Netherlands, Nijmegen

The Psychology and Neuroscience of Self-Control

when 1 July 2019 - 12 July 2019
language English
duration 2 weeks
credits 4 ECTS
fee EUR 1200

This course will delve into the positive effects of self-control on academic and emotional development, and negative effects of its absence in disorders such as ADHD, substance abuse, and obesity.

The springboard for the course is the “marshmallow test” (Walter Mischel, Ph.D.) in which preschoolers were given a choice between one marshmallow available immediately or two marshmallows available after a brief delay. Longitudinal follow-up studies showed that self-control, in the form of the ability to delay gratification on this task, was a positive predictor of academic, social, and emotional development, as long as 20 years later. As illustrated in these and other longitudinal follow-up studies, self-control is necessary for success in virtually every sphere of life.

Neuroimaging has revealed much about the neurocircuitry that supports self-control. The “hot” system is based in subcortical limbic structures including the amygdala. This system regulates basic emotions, that are necessary for survival such as the “fight or flight” response. In contrast, the more highly evolved “cool” system, based in the prefrontal cortex, enables rational, reflective and strategic behavior, including the “executive” functions. We shall see how these two systems mediate choices between immediate and delayed rewards, as well as between impulse- and emotion-driven behavior and more rational, adaptive choices.

In the second week of the course, presentation, discussion, and readings will focus on three clinical disorders characterized by impairment in self-control: ADHD, obesity and drug abuse. In each case, we will investigate the clinical phenomenology, neurocognitive findings and neuroimaging results. We will review the current status of behavioral and cognitive-behavioral interventions for each condition. In this section we will introduce the experimental paradigm of “temporal discounting”, which offers a precise method of quantifying preference for smaller sooner rewards over larger delayed rewards.

We will find that in all three disorders, neuroimaging research supports the “dual systems” perspective wherein the reward (“hot”) circuitry is overactivated relative to the executive (“cool”) system. Furthermore, there is evidence to support steeper temporal discounting of future rewards in all three disorders. This suggests the potential utility of interventions that reduce the salience of cues for immediate rewards (e.g. food, drugs) and increase the salience of the larger delayed rewards (e.g. achievements in school or in the workplace). Another potentially effective intervention is contingency management wherein more immediate psychic or tangible reinforcement is provided for behaviors in the short-term that promote attainment of long-term goals (e.g. monetary reward for each day of a drug-free urine test in a rehab center). We will examine the extent to which treatments based on these and other hypotheses have been developed and tested in the conditions described, and consider implications for development of new, more effective interventions.

Course leader

Mary Solanto, Ph.D.
Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine
New York, USA

Target group

Advanced Bachelor

This course will be of particular interest to students of psychology who wish to expand their understanding of human development, brain-behaviour relationships, and the etiology and treatment of clinical disorders.

Course aim

Demonstrate an understanding of the behavioral and neurobiological concomitants of self-control in normal development and in specific forms of psychopathology
Demonstrate skills of critical thinking - including an ability to critique methodology of research studies.
Demonstrate ability to think creatively by proposing a feasible new clinical intervention (or intervention component) for a selected disorder, based on synthesis of the material presented in the course.

Fee info

EUR 1200: Normal fee


€ 1080 early bird discount – deadline 1 March 2019 (10%)
€ 1020 partner + RU discount (15%)
€ 900 early bird + partner + RU discount (25%)