The perception of control is vital for social and psychological well-being, and research by Rutgers University psychologists suggests exercising control through making choices may also be adaptive because it activates areas of the brain associated with rewards.
The study will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
“Everything we do involves making choices, even if we don’t think very much about it,” said psychologist Dr. Mauricio Delgado at Rutgers University, who co-wrote the article with Dr. Lauren Leotti. “For example, just moving your leg to walk in one direction or another is a choice — however, you might not appreciate that you are choosing this action, unless someone were to stop you from moving that leg.
“We often take for granted all of the choices we make, until they are taken away.”
In conducting their experiment, Leotti and Delgado used a simple task in which participants were presented with different cues — the choice and no-choice cues.
The choice cue represented an opportunity for choice, where participants could pick two options, and the no-choice cue represented a condition where the computer would choose for them.
In both the choice and no-choice conditions, participants had the opportunity to win money, though the outcomes were not actually contingent on their responses.
Nonetheless, participants tended to perceive control over the outcomes when they were given the opportunity to exercise choice.
According to Leotti, the study demonstrated that the opportunity for a sense of control relayed by the choice cues (compared to no-choice cues) recruits reward-related brain circuitry.
“It makes sense that we would evolve to find choice rewarding, since the perception of control is so adaptive. If we didn’t feel that we were capable of effectively acting on our environment to achieve our desired goals, there would be little incentive to face even the slightest challenge,” said Leotti.
Delgado noted how control is at the crux of many psychiatric disorders such as anxiety disorders, eating disorders and substance abuse. He hopes to continue this line of research by investigating contextual influences on the value of choice in the near future.
Researchers believe improved knowledge of the neural mechanisms associated with the perception of control may lead to improved therapeutic treatments of many behavioral disorders.