Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Neural Link Between Intelligence and Self-Control

If you had a choice between receiving $1,000 right now or $4,000 ten years from now, which would you pick? Psychologists use the term “delay discounting” to describe our inability to resist the temptation of a smaller immediate reward in lieu of receiving a larger reward at a later date. Discounting future rewards too much is a form of impulsivity, and an important way in which we can neglect to exert self-control.

"It has been known for some time that intelligence and self-control are related, but we didn't know why. Our study implicates the function of a specific brain structure, the anterior prefrontal cortex, which is one of the last brain structures to fully mature,” said Dr. Shamosh.

In this study, 103 healthy adults were presented with a delay discounting task to assess self-control: a series of hypothetical choices where they had to choose between two financial rewards, a smaller one which they would receive immediately or another, larger reward which would be received at a later time. The participants then underwent a variety of tests of intelligence and short term memory. On another day, subjects’ brain activity was measured using fMRI, while they performed additional short-term memory tasks.

The results show that participants with the greatest activation in the brain region known as the anterior prefrontal cortex also scored the highest on intelligence tests and exhibited the best self-control during the financial reward test. This was the only brain region to show this relation. The results appear in the September issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Previous studies have shown that the anterior prefrontal cortex plays a role in integrating a variety of information. The authors suggest that greater activity in the anterior prefrontal cortex helps people not only to manage complex problems, resulting in higher intelligence, but also aids in dealing with simultaneous goals, leading to better self-control.
via Psychological Science


Laurent GUERBY said...

The problem with the future is that you don't know it, and in this game you don't know if your counterparty is reliable. Since there is no absolute certainty for anything to happen in four years in THE REAL WORLD, wether $1000 now is worth more or less than $4000 later depends on THE REAL WORLD probability of you getting something later vs of now.

That the regular human being brain is adapted to handle REAL WORLD issues more than TOTALLY UNREALISTIC scenari is unsurprising, at least to me.

Except for economists who have mostly shown their collective inability of grasping THE REAL WORLD... :).

Fat Knowledge said...


I am missing what you are trying to say.

As I understand it, the scientists found that those with the highest activation in the anterior prefrontal cortex also did well in the financial reward test (self-control). Are you saying that you don't think this experiment actually is testing self-control?

And as one who finds that economics is the best way to explain much of human behavior, I completely disagree with your final statement. :)

Laurent GUERBY said...

They might just be locating abstraction capabilities, as you need to unplug REAL WORLD modeling to successfully solve the virtual "financial reward" test.

I agree that economics is partly about explaining human behaviour (with other fields like psychology, history, ...) but what I'm seeing is that it's unsuccessful to catch up with reality to a surprising degree.

A recent example is the housing market price bubble where you can count on the finger of one hand the economists who predicted the obvious consequence 2 years ago: Dean Baker, Nouriel Roubini, who were ridiculed at the time by 99.9999953645% of the ten of thousands of other economists "financial regulation is the ultimate bad, free market blah blah, private is smarter, ...".

Economy field unfortunately looks more like church and religion with considerable ideology bias than a good and honnest attempt at explanation and prediction. I find that out of mainstream economists or non full-time economists (like some bloggers) are much likely to give you real world quality insight than mainstream economists who are far worse than crystal ball fortune tellers.

Fat Knowledge said...


You could be right about it not really capturing self-control. On the other hand, I feel like I get a pretty good idea of who has self-control when you play a game of poker. I assume that the researchers have done correlations between how people to in their game and how people act in the real world, but I don't really know enough about this particular study to comment.

I think back to this study with kids and seeing how long they can hold out for marshmallows and how it correlated with success later in life.

On the ability of economists to predict the future, I guess it depends on who you are listening to and how specific of predictions you are looking for. Personally, I remember this prediction by The Economist in 2005 that prices in real estate were in a bubble and that there was going to be a correction. I also remember an economist (can't remember who now, maybe Paul Volcker?) saying there was a 75% chance of a major problem in the economy in the next 5 years (also can't remember when he said that, I actually think it was more than 5 years ago :)). So, personally the economists that I respect have been saying that the economy has been on shaky ground. But, as for predicting the actual way the crisis occurred, I think that is pretty hard to do.

I also think there were so many problems that led into this real estate mess that you can blame whomever you want. Freddie and Fannie Mac having bad incentives to try and purchase as many loans as possible and not doing enough due diligence on them. Congress not reforming Freddie and Fannie. Banks giving loans to anyone that asked for them. People taking ARM mortgages but having no plan to be able to pay for them when rates readjusted.

I guess what I am saying is that for me it isn't about more or less regulation, it is about having good regulation.

And as for economists being more ideological, I do think the economists on TV are that way, but only because if they are on TV it is a political debate and therefore you get Republican and Democratic economists who are trying to score points for their team.

Laurent GUERBY said...

No question about self-control being important in our societies :). My point is that asking real world person in the street questions where abstraction from reality capability is a major requirement is just going to bias the survey result and that you will have to do a lot of work (which wasn't reported here) to unbias if that's even possible. Many economist-bloggers use this survey to show that the street person doesn't understand the economy...

As for the blame game private sector banks are created by regulation: they are given the right to print money which has backing of trust in government IN EXCHANGE for some regulation in the way the banks do it. So any failure in this system is going to be shared responsability-wise by the banks AND the regulator.

A key Greenspan speech here:

When bank regulators in charge of the safety of the system say they shouldn't watch asset bubles whereas the banks are loaning (or taking equity, since no money down loaning is just taking equity) against those bubble inflated asset (!), I cannot help thinking that an hefty dose of ideology is clouding the area and obscuring person in the street common sense.

Fat Knowledge said...


Many economist-bloggers use this survey to show that the street person doesn't understand the economy.

Hmm, that isn't the conclusion I drew from the study. I was basically curious if IQ and self control were highly correlated or not, and what part of the brain is responsible for each.

I agree with you that it is bizarre that Greenspan doesn't believe the Fed should try and stop asset bubbles. I don't understand that at all. The Economist calls bubbles "asset inflation" and I like that term, but I never hear any financial analysts in the US use it. The Fed should try and stop inflation and I think asset inflation should be part of that. You can see the damage that popping a bubble does to the economy, so you should try and stop them from forming.

Reading the article you linked to, I also disagree with Greenspan that secrecy is necessary for innovation in financial markets. If the Fed is unaware of how financial companies are operating, how can they help out when the economy gets in trouble? I think transparency is the way to go.

I guess it is a semantic issue, but I don't think of greater transparency as greater regulation. I think of regulations as telling businesses what they can and can't do, whereas transparency is just reporting what they are doing. But I definitely think the Fed needs to require more transparency in financial corporations.

Laurent GUERBY said...

I wasn't targeting your post here :).

As for the rest, Greenspan unfortunately expresses mainstream economist advice and "wisdom", which I just call "ideology" since it is so far removed from the real world and street person common sense.

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