Quantifying the subjective cost of self-control in humans

Candace M. Raio, Paul W. Glimcher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Since Odysseus committed to resisting the Sirens, mechanisms to limit self-control failure have been a central feature of human behavior. Psychologists have long argued that the use of self-control is an effortful process and, more recently, that its failure arises when the cognitive costs of self-control outweigh its perceived benefits. In a similar way, economists have argued that sophisticated choosers can adopt "precommitment strategies" that tie the hands of their future selves in order to reduce these costs. Yet, we still lack an empirical tool to quantify and demonstrate the cost of self-control. Here, we develop and validate an economic decision-making task to quantify the subjective cost of self-control by determining the monetary cost a person is willing to incur in order to eliminate the need for selfcontrol. We find that humans will pay to avoid having to exert selfcontrol in a way that scales with increasing levels of temptation and that these costs appear to be modulated both by motivational incentives and stress exposure. Our psychophysical approach allows us to index moment-to-moment self-control costs at the within-subject level, validating important theoretical work across multiple disciplines and opening avenues of self-control research in healthy and clinical populations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2018726118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number35
StatePublished - Aug 31 2021


  • Decision-making
  • Motivation
  • Precommitment
  • Self-control
  • Stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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