Origins of Self-Control Located in the Brain

The ability to choose a long-term benefit over instant gratification may be a difficult dilemma with which people grapple every day, but it’s also an important choice that can have significant consequences for personal satisfaction and quality of life. Everyone from children to elderly adults has displayed difficulty in making such choices, though the specific influences that may effect the tendency to sacrifice the immediate for the eventual are not thoroughly understood. Recently, a research team at Columbia University found that the choice of when to receive a reward can be traced within the brain, and have narrowed the source to the pre-frontal cortex.

The project, which was a joint production between the university’s Department of Psychology and the Center for Decision Sciences at its business school, worked with over fifty participants using a kind of non-invasive brain stimulation. The participants were divided into three distinct groups; a third were given stimulation to the left pre-frontal cortex, another third received stimulation to the right pre-frontal cortex, and the final third was given a placebo procedure with no stimulation at all. The participants were then involved in exercises that required them to choose between small immediate rewards and larger rewards given at a later date.

Researchers recorded that those participants who had been stimulated in the left pre-frontal cortex were more likely to choose immediate rewards. This area is also known to be poorly developed in children and adolescents, and may explain the greater degree of difficulty commonly experienced among children making choices relating to delayed gratification. The team noted that with further research into the pre-frontal cortex and its responsibility for handling such crucial decisions, a better quality of life and improved developmental care for many people may be in sight.

© Copyright 2010 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Sam

    Sam

    April 1st, 2010 at 12:12 PM

    That explains why I got better at delaying gratification as I got older. When I was a kid I always wanted what I could have NOW, even if what I could get if I waited for it was the better deal. Very interesting!

  • EDDY JERRY

    EDDY JERRY

    April 1st, 2010 at 12:14 PM

    I think this part of the brain,while under development(as mentioned in this article) takes into accounts the happenings and experiences of a person’s life…if a person has been through difficult times,he may be more ineterested in instant gratification and if someone is pretty comfortable financially he can afford to wait for an enhanced benefit.

  • soldy

    soldy

    April 1st, 2010 at 3:01 PM

    I’ve never been much good at self-control. I have to force myself to delay the good stuff like TV until I get other things out the way like laundry. At least I know my limits! :)

  • marlin spence

    marlin spence

    April 1st, 2010 at 3:03 PM

    self-control involves every aspect of our body…right from verbal aspect to the physical aspect and all this can be controlled and maintained in tandem with the help of our brain perfectly and in quite a beautiful manner.

  • Amy

    Amy

    April 2nd, 2010 at 8:59 AM

    When it comes to a great shoe sale I think that I always revert back to my adolescent instant gratification days! :)

  • Jacquie

    Jacquie

    April 2nd, 2010 at 10:31 AM

    Self-gratification? I’d be so lucky. I’m bottom of my to-do list even when it’s my own needs that are to be attended to. Everyone else’s needs in this house come first and then mine. My self-gratification isn’t just delayed. It’s non-existent.

  • Yolanda

    Yolanda

    April 3rd, 2010 at 4:41 PM

    Hey Jacquie, I don’t mean to be rude but girl are you nuts? LOL. You’re the only person that can change that. Make time for yourself and your needs. The family won’t disappear or fall apart if you have an hour to call your own every day. It would be good for them to be more self-sufficient.

  • Dylan

    Dylan

    April 3rd, 2010 at 7:24 PM

    I am very bad at waiting for anything. Food, people, career moves, relationships…you name it. When I want something I get it and I don’t mess around waiting to see if anything better is going to come along. You could wait all your life.

  • Frances W.

    Frances W.

    April 3rd, 2010 at 8:38 PM

    And can you honestly say that attitude has served you well in the past Dylan? That not holding back awhile wouldn’t have afforded you better rewards? That you never made a mistake because you were too hasty? Sorry, I don’t believe it. Being able to delay gratification goes hand in hand with maturity and wisdom.

  • Neil

    Neil

    April 6th, 2010 at 3:36 AM

    This research could be helpful to the courts and lawyers when a lack of self-control is claimed as a defense. Perhaps in future examination of how well developed that part of their pre-frontal cortex is will be taken into account. It’s plausible.

  • Elizabeth R.

    Elizabeth R.

    April 6th, 2010 at 2:06 PM

    My dad promised to double whatever we managed to save by the end of six months out of our allowance in an effort to teach us about saving. My sister saved every penny. Every penny! She was very good at delaying gratification even when she was only small. I on the other hand thought she was crazy and spent mine every week. When I saw my dad hand over the extra cash to her and not me though after six months, I was crushed. I’d secretly assumed I’d get it anyway because he always treated us the same. Childish logic indeed! And I had to go with them and watch her spend it.

    He taught me a lesson that day and not just about saving. Next time he offered, I saved. Not all but some, mind you.

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