Reward Representations and Mindsets
One line of research examines a feature that has been shown to be important for self-control; mindset. The mindset that people adopt when making decisions about food is associated with more or less self-control success. For example, when people evaluate foods with a taste mindset (i.e., focusing on the taste of the food), they desire to consume more unhealthy foods than when they adopt a health mindset (i.e., focusing on the health benefits of the food). Functional neuroimaging studies examining neural responses to food have shown that appetitive food images are associated with activity in the brain’s reward system. Understanding how different mindsets may alter neural responses to appetitive food cues may offer insight into why taste mindsets are associated with poorer self-control than health mindsets. A first study ( Londerée and Wagner, 2020) investigated the neural representations of food items varying in taste and health using representational similarity analysis (RSA).Neural activity patterns in the orbital frontal cortex (OFC) spontaneously encodes food health, whereas tastiness was associated with greater neural dissimilarity. Subsequent analyses using model dissimilarity matrices that encode overall tastiness magnitude demonstrated that the neural representation of foods grows more distinct with increasing tastiness but not with increasing health. This suggests neural and cognitive representations of food categories that are the highest in tastiness are more refined than those lower in tastiness.
A second study in this line of work aims to expand on this finding, and attempts to exploit the ease at which we are able to simulate the mental states of others. Specifically, this study examines patterns of activation in the brain’s reward system that are associated with mentally simulating mindsets of successful or unsuccessful self-regulators. This study will determine whether there are reliable neural differences associated with these mindsets that can be used to decode the default mindset an individual adopts spontaneously during uninstructed viewing of tempting food cues. If successful, this study lays a framework that can serve as a marker for understanding when some individuals may be successful or unsuccessful when making dietary decisions. I plan to expand this project to help understand when and for whom a variety of self-control strategies (construal, reappraisal, inhibition etc.) may be effective.
A third study integrates research from motivation science (construal level theory) with research from neuroscience (reward cue-reactivity) and computational modeling (attentional drift diffusion model; DDM). Using a combination of functional and structural neuroimaging, eye gaze, decision time, and choice data, this study aims to connect neural reward cue-reactivity to attention towards reward cues and ultimately decision-making. Additionally, this study examines the mediating effects of construal level mindset, the focus on high (i.e., relationship to health goals) or low (i.e., sugariness) level features of an item, on the relationship between cue-reactivity and decision choice. The ultimate goal of this project is to advance a model of self-control that provides new insight into the decisions that people make and the underlying processes that led to those decisions. In doing so, new theoretical and applied research that may ultimately help improve people’s self-control can be developed.