Imagine you are in a restaurant and you hear an overweight person at the next table order the most indulgent dessert on the menu. Would you have a negative reaction?
It is very common across cultures to freight food choices with social judgments. When we see people who yield to cravings over long-term health interests, we think that they lack in willpower. Thinking this way presumes that everyone has the same capacity to manage their impulses in order to make healthier food choices.
But what if our ability to exercise self-control is related, in part, to our neurobiology? INSEAD Chaired Professor of Decision Neuroscience, Hilke Plassmann and her collaborators ran four experiments involving 123 people. Using an fMRI scanner, they analysed test subjects’ brain anatomy alongside their food choices.
They found that the level of self-control – that is, the ability to focus (when instructed to do so) on health rather than taste – was predicted by the grey matter volume (GMV) situated in two regions of the brain. Those with higher GMV in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex displayed more self-control.
Plassmann is careful to add that these findings do not imply that there are biologically predetermined limits on people’s self-control.
"The structure of brain regions can change based on use as well as a host of other circumstances; an adaptive capacity known as ‘neuroplasticity.’ GMV is like a muscle that can be developed with exercise.”
Plassmann is one of the pioneers in the nascent field of decision and consumer neuroscience. She is conducting interdisciplinary work bridging marketing, economics, psychology and neuroscience to understand risk factors of obesity, a major health and societal problem in developed countries.