Imagine being told to choose between receiving a small amount of money now or a larger amount of money later. You immediately consider a variety of factors, such as when rent is due, how well off you currently are, and what will be the better decision down the road. You also battle the insistent temptation to take the money and run without giving it another thought. Ultimately, you win the battle and decide to go for the larger prize, which you will receive in due time.

Okay, sorry, you don’t actually get any money. But you did just successfully practice self-control. This scenario is the exact one used in a new study conducted by ASU Associate Professor of psychology Samuel McClure and researcher Ian Ballard, who sought to better understand the factors that go into self-control. The neuroimaging study, “More Is Meaningful: The Magnitude Effect in Intertemporal Choice Depends on Self-Control”, which was published yesterday in the journal Psychological Science and discussed in an article by Neuroscience News, ultimately revealed that self-control depends on the importance of a decision and also may be amplified when people are asked to justify their decision.

In order to make these discoveries, McClure and Ballard administered a few tests. The one mentioned above was the initial test and revealed that the pre-frontal cortex area of the subject’s brains (which is thought to manage self-control) showed heightened activity when they were making their decision and even greater activity when a larger reward came into play: a phenomenon called the magnitude effect. Next, McClure and Ballard repeated the same test but concluded it by asking the subjects to report their level of hunger. This led to their discovery that hunger significantly affected whether the participants were willing to wait for a larger award or too tempted to take the smaller reward instead, which correlated with being hungrier.

In the final scenario, McClure and Ballard asked the participants to imagine they had just won money in a raffle. They had the option of again, taking the money right away or waiting longer for a larger amount. But this time, they had to justify their decision with an explanation. The participants proved, with the introduction of this new element, to show greater levels of patience and preferred to wait for the bigger prize.

According to McClure and Ballard, their findings apply to many societal issues that involve self-control, like obesity and addiction. “From a basic science standpoint, there’s a lot of interest in economics about how we should structure the environment to help people make the choices they really want to make,” said McClure. This past May, the FDA did just that. You may have noticed the menu at your favorite chain restaurant now tells you how many calories are in that cheeseburger meal you always get. That’s because all restaurant franchises with over 20 locations are recently required to include calorie information in their menus. This way, customers can make a more informed decision about what they want to order and are more likely to choose healthier options.

Furthermore, these discoveries may suggest the effectiveness of looking at information differently, in consideration of the magnitude effect. Ballard gives the example of trying to lose weight, which can be rather frustrating. Imagine stepping on the scale and finding you only lost half a pound over the course of two weeks; you become frustrated and disappointed.

But if you look at it as losing 225 grams instead, you might feel more accomplished. This is due to the magnitude effect, where people respond better to larger numbers. The seemingly bigger number of 225 grams is also more likely to trigger self-control in your diet.

So next time you’re making a major decision, consider the psychology behind self-control and use it to your advantage. And soon enough, McClure and Ballard may have additional advice to help you create good habits, as they recently received funding to conduct further research. Stay tuned!

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