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Emotion and Self-Control - Adam Gifford

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A biology-based model of choice is used to examine time-inconsistent preferences and the problem of self-control. Emotion is shown to be the biological substrate of choice, in that emotional systems assign value to ‘goods’ in the environment and also facilitate the learning of expectations regarding alternative options for acquiring those goods. A third major function of the emotional choice systems is motivation. Self-control is shown to be the result of a problem with the inhibition of the motive force of emotion, where this inhibition is necessary for higher level deliberation.
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  Journal of Economic Behavior & OrganizationVol. 49 (2002) 113–130 Emotion and self-control Adam Gifford, Jr. ∗  Department of Economics, California State University, Northridge, CA 91330-8374 USA Received 22 August 2000; received in revised form 21 November 2000; accepted 14 December 2000 Abstract A biology-based model of choice is used to examine time-inconsistent preferences and the prob-lem of self-control. Emotion is shown to be the biological substrate of choice, in that emotionalsystems assign value to ‘goods’ in the environment and also facilitate the learning of expectationsregarding alternative options for acquiring those goods. A third major function of the emotionalchoice systems is motivation. Self-control is shown to be the result of a problem with the inhibitionof the motive force of emotion, where this inhibition is necessary for higher level deliberation.© 2002 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.  JEL classification:  D0; D9 Keywords:  Choice; Emotion; Inhibition; Learning; Self-control 1. Introduction The problems of time-inconsistent preferences and self-control will be examined in thecontext of a biology-based model of choice. The purpose of the model is to generate pre-dictions regarding certain choice ‘pathologies’ found in the experimental economics andpsychology literature. In particular, the biology-based model developed here generates im-plications that differ from current models that allow for time-variant preferences.Time-inconsistent preferences show up in experiments in which subjects, for example,choose a larger reward delivered in 31 days over a smaller reward delivered in 30 days,but reverse their preferences when they can receive the smaller award immediately and thelarger after waiting for a day. To model time-inconsistency, economists often adopt someform of hyperbolic discounting (see, Laibson, 1997, for an extensive discussion).Severalwritersonthesubjecthavesuggestedamultiple-selfmodel(see,Posner,1995,andvariousarticlesinElster,1986),asawaytoconceptualizetheproblemoftime-inconsistency. ∗ Tel.: + 1-818-677-2462; fax: + 1-818-677-6264.  E-mail address:  adam.gifford@csun.edu (A. Gifford Jr.).0167-2681/02/$ – see front matter © 2002 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.PII: S0167-2681(02)00061-6  114  A. Gifford Jr./J. of Economic Behavior & Org. 49 (2002) 113–130 Some posit that some individuals are na¨ıfs, or na¨ıve, and fall prey to time-inconsistency orself-control problems because they fail to perceive that they have a problem, whereas otherindividuals are sophisticates who are fully aware of their difficulties with inconsistencyand self-control (see, Akerlof, 1991; O’Donoghue and Rabin, 1999; and Strotz, 1955).I will show that neither approach is necessary to understand the basic problem, and further,that the evidence suggests that, at least among individuals with IQs in the normal range,there are no na¨ıfs in the sense that there are individuals who are unaware that they have aproblem with self-control. 1 The theory developed here will incorporate the evidence thatself-control is not a problem of knowing what to do, but one of doing what you know.The problem can be characterized as an internal conflict between nature and nurture; morespecifically, it is a byproduct of cultural evolution out-pacing biological evolution.The theory will also show that preference reversals revealed by time-inconsistency area subset of a more general class of inconsistencies that can occur when individuals makechoices between alternatives that are represented to the agent at different levels of abstrac-tion. In this context, since the future is always abstract, choices between currently availablegoods and future goods will very often be choices between goods with different levels of abstraction. Similar problems, however, can arise when making choices between two goodswhenbothareavailabletotheagentwithapredeterminedidenticalshortdelay.Ifoneofthetwo goods is represented only by a printed word, for example, and the other good is visibleto the agent when making the choice, reversing the level of abstraction of the two goods canresult in a reversal of the agent’s choice. The theory is able to explain self-control problemsin general, including binge behavior, and not simply time-dependent inconsistencies. 2. Value and emotion Central to a biology-based theory of choice is the fact that human choices are biased infavor of some alternatives over others by built-in (via natural selection) emotional subsys-tems. Choice is a learning process, and there are an unlimited number of possible things tolearn about the world; emotional systems bias our behavior and learning toward goods andactivities likely to enhance our survival and increase our fitness, and thereby speed up thelearning process. 2 In other words “ ... the brain is not non-specifically dedicated to theprocessingofinformation,buttotheprocessingofinformationthatrelatestoaninter-penetrating hierarchy of biological, social and personal-subjective values ” [emphasissrcinal] (Watt, 1998, p. 8).Thebiologicalbasisofchoicestartswithemotionalsystemsthatareassociatedwithbasicrequirements which support survival and enhance fitness. These genetically programmedsystems involve homeostasis levels of plasma glucose, other nutrients, fluids and fat stores, 1 Natural selection has resulted in individuals with a unified sense of self, characterized by a unified sense of ownership and agency (see, Damasio, 1999, p. 145 and Sass, 1998, p. 543 for examples when things go wrong).The evolutionary advantages of a unified sense of self are apparent when one considers the consequences of actual diseases of self, for example, schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, and coma. From a neurologicalperspective the self is defined in terms of ownership, rather than changes in preferences over time. As will becomeclear, self-control is not an ownership problem. 2 An increase in fitness increases the individual’s chances of leaving viable offspring.   A. Gifford Jr./J. of Economic Behavior & Org. 49 (2002) 113–130  115 for example, as well as the motivation of social behaviors including sex and maternalbonding.Imbalancesinthesesystemscanleadtohunger,thirst,andothercravings.Humansand higher animals then learn via interaction with the environment how these requirementscanbesatisfied.Biologicalevolutionissimplynotuptothetaskofgeneratinglargenumbersof preprogrammed behaviors to facilitate survival and maximize fitness in a complex anddynamic environment. Evolution specifies basic goals and provides learning mechanismswhich allow the animal to learn the optimal behavior in any specific environment. Theutility functions studied by economists are the product of that learning process, where theemotionalsystemsprovidethe“commoncurrency,”usingRolls’(2000,p.182)terminology,which allows the animal to choose optimally among various options given its internal stateand the environment in which it finds itself. For example, “ ... does water depletion posea greater threat to fitness than the current food depletion” (Rolls, 2000, p. 182). Finally, itshould be noted that many, if not most, of the behaviors generated are not the product of conscious decision making.Asecondmajorfunctionoftheemotionalchoicesystemsismotivation. 3 Rationalchoicemodels predict no gap between knowing and doing. If pure reason leads one to believe thataction X is optimal, economic theory predicts that the individual will undertake action X.In fact, even an individual absolutely certain, intellectually, that X is the best course of action in predictable circumstances, may still take action Y. This gap between knowingand doing can be understood only when the motive force of emotion is factored into theanalysis. Furthermore, our choice mechanisms evolved to deal with choice in an uncertainenvironment, and they facilitate the learning of expectations about the relationship betweenrewards or punishments and various events that may predict those rewards or punishments.Awareness of the role of emotion as the basis of rational choice has led several neu-roscientists to reject the reason/emotion dichotomy, to reject the notion that reason canexist—perhaps only exist—intheabsenceofemotion(see,Andersonetal.,1999;Damasio,1994, 1999; Edelman, 1992; LeDoux, 1996; Panksepp, 1998; Rolls, 2000; and Watt, 1998).Biological regulation and emotions thus play a prominent role in deliberation. Damasioargues that, far from being an impediment to reason, emotions and feelings are crucial tothe reasoning process.In this perspective, feelings are the sensors for match or lack thereof between nature andcircumstance. And by nature I mean both the nature we inherit as a pack of geneticallyengineered adaptations, and the nature we have acquired in individual development,through interactions with our social environment, mindfully and willfully as well asnot. Feelings, along with the emotions they come from, are not a luxury. They serve asinternal guides, and they help us communicate to others signals that can also guide them.And feelings are neither intangible nor elusive. Contrary to traditional scientific opinion,feelings are just as cognitive as other percepts (Damasio, 1994, p. xv).Various components of the brain’s emotional systems assign basic value to aspects of theagent’s environment, maintain emotion and value memory, and change the associated valueas a result of the adaptive learning that results from the brain and body’s interaction with 3 The word ‘emotion’ is derived from the latin verb  emovere , to move or to push.  116  A. Gifford Jr./J. of Economic Behavior & Org. 49 (2002) 113–130 the environment—all processes necessary for deliberation. 4 “ [E]motion binds togethervirtuallyeverytypeofinformationthatthebraincanencode ”[emphasisoriginal](Watt,1998, p. 5). This central role allows emotions to perform a function in the brain similar tothe role of prices in a market system, they efficiently coordinate the activities of variousspecialized areas of the brain, they ration scarce mental resources, they motivate efficientbehavior—and out of all this activity comes rational choice.“[I]t must be reaffirmed that all emotional systems have dimensional attributes, namely,variations in the intensity of approach–avoidance, and affective-arousal gradients that theygenerate”(Panksepp,1998,p.46).Themagnitudeofthevalueattachedtoagoodoractivityisdeterminedbyhowwellthegoodoractivityisexpectedtosatisfybasicfitness-enhancinggoals and drives. 5 Obviously, these values are subject to adjustment based on experience—this adjustment process is the core of adaptive search/learning and represents a componentof the biological basis of the choice process. These expected values also reflect the internalstate of the individual, so that a hungry animal will place a higher value on food thana sated one, i.e. the values attached to a good diminish in a given period of time as theindividual consumes more and more units of that good—they behave like marginal ratesof substitution. In other words, the values are relative, reflecting the value of one optionin terms of another. 6 , 7 The next three sections will briefly examine some of the areasof the brain that play important roles in deliberation and decision making. Understandingthe interaction between these areas is key to understanding the problem of self-controlbecause in certain clearly defined choice situations the areas generate conflicting answers. 4 Damasio(1994)discussescasesofpatientswhohavesuffereddamagetotheareaoftheprefrontalcortex,PFC(involved in aspects of decision making) who, despite appearing normal in most ways and showing no deficitson IQ tests, cannot make personal and social decisions. This area of the brain uses emotional associations thatassign significance to various alternatives during higher level deliberation. Though these individuals can recallfacts and events in their lives, they cannot use those facts in a coherent way to make decisions in social or personalsituations. They are unable to deliberate in situations we normally associate with rational thought—they can nolonger make rational decisions. 5 In a recent set of experiments, Platt and Glimcher (1999) measured the firing rates of individual neurons in anarea of a monkey’s brain involved in decision making, and found that firing rates were positively correlated withthegainexpectedandtheprobabilityofthatgain.Further,firingrateswerepositivelycorrelatedwithbehaviorthatwas necessary to secure the rewards. Interestingly, Platt and Glimcher adopt an expected utility maximization-likeframework in their experiments. 6 Tremblay and Schultz (1999) also measured the activity of neurons in monkeys in an area of the brain involvedin organizing motivational and emotional behavior related to rewards and reward expectancy. Most of theseneurons responded to the relative attraction of a specific reward (a raisin) versus an alternative (a bit of apple)ratherthantheabsolutevalueofthereward,andtheyalsoceasedrespondingwhentheanimalwassated.Tremblayand Schultz examined neurons in a different area of the brain, the orbitofrontal, than Platt and Glimcher (see,note 5), who focused on an area of the parietal cortex. The orbitofrontal is directly involved in providing valueinformationtofrontalplanningareas.TheregionoftheparietalcortexexaminedbyPlattandGlimcherisinvolvedin consolidating information from various sensory inputs that is then made available to frontal areas to facilitateplanning. What is interesting about the Platt and Glimcher results is that they show that perception–associationareas of the perception–action hierarchy, and not just action areas, have information about the relative value of objectsintheindividual’senvironment.Thisnotonlyfacilitatesattendingtowhatisimportantinthatenvironment,it also facilitates the formation of accurate expectations about what is likely to be perceived next. Knowing whatto expect, speeds recognition and results in faster response times. 7 Also see, Watanabe (1996).

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