When you’re on a diet, deciding to skip your favorite calorie-laden foods and eat something healthier takes a whole lot of self-control–an ability that seems to come easier to some of us than others. Now, scientists from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have uncovered differences in the brains of people who are able to exercise self-control versus those who find it almost impossible.
The key? While everyone uses the same single area of the brain to make these sorts of value-laden decisions, a second brain region modulates the activity of the first region in people with good self-control, allowing them to weigh more abstract factors–healthiness, for example–in addition to basic desires such as taste to make a better overall choice.
These findings not only provide insight into the interplay between self-control and decisionmaking in dieters, but may explain how we make any number of decisions that require some degree of willpower. […]
The next step, the researchers say, is to come up with ways to engage the DLPFC in the decisions made by people with poor self-control under normal conditions. For instance, Hare says, 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,” he notes, “maybe we can reduce its value in advance, give the person a head start to making a better decision.”