The atoms of self‐control

Noûs 55 (4):800-824 (2021)
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Philosophers routinely invoke self‐control in their theorizing, but major questions remain about what exactly self‐control is. I propose a componential account in which an exercise of self‐control is built out of something more fundamental: basic intrapsychic actions called cognitive control actions. Cognitive control regulates simple, brief states called response pulses that operate across diverse psychological systems (think of one's attention being grabbed by a salient object or one's mind being pulled to think about a certain topic). Self‐control ostensibly seems quite different because it regulates complex, temporally extended states such as emotions and cravings. But critically, these complex states also exhibit important componential structure: They rely on response pulses as a key means by which they bring about action. The overall picture is that self‐control consists of skilled sequences of cognitive control directed against extended streams of response pulses that arise from states such as emotions and cravings, thus preventing these states from being effective in action. The account clarifies the “atoms” of self‐control—the elemental units that get combined in complex ways to produce different kinds of self‐control actions. Surprisingly, the account, which is derived from research in cognitive science, aligns nicely with the commonsense conception of self‐control.



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Chandra Sripada
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

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An Integrative Theory of Prefrontal Cortex Function.Earl K. Miller & Jonathan D. Cohen - 2001 - Annual Review of Neuroscience 24 (1):167-202.

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