Self-Control Debate in San Diego

Denise de Ridder, Utrecht University (March 29th, 2016)

At a preconference on self-control research prior to the annual convention of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in San Diego in January 2016 self-control guru Roy Baumeister was challenged by outsider Greg Walton from Stanford in a debate on self-control. The idea of a debate on pressing issues in self-control research is timely and organizers Marina Milyavskaya and Elliot Berkman should be applauded for their initiative as there is so much controversy about the nature of self-control these days. An exchange of opposing views could help to provide a bit more clarity. However, the focus of the debate was somewhat indefinite. Walton – who has co-published with Veronika Job from Zürich University on self-control beliefs – started with explaining the relevance of naïve lay conceptions about self-control for understanding when and how individuals are capable of self-control but was missing the point in presenting self-control beliefs as an alternative for current self-control theories. As Baumeister explained, research on self-control beliefs is a valuable addition to the literature but not at all at odds with mainstream research on self-control. If there is controversy in self-control research, it is about the nature and the existence of the ego-depletion phenomenon. Whereas Baumeister and other scholars claim that self-control relies on a scarce resource, other researchers posit that self-control depends on attentional and motivational processes that may guide the decision to exert effort in prioritizing long-term goals rather than indulge in immediate gratification. A debate on self-control in view of these competing models about ego-depletion would have been very useful to learn more about whether the two approaches are really incompatible or share more similarities than both parties would like to admit. Maybe the whole debate on the exact nature of ego-depletion and its underlying mechanisms will be overruled by new evidence on whether ego-depletion exists at all. During the convention Martin Hagger presented the results of a replication study on ego-depletion on behalf of a large number of researchers  who ran the same study in psychology labs all over the world. In view of the remarkable findings that featured considerable absence of evidence in favor of the depletion phenomenon, Hagger’s presentation was largely ignored as it was attended by only a handful of researchers (mostly from European origine). Much more research is needed to determine whether or not ego-depletion exists and under which conditions it can be observed. For now, we can safely conclude that self-control research is in dire need of alternatives to the way ego-depletion is assessed to make significant steps forward in understanding how self-control operates. As psychologists, we should invest in developing ecologically valid paradigms that allow for studying ego-depletion outside the lab, and that take account of the real self-control dilemmas people experience when they are confronted with a choice between long-terms goals they care for and immediate gratifications they long for. Let’s hope for more debate on self-control whenever there is an opportunity to exchange views on one of the most important human qualities.

Brussels by Night

Denise de Ridder, Utrecht University (December 24th, 2015)

On a dark night in November I arrived in Brussels to attend the launch of a book on nudges and  the law. While Brussels street life still was a bit gloomy only shortly after the state of emergency that was announced by the Belgian government in response to the Paris attacks and filled with heavily armed security people, St Louis university where the event took place was quiet by comparison. About sixty people, both academics and policy makers, had come to learn more about nudging and the law from a European perspective. Maybe they had also travelled to Brussels to meet with Ben Smulders, Chief of Staff of Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans, and Despina Spanou, Director for Consumer Affairs at DG Justice of the European Commission, who had been invited to comment on the book. I myself was curious to learn more about the EC’s ideas for implementing nudges, a concept that was originally designed in the US as an alternative for legislation and regulation, in EU policy making. Nudging in Europe is, in spite its growing popularity, still in its infancy. This was also acknowledged by book editors Anne-Lise Sibony, professor of European Law at the University of Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium, and Alberto Alemanno, professor of European Law and Risk Regulation at HEC Paris and Global Clinical professor at New York University School of Law. Sibony and Alemanno emphasized the unique contribution of nudges to European policy making. While for American policy makers nudging may be the only option for government interfering in sensitive issues because many Americans seem to be preoccupied with freedom of choice, in  the European context nudges shouldn’t be regarded as an alternative to (absence of) regulation but as an integral part of regulation. This is simply because many Europeans do accept that sometimes government takes a paternalistic stance and is involved in protecting citizens from making silly decisions such as not wanting to invest in health insurance or pensions. Nudges allow for wide-scale experimentation in Europe, Smulders agreed with Sibony and Allemano, and should be part of the standard policy toolbox of any European country. However, he added, such experiments should not be guided by Brussels but initiated by national governments. Interestingly, Smulders also emphasized that it is psychological science rather than behavioral economics that lies at the heart of designing good choice architecture – a wise lesson for European psychologists who are not very involved in the European nudging debate right now. And to those of you who have been wondering whether we should continue to use the sexy but unscientific term of nudges instead of choice architecture: it was revealed that the term nudges was not the idea of Thaler and Sunstein who wrote the original bestseller on nudges in 2008 (almost a million copies sold worldwide), but rather their publisher’s. Indeed, once again social science seems to be one step behind on marketing people. 

Nudge and the Law. A European perspective is published by Hart Publishing (Oxford, 2015).

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