the human brain affecting the exercise of self-control, or what movies and cartoons have popularised as being our better angels and lesser selves.

Ever wonder why it is so harder for some and easier for others to stick to a diet, quit smoking or avoid spending money? The answer lends credence to the adage that “it’s all in the mind”. An interesting experiment performed at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has pointed to an area of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) which acts as a modulator of our desires when undertaking value laden decisions—such as what food to eat.

Using magnetic resonance imaging, they have shown that it is this region that lights up when individuals exercise self-control. This area represents our “better angels”. The other region which is responsible for making us act on our impulses and desires is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or vmPFC. This represents our “indulgent” selves. Science Daily reports

"After centuries of debate in social sciences we are finally making big strides in understanding self-control from watching the brain resist temptation directly," says Colin Camerer, the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics in Caltech's Division of Humanities and Social Sciences and another of the paper's coauthors. "This study, and many more to come, will eventually lead to much better theories about how self-control develops and how it works for different kinds of temptations."
Improving welfare

In relation to welfare economics, the study of maximising consumer welfare, the findings of this research challenges the notion that revealed preference always indicates the optimum choice. In other words, to maximise welbeing, policy should take its cue from what people say they intend to do (their reported preference), as opposed to what they actually do (their revealed preference).

The use of personal trainers as vividly portrayed in reality gameshows like The Biggest Loser to act as a constestant’s conscience demonstrates the necessity of adhereing to this principle. It has been shown in one study that providing cash incentives to subjects for a period of time to exercise makes the habit of going to the gym stick following the withdrawal of such rewards. Even in cases where their reported preference ex-ante goes against the preferred outcome, say for those who profess that their obesity is their lifestyle “by choice”, the ex-post preference might agree with the decision to lose weight.

It admittedly is more difficult to argue in favour of programs that would coerce people to do things for their own good. Civil libertarians will protest against this paternalistic violation of people’s rights. Hopefully with a little nudging, people could opt willingly to undertake certain behaviours:
For instance (as proposed by Todd Hare, postdoctoral scholar) it might be possible to kick the DLPFC into gear by making the health qualities of foods more salient for people, rather than asking them to make the effort to judge a food's health benefits on their own. “If we highlight the fact that ice cream is unhealthy just before we offer it…maybe we can reduce its value in advance, give the person a head start to making a better decision."
A combination of consumer watchdogs, mandatory labels in packaging and healthy competition does go a long way in framing choice towards the better outcomes. The deterrence of unseemly pictures on cigarette packets though might influence first time smokers, but not long-term ones. Perhaps, in the case of the latter, a shove, rather than a nudge, will be needed.

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