The Neuroscience of Motivation identifies three core neural processes. The first of three articles discussed influencing motivation by upping the right rewards, the second explored biases and how to influence them, and this third article discusses self-regulation for sustained effort, achievement and reward.
Self-regulation is how we stick at things, especially when they are difficult or unrewarding. The self-regulation network predominantly involves the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), both linked to consciously aware, controllable thought processing and action choices. From this, of the three parts of the motivational process, self-regulation seems to be the most conscious and therefore straightforward, and, by inference, theoretically easy to influence. But, for most people and for most of the time, it’s not.
The ACC responds to errors or conflicts in performance (1). The DLPFC’s involvement is cognitive, arising from its core role in facilitating working memory and executive function (2) (e.g., conscious thought, imagination, problem-solving, cognitive self-awareness). This consciousness of activation is our access-point to aligning our action choices with our goals, rather than reactions, impulses or emotions.
Successful self-regulation has been linked to outcomes in long term health and educational outcomes for children and youths (3), obesity (4) and health and well-being throughout life (5), arising from the integration of an individual’s development (DNA, life experiences etc) and context (currently-experienced situations) (6). In the eyes of some researchers, “Understanding self-regulation is the single most crucial goal for advancing the understanding of development” (7).
Why is self-regulation so hard?
One might easily think that self-regulation is easy – just decide to do something and then do it, even if its not a lot of fun or takes a lot of effort. How hard could that be? The challenge is that we are far more often, in hundreds of small ways every day, motivated into action by non-conscious influences ranging from impulses and habits of little consequence (e.g., scratching, fidgeting) through to stronger desires, urges, reactions, biological needs and emotions.
Typically, these sub-cortical (non-consciously-derived) motivations are aimed at short-term relief or fulfilment, with the first two parts of their motivational processing (reward anticipation and valuation) occurring below conscious awareness, making it very hard at times to recognise their influence, let alone make a choice about if and how it is acted upon. Often, we just do them without intent or thought and, if asked, have no “rational” explanation. As far as our conscious awareness and (lack of) control is concerned, it just “happened”. (Interestingly, despite doing things for no deliberate intent, people very often feel compelled, if asked, to invent a rationale for the thing that had no rationality in the first place. Such is our need for sense-making (linked to empowerment) and identity (linked to self-esteem and social place).)
The short-term nature of most non-conscious motivations also means that they require little sustained effort. More often, their immediacy undermines self-regulation for sustained focus and effort in pursuing goals. For those who are experiencing distress or are generally unfulfilled (e.g., fear response activation, dopamine deprivation), the relief granted by immediately-rewarding non-goal-oriented options is greater, meaning that distressed, unhappy, lonely, angry or otherwise unfulfilled individuals are more susceptible to poor self-regulation.
Scenario: Self-regulation challenges when dieting
As an example of goal-focused motivation which can just as easily, albeit with variations, apply to many others, let’s look at one example of why self-regulation can be so hard.
For most people, losing weight means change in eating patterns and diet, along with regular cardio and/or interval resistance training. Unless a doctor says not to, then just do that. Heck, even if you’re not trying to lose weight, it’s a great idea for improving health, energy, personal capacity and longevity. For most people in western cultures this is entirely achievable with immediate physical and psychological benefits – but, despite health awareness and Instagram, obesity continues to climb.
For someone whose goal involves losing weight or increasing fitness, inherent difficulty is linked directly to the first 2 steps in the motivational process:
The reward system is constantly adjusting to “normal” (learning based on reward prediction error). So, if someone eats a lot of high-energy foods, the reward centre learns to devalue each calorie to normalise current satisfaction, raising the bar over time so that an individual needs to eat more sugary or fatty treats to simply feel “normal”. There is also the problem that sugar-rich foods don’t fill us up very well, so between-meal snacking (likely sugar-based) is more common with instantly rewarding high-sugar and high-fat diets than with low-reward high fibre diets.
When we take in less sugar, our dopamine levels drop for a while, leaving us craving those treats we are trying so hard to avoid. Through diet change over time (usually not long – a week or so) it learns to adjust to a new, lower intake level, reversing the adjustment effect noted earlier. But, before this re-adjustment sets in, while experiencing this comparatively dopamine-deprived state we are more easily influenced by our impulses, so are more susceptible to them – including sneaking in a sugary treat. Dopamine deprivation from other causes (e.g., loneliness, boredom, inactivity) also increases susceptibility to impulses – including eating junk food – for the same reason.
If an improved diet and/or exercise program meets anticipated outcomes, continued efforts are likely as expectations are reinforced and reward anticipation is unchallenged. However, if an outcome falls short of anticipations, a reward prediction error teaches us that the effort isn’t worth it, in turn reducing reward anticipation and motivation.
Exercise can be hard work. It can be uncomfortable, difficult and even painful, with immediate rewards that often don’t match the sacrifice (depriving of the basic need of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain) as every muscle and sinew screams “STOP!”. It can also be embarrassing, feeling uncoordinated or not looking as fit or performing to preferred standards (depriving fulfilment of the basic need of identity) and disempowering (poor confidence and competence in skills and achievements).
If one is participating in a group or class activity, or a personal trainer is involved, there is the potential for rewards in the basic need for connection, but not for self-initiated and managed exercise. If effort is high enough, endorphins can support feelings of stress-relief and even euphoria, but the sacrifice is high and not everyone accesses that reward.
As one-off events not linked to goals, dieting and vigorous exercise don’t have much going for them that appeals to our motivational valuation biases.
For most, the prospect and experience of exercise is more likely to be, especially in the short term, higher sacrifice for lower reward than other options (e.g., watching TV, snacking, drinking a beer). This sees the valuation pathway’s preference for immediacy devaluing many of the benefits of diet and exercise. Using both techniques noted in part 2 leveraging time-travel and identity are particularly useful in improving self-regulation linked to low immediacy.
* Loss over gain
For most, the dopamine deprivation (especially initially) of dieting is a certain immediate loss, with weight loss an uncertain future gain. The effort, pain and sacrifice of exercising can be seen as a certain current loss, with injury-free fitness an uncertain future gain. Amplifying the gain, perhaps by imagining a preferred body shape, generally improved physical and mental capacity, or a specific time- or event-related goal, is a nice adjustment. Write it down, make a routine and a deadline, tell everyone – make it so that you have more to lose by NOT meeting your goal. At the same time, it is possible to re-orient thinking so that the effort and discomfort are signs are also goals and achievements within themselves – building up a sweat is a goal, feeling a bit empty is the tummy is an achievement. This way there are many, regular gains to be made and felt, simply by thinking differently about the same feedback. The biggest challenge? It requires modifying and elevating typically weak rational/cognitive influence over typically natural strong emotional/intuitive impulses, something the brain didn’t evolve to be best at.
* Intrinsic over extrinsic
For goal-oriented self-regulation, let alone motivation, the closer we can link the goal, be it a process or an outcome, to ourselves (internalisation), the more value it gains, and so the more committed we can be to regulating ourselves for continued focus and effort.
So, in our example of improving fitness or losing weight, we could draw on how we’d like to see ourselves and be seen by others, what we’d like to feel we can achieve, and how we’d like to picture our internal strength, our character and our relationships. We could also think about health, physical capacity and longevity, drawing on the time-travel technique noted earlier.
Parents could think about how they’d like to be viewed by their children, what things they are physically coping of doing together now and later, and what example they set in what a “normal” lifestyle looks and feels like. Who wants to have a lifestyle that influences their children to live unhealthily, experience unnecessarily poor self-image and not live as long as they otherwise might? In this way we can leverage loss and gain, immediacy and intrinsic motivation together for greater impact on self-regulation.
It might be argued that self-regulation is also influenced by external consequences, if only to a condition of compliance (e.g., do this or don’t do that to gain this or prevent loss of that). But that externally-imposed consequence makes this external regulation, with no power outside of the consequences imposed, and in any case only to the extent that they have an impact on perceptions of safety or intrinsic fulfilment.
* Big over little
As noted in the previous article in this series, big challenges are inherently more motivational on a level playing field, but the impact of dopamine deprivation and immediacy, along with poor safety, often count against the value of big challenges, in turn impacting self-regulation. When small rewards are built into the big challenge, the challenge itself becomes more, and more regularly, rewarding, in turn reducing such a high need for self-regulation.
For our example, regularly measuring minor weight loss with reasonable expectations (e.g., one kilo per week or fortnight) or strength/fitness improvements, (e.g., small and progressive increases in weights, repetitions, time or distance) is inherently rewarding, improving immediacy and reinforcing reward anticipation while also making it easier to foresee ultimate success.
Why do some people have better self-regulation than others?
There is no politically correct way of saying this, so here goes. Higher IQ is linked to better self-regulation (8). Thankfully, although that shouldn’t be ignored, even as a simple function of predicting PFC influence in behavioural decisions making, it’s not that simple.
To start, while IQ seems to stabilise at about age 10, self-regulation can change throughout life. Further, self-regulation is highly influential in academic achievements in adolescents (9) and, as a part of “emotional intelligence”, integral to a theoretical criterion that has proven more reliable at predicting success than IQ (10).
Capacity for cognitive influence is also affected by factors other than IQ, including anxiety, dopamine deprivation, general motivation, intrinsic fulfilment, context, other people, culture, health, mood, time of day, hydration and much more. It’s not just a matter of having a stronger “smart” brain, it’s also, and arguably more, a matter of harnessing, training and enabling it. So, as much as some people typically have better self-regulation than others, the capacity to draw on it is often variable and largely contextual.
Self-regulation, as with any cognitive process, is also subject to neuroplasticity, so that it will become better, easier and more natural with practice. So, in the end, the people with better self-regulation today are likely to be the ones who currently practice it most often.
How can I improve my own self-regulation so I can achieve my goals?
As a learnable skill, despite the strong influences of DNA, childhood experiences, long-time habits and persuasive impulses, self-regulation can be improved for most people. Emotional intelligence sees it linked with self-awareness and impacting social behaviours, mostly where awareness of, for example, one’s mood, attitude, motivation and social position allows people to make considered choices in how they respond internally and externally, largely expressed as how they interact with those around them. This is something that with intent , we can all improve at quickly if we just slow down and take a moment to become aware of our own impulses and, with a shift in focus, “de-centre” (11) to get in touch with the feelings and situational needs of other people.
Seen more broadly, self-regulation potentially impacts most action choices, whether or not they are consciously or non-consciously derived. This article described how the first two motivation processes of reward anticipation, and valuation/comparison, can themselves be cognitively influenced to improve both action-initiation and action-regulation. Even the single act of taking the time to understand internal motivations and publishing personal goals, even if only to oneself, is a vital step in elevating cognitive influence and enhancing self-regulation. Unsurprisingly, enhancing self-regulation is often a useful goal for psychotherapy.
Relational Development Systems Theory recognises that self-regulation is both individual and contextual, with people working within and responding to the environments, social systems and situations they find themselves within (6). This acknowledges that not only are people proactively capable of influencing their own development (12), but that they are influenced by and adapt to their surroundings. Focused self-development and choice, or at least mindful awareness, of surroundings, pressures and the inevitable influence of experiences, from early childhood to the most recent, allows individuals to not simply be subject to them.
This might mean changing role models or habits. For example, it mean involve self-talk like, “I feel like giving up, and in the past that’s what I would have done and I know how that has shaped my habits, but this time I choose to stay focused on my goal and act to achieve it anyway.”
Grawe’s Consistency-Theoretical Model (13), updated and adapted for the workplace in The Integrated Model of Employee Engagement adds the relentless pursuit of safety, basic needs and neural consistency to our understanding of intrinsic motivation, in turn being a useful platform for influencing self-regulation. As we learn to recognise how those concepts influence us we can make conscious choices (initiation) and stick to them, even when it would be easier to go back to old habits and impulses (non-regulation).
Some examples drawing on the four basic needs:
- “My need for immediacy in satisfying the need for connection sees me wanting to use my mobile device while driving DESPITE me knowing the potentially less-immediate danger – but, seriously, it can wait.”.
- “My need for empowerment through feelings of competence and autonomy can sometimes stop me asking for help at times I could probably use it – so I choose to put that unhelpful habit aside ask for views, opinions and advice, even if it feels like I’m admitting to lower competence than I’d like to feel the first few times, knowing that I can still choose how I draw and act on those ideas”.
- “My need for identity protection and enhancement can see me rejecting criticism or competing with my peers, in turn affecting my performance, relationships and happiness – so I’d be better off listening and cooperating more often to perform at a higher level to earn their trust, support and respect”.
- “My fears of failure and blame influence me to knock back responsibility and opportunity, which stops me from experiencing new things, gaining new skills and achieving at a higher level – so I’ll look for support from my manager and balance in how I perceive risk vs reward”).
Goal clarity and achievement, specifically on a short-term “now” scale within a larger, purposeful and intrinsically linked picture, is a powerful focus for attention and effort. It allows us to home in one action or sequence of actions, without compromise or confusion. This is only sustainable where there is no intuitive roadblock, such as a clash with beliefs or values to create an ethical dilemma, or clash between work and family priorities. Similarly, where a goal or action choice is perceived to align and embed values, beliefs and personal priorities, expect self-regulation to be more likely.
Self-regulation vs resilience
In the context of human behaviour, resilience is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “the ability to be happy, successful, etc. again after something difficult or bad has happened”. The Oxford Dictionary describes it as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness”. Both definitions are somewhat vague (what is “etc”?, how is “recover(y) defined”?), but there are strong elements of self-regulation inherent in them.
The word “toughness”, in itself, conjures images of battling the odds, setbacks, damage, losses, physical and mental fortitude, of not giving in to the easy option, and of persisting with the pursuit of a goal despite every setback or difficulty. Surely this makes self-regulation the key ingredient in toughness. Similarly, being successful after a setback speaks of renewed effort despite dopamine deprivation through losses, let alone not experiencing gains. And being happy after a setback brings to mind the positivity that underpins renewed positive intelligent and cooperative effort, of viewing past events and future possibilities in the light of inevitable setbacks and lessons on the way to achieving worthwhile, meaningful goals that themselves bring happiness to self and others.
In this way, it might be reasonable to place self-regulation as an integral element of, if not the foundation for, resilience.
Self-regulation is how we maintain focus and effort directed at achieving goals. It is impacted by personal, situational and environmental enablers and limitations, many of which we can make ourselves aware of and influence or cope with. We can choose to look beyond dopamine deprivation, stress and effort to draw on our intrinsic motivations and overcome natural biases to make better decisions for enhanced achievement, success, fulfilment and well-being.
For all of us, self-regulation can be continually developed as a skilled habit with intent and practice, supported by self-awareness, goal clarity, ethical alignment, conscious awareness and deliberate choices on how perceive and manage our reward anticipation and valuation biases.
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