The Psychology and Neuroscience of Self-Control
Course infoSchedule
Course moduleSOW-PSB3DH70E
Credits (ECTS)4
CategoryBA (Bachelor)
Language of instructionEnglish
Offered byRadboud University; Faculty of Social Sciences; Psychology;
dr. A.P.J. Scheres
Other course modules lecturer
dr. A.P.J. Scheres
Other course modules lecturer
Contactperson for the course
dr. A.P.J. Scheres
Other course modules lecturer
Academic year2017
PER2  (13/11/2017 to 04/02/2018)
Starting block
Course mode
Registration using OSIRISYes
Course open to students from other facultiesYes
Waiting listNo
Placement procedure-
In this course, students will learn about:
  1. The experimental paradigm, popularly known as “The Marshmallow Test,” that was designed by Walter Mischel to assay preschool children’s ability to exercise self-control in the form of delay of gratification.
  2. The importance of self-control for intellectual, social and emotional development, as revealed in longitudinal follow-up, into adulthood, of the original sample tested by Mischel, and in other longitudinal studies.
  3. The clinical and neuropsychological manifestations of impaired self-control in several disorders, including ADHD, obesity, and drug abuse.
  4. The experimental paradigm of temporal discounting (preference for smaller sooner over larger delayed rewards) and how results to date contribute to our understanding of the etiology of disorders of self-control and point the way to potential treatments.
  5. The neurocircuitry that mediates self-control, as discerned in imaging studies of typical adults and adults with various forms of impaired self-control. 
Students will be able to:
  1. Demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the behavioral and neurobiological concomitants of self-control in normal development and in specific forms of psychopathology .  
  2. Demonstrate skills of critical thinking - including an ability to critique methodology of research studies -  in the final paper and in class discussion.
  3. Design and propose a feasible new clinical intervention for a specific disorder, based on synthesis of the material presented in the course.I
This course will be lectured by dr. Mary V. Solanto, who will visit Psychology at Radboud University as a Fulbright fellow. Dr. Solanto is Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry and at the Child Study Center, New York University.

Longitudinal follow-up of the Marshmallow Test studies (by Mischel between 1968 and 1974) showed that self-control, was a positive predictor of academic achievement as well as social and emotional development, as long as 20 years later. Other longitudinal follow-up studies illustrated that self-control is necessary for success in virtually every sphere of life. In the course, we will consider the variables and behaviors that affected ability to delay gratification, including age, IQ, expectancy for success, and the attentional strategies that the children deployed.  
Neuroimaging research has revealed much about the neurocircuitry that supports self control. We will learn about the “hot” and “cool” systems of the brain. The “hot” system, based in subcortical limbic structures, evolved early in human history and regulates basic emotions, such as fear, anger, hunger, and sex that are necessary for survival. In contrast, the more highly evolved “cool” system is based in the prefrontal cortex and enables rational, reflective, and strategic behavior, including the “executive” functions. We shall see how these two systems come into play in mediating choices between immediate and delayed rewards, as well as between impulse- and emotion-driven behavior vs. more rational, adaptive choices. Are there strategies that can specifically engage the cool system in these situations?
We will go on to consider the complexities of self-control in adults as we address such issues as inter- and intra- personal (ie situational) variability in the exercise of self-control, the role of motivation in the deployment of self-control, whether it is possible to have too much self-control (as in anorexia nervosa), and whether self-control is a limited resource that can be depleted. 
In the second half of the course, presentation, discussion, and readings will focus on three clinical disorders characterized by impairment in self-control: ADHD, obesity, and drug abuse. 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. 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 (“episodic future thinking”). 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. weekly group support for weight loss at a Weight Watchers meeting; 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, and consider implications for development of new strategies.

  • Final Exam (30%, covering the entire course)
  • Research Paper (40% of grade): students are asked to select a condition involving impaired self-control that we haven’t discussed  (e.g. smoking, gambling, sexual addiction, excessive procrastination, alcoholism), to research the clinical manifestations, neurocognitive and neuroimaging findings in that condition, and design a new or improved behavioral or cognitive-behavioral intervention based on the principles we have discussed. 
  • Class Participation (10%).  
First-year Psychology programme or other first-year university programme.

Required materials
A wide variety of scientific articles, to be announced through Blackboard.

Instructional modes

Test weight1
Test typeExam
OpportunitiesBlock PER2, Block PER3