Cognition group

Published on: 22 October 2014

The Cognition group are investigating how people can control their impulses. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Researchers from the University of Exeter’s Cognition group, who are working on finding ways of controlling behaviours such as over-eating and gambling, will demonstrate some behaviour training methods at an event during the University’s Festival of Social Science.

The ‘Mysterious Story of Self-Control’ event is being organised by Professor of Cognitive Psychology Frederick Verbruggen. He and his collaborators study the cognitive and neural mechanisms of self-control and behavioural change.

He said: “Everyday life is full of temptations, and we need good self-control to resist them. But every now and then, our self-control fails and we can no longer suppress our urges, we take risks we shouldn’t take, or make impulsive decisions that we later regret. Our research group studies how the human mind controls behaviour, and translates this research into developing novel training tasks to strengthen people’s ability to resist temptations.”

Controlling behaviour

Much of the Cognition group’s work on controlling impulses has stemmed from an ongoing £500,000 project looking at decision making under risk, on which Professor Verbruggen is Principal Investigator. The project has shown asking people to stop making simple hand movements while in a gambling game affects how risky they are when betting. This work may have important practical implications, as it suggests aspects of self-control could be strengthened via simple computer tasks in which people have to stop their actions.

Professor Ian McLaren is a project Co-Investigator. His specialism is how people learn – particularly how they learn unconsciously. This expertise means he was well placed to develop some of the self-control training methods.

He said: “We think people build up habits that are out of their control. So learning self-control techniques can help them stop smoking, gambling, drinking. I’m working on making these training methods more effective, so we get more results in less time.”

Working with PhD students Will Bowditch and Maisy Best, and international collaborators, Professors McLaren and Verbruggen developed a training method by pairing pictures, symbols, or words with stopping. The training involves, for example, having to stop oneself from pressing a key on the keyboard every time one sees a blue circle.  The researchers found that when people later see these ‘stop’ circles again, they become more likely to stop a certain activity; they also find it more difficult to start.  This suggests people can develop a ‘stop’ habit.

This work has wider implications. Professor McLaren asked: “What if instead of a coloured circle, we used a picture of food someone wanted to stop eating? Or something people associated with gambling?”


Mood Disorders Centre Senior Lecturer Dr Natalia Lawrence applied this training methodology to food in a pilot study. Her findings suggest this kind of training can change people’s eating behaviour and reduce their weight.

Dr Lawrence and collaborators recruited 80 participants from the University of Exeter’s Clinical Research Facility community cohort; 40 completed the food training and 40 completed non-food control training. The study began with a researcher visiting participants at home or in work, where they were weighed and asked to keep a food diary for a week. At the week’s end the researcher returned and collected the food diary.

By communicating our findings to applied researchers, our work can lead to a better understanding of clinical problems and other control issues we face in everyday life.

Frederick Verbruggen, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Exeter

At this point the training task– a 10-minute online exercise - was introduced. Dr Lawrence explained: “Pictures of food flashed up on the screen. We asked people to click to say whether the image was on the left or right. But some images had a bold frame, instructing people not to click for these at all.”

The task was rigged so the framed images were of unhealthy snack foods. Participants were asked to complete the task on four different days, and at the end of the second week more food diaries were collected and participants were reweighed.

It was found on average participants lost 660 grams (1lb 7oz) over the two weeks. Analysis of food diaries suggested participants were also eating approximately 220 fewer kilocalories per day than before.

The trial’s success means the work is continuing. Dr Lawrence said: “We’re currently doing a similar study with children, and planning a bigger trial with adults. I’m also working on grant applications to further this work with colleagues in the US and the Netherlands.”

Dr Lawrence will be at the Mysterious Story of Self-Control event, where attendees will have a chance to try the task themselves.


This project on self-control and learning is just one example of how the Cognition group’s basic research filters through to the wider world. Professor Verbruggen explained: “We build a more detailed account of the underlying mechanisms behind people’s behaviour. By communicating our findings to applied researchers, our work can lead to a better understanding of clinical problems and other control issues we face in everyday life.”

The group’s research extends beyond controlling impulses. For example, Professor Stephen Monsell and Dr Aureliu Lavric study how people perform in multi-task environments and select task-relevant information. Dr Lavric’s eye-tracking expertise has led to collaborations with web design and digital marketing agency Optix Solutions to see where web users look when browsing. He has also, alongside Dr Sam Vine from Sport and Health Sciences, worked with airline Flybe to investigate where pilots look during flight, as well as testing their resilience to stressful situations.

The Festival of Social Science at Exeter, which will celebrate the University’s social science research, is part of a wider Festival run by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), during which a number of institutions will be running events highlighting their own research.

The Mysterious Story of Self-Control will be held at Exeter Central Library between 10:00 and 16:00 on 8 November. No registration is required and attendees can drop in any time.

Funding for the projects discussed in this article has come from the ESRC, European Research Council and the University’s Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund.

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