The Toronto Laboratory for Social Neuroscience explores the science of self-control

For the past few years, the lab has been primarily focused on improving our understanding of self-control and the related concepts of cognitive control and executive function (mental processes that allow behavior to vary adaptively depending on current goals). Much of this work explores the building blocks of control, including its neural, cognitive, emotional, and motivational foundations. The lab is especially interested in understanding how self-control changes dynamically over time as fatigue and boredom set in. At the same time, the lab is also interested in the concept of mental effort: the subjective intensification of mental activity that mediates between potential and actual performance. While effort is costly, with organisms generally avoiding it, effort is also valued: effort can make things more valuable and sometimes effort is even experienced as rewarding in its own right. By understanding the basic processes that contribute to self-control, the lab hopes to gain a better understanding of how to improve self-control and help people achieve their longstanding goals.

What The Lab Studies


The lab explores self-control in all its many facets, but is guided by two broad questions.

  • Why does self-control seem limited?

The resource model of self-control suggests that self-control is based on some kind of limited resource that becomes exhausted after use, with the result that self-control wanes over time. The model claims that self-control has a refractory period, with initial acts of control leaving people unable to control themselves further. In contrast to the resource account, the lab has developed the process model (also called the shifting priorities model), in which self-control is thought to wane over time not because people are unable to control themselves, but because they are unwilling to control themselves. Self-control performance is thus a product of motivation, not capacity. According to the process model, initial bouts of effort and mental labor (i.e., “have-to” tasks) lead people to prefer mental leisure or activities that are more inherently gratifying (i.e., “want-to” tasks). The lab is currently verifying and testing various aspects of this process model.

  • Is emotion a core foundation of cognitive control?

Work from the lab suggests that cognitive control, often seen as the paragon of higher cognition, is dependent on emotion—so rather than asking whether cognitive control is influenced by emotion (it is), the lab has developed an affect alarm model of control, postulating that control itself can be understood as an emotional process. The idea behind the model is that cognitive control is initiated when two goals come into conflict (e.g., the goal of losing weight vs. the impulse to eat ice cream), resulting in the experience of emotion that acts as a kind of alarm, focusing attention on the conflict and motivating the resolution of said conflict in a way that supports long-term goals. The lab is now verifying and testing various aspects of this model, which integrates converging evidence from cybernetics, animal research, cognitive neuroscience, and social and personality psychology. 

Prejudice and Discrimination

The lab has also studied prejudice and discrimination (though these topics are not as active a research focus as they once were), particularly asking questions about what it feels like to belong to a stigmatized group. The lab has examined three interrelated consequences of stigmatization: poor academic performance, biased emotional perception, and loss of self-control. Much of the research in this area has been guided by the phenomenon of stereotype threat, whereby negative social stereotypes about a group can affect individual members of that group in terms of their academic performance and engagement. 

In the past, the lab has also examined questions about prejudice from the point of view of the perceiver, specifically as it relates to empathy and the so-called mirroring of other people. Informed by recent discoveries in neuroscience—most notably, the discovery that certain areas of the brain are active not only when we perform an action but also when we see another person perform that action—the lab has conducted a number of studies exploring the limits of this basic mirroring mechanism, including limits set by intergroup boundaries.

The Lab Approach

Social Affective Neuroscience

A central feature of the lab is that it takes a social affective neuroscience approach to address questions of interest. Thus, the lab combines neuroimaging, cognitive reaction time, physiological, and behavioural techniques to understand and explain social behaviour. This interdisciplinary approach provides a fuller, more integrated understanding of social behaviour, emotion, and the brain. While using techniques borrowed from neuroscience and peripheral physiology, the lab is grounded in basic psychological science. That is, the lab measures basic biological states, be they from the brain or body, to understand something about the human mind, something about human psychology. 

While the lab takes a multi-method approach, the most prominent method used in the lab is electroencephalography (EEG) and the event-related potential (ERP) technique. In particular, much of the lab’s work centers on the error-related negativity (ERN), a neural reaction to mistakes that is thought to be generated by a key node in the brain’s control network, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). One of the principal functions of the ACC is to detect and react to various sorts of cognitive conflicts. The ERN, then, is thought to reflect the detection of and emotional response to those sorts of cognitive conflicts that signal when control is needed.