Predicting Real-Life Self-Control From Brain Activity Encoding the Value of Anticipated Future Outcomes

Research output: Contribution to journalResearch articleContributedpeer-review



Deficient self-control leads to shortsighted decisions and incurs severe personal and societal costs. Although neuroimaging has advanced our understanding of neural mechanisms underlying self-control, the ecological validity of laboratory tasks used to assess self-control remains largely unknown. To increase ecological validity and to test a specific hypothesis about the mechanisms underlying real-life self-control, we combined functional MRI during value-based decision-making with smartphone-based assessment of real-life self-control in a large community sample (N = 194). Results showed that an increased propensity to make shortsighted decisions and commit self-control failures, both in the laboratory task as well as during real-life conflicts, was associated with a reduced modulation of neural value signals in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex in response to anticipated long-term consequences. These results constitute the first evidence that neural mechanisms mediating anticipations of future consequences not only account for self-control in laboratory tasks but also predict real-life self-control, thereby bridging the gap between laboratory research and real-life behavior.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)268-279
Number of pages12
JournalPsychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2020

External IDs

ORCID /0000-0002-1612-3932/work/142251082
Scopus 85079127106
ORCID /0000-0001-5398-5569/work/150329447



  • Adult, Brain Mapping, Decision Making/physiology, Female, Humans, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Male, Prefrontal Cortex/physiology, Self-Control, Smartphone, Young Adult