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Ainslie offers an encompassing and compelling account of willpower, although his big-picture view comes occasionally at the cost of low resolution. We comment on ambiguity in the metacognitive and prospective mechanisms of resolve implicated in recursive self-prediction. We hope to show both the necessity and promise of specifying testable cognitive mechanisms of willpower.
Commentary on Ainslie, G., (2021) “Willpower With and Without Effort”:
Increasing resolution in the mechanisms of resolve
Adam Bulley1* & Daniel L. Schacter2
1 Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA; The
University of Sydney, School of Psychology and Brain and Mind Centre, NSW 2050,
Australia. Email:; Web:
2 Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA. Email:; Web:
*Corresponding author
Abstract: 53 words
Main Text: 997 words
References: 301 words
Entire Text: 1482 words
Ainslie offers an encompassing and compelling account of willpower, though his big-picture
view comes occasionally at the cost of low resolution. We comment on ambiguity in the
metacognitive and prospective mechanisms of resolve implicated in recursive self-prediction.
We hope to show both the necessity and promise of specifying testable cognitive mechanisms
of willpower.
Main text
While Ainslie frames resolve in terms of game-theoretic intertemporal bargaining, he leaves
the cognitive and neural instantiation of resolve at times underspecified. In part, this is because
the empirical evidence is wanting as he acknowledges but it is also because, by design,
game-theoretical accounts remain agnostic about underlying mechanisms. In a prisoner’s
dilemma, the rules of the game and its payoff matrix are similar whether the agents involved
happen to be bacteria or bankers. Nonetheless, we think there are costs associated with low
resolution in the proximate mechanisms of resolve, as well as promising routes forward if
proposals concerning the nature of these mechanisms can be sharpened up. We attempt to
demonstrate these points of constructive clarification in the context of the metacognitive and
prospective mechanisms implicated in “recursive self-prediction that Ainslie argues forms the
basis of resolve.
As a starting point, we take it as a given that humans don’t consistently think through their
intertemporal trade-offs with the kind of game-theoretic bargaining logic that observers can
attribute to them. Ainslie acknowledges that the intertemporal bargaining of resolve could
indeed happen below the level of self-awareness, or without any explicit representation at all.
In fact, he suggests that the recursive self-prediction underpinning resolve might operate
through “explicit self-enforcing contracts”, via “vague awareness”, perhaps “displaced away
from any explicit self-knowledge”, or even as purely “implicit contracts”. It is therefore unclear
how much “self” we should expect to find in “self-prediction.
One cost of this low specificity in the metacognitive mechanisms of resolve is that it leaves
Ainslie’s model resistant to disconfirmation in the face of new evidence. For instance, any
failures to find recursive self-prediction in the implementation of resolve could be explained
away by shuttling the relevant level of explanation around inside the mind of the resolver.
Suppose that, upon a careful experimental investigation, we find that participants report
resolving to delay their gratification for a later payoff simply because they foresee the long-
term benefits of doing so, absent any anticipation of their own future behavior. In such a case,
the enforcement mechanism that maintains an intention against lapses could be the anticipated
negative costs of the smaller, sooner reward option. For instance, to answer Ainslie’s question,
Why not eat this piece of chocolate it will barely show?a non-self-predictive resolver might
answer, because I foresee even the small damage of a single piece as sufficiently costly,
however tempting. Under Ainslie’s view, could we not explain away this finding by arguing
that the underlying logical structure of the participant’s decision-making is nonetheless one of
game-theoretical self-predictive bargaining, even if the participants themselves are not aware
of it and would opt to explain their own decision-making differently?
The “prediction” portion of “self-prediction” is likewise somewhat ambiguous. Ainslie argues
that because resolve is “a matter of framing and monitoring choices”, it “might not be
accompanied by measurable brain activity any more than other semantic content is [our
emphasis]. Elsewhere, though, Ainslie suggests instead that “scenarios created in episodic
memory might also serve this function [of formulating and monitoring the intertemporal
bargains that form resolve].”
These alternatives lead to various questions that could be productively reformulated as testable
hypotheses. Does one need to actually imagine oneself failing in the future to adhere to a “no
alcohol on weeknightsrule in order to implement the resolve to put down the Shiraz, as an
episodic simulation account would entail? Is it enough to simply “know”, in semantic terms,
that one is more likely to fail in the future if one fails now? Situating resolve amidst existing
frameworks of prospective cognition and deliberation could carve out a space for empirical
steps forwards (see Bulley & Schacter, 2020; Szpunar et al., 2014).
For instance, we might test the evidence accumulation process by which people generate
whatever predictions are central to resolve. Ainslie describes the act of reneging on a rule as if
it constitutes a piece of empirical evidence that people use to anticipate their own future
behaviors. But how so? One possibility is that episodic memories of reneging serve as raw
material in the constructive episodic simulation of one’s behavior in facing future willpower
challenges. Convergent lines of evidence support the proposal that episodic future simulation
operates via the recombination of episodic details from memory (Schacter et al., 2007;
Suddendorf & Corballis, 2007), with a common core network of brain activity supporting
remembering the past and imagining the future (Benoit & Schacter, 2015). Accordingly, if
Ainslie’s “recursive self-prediction” is a constructive process that samples episodic memories
to inform anticipated behaviors, we should hypothesize that resolve will be associated with
activity in this core network, similar to when participants directly retrieve episodic memories
of willpower failures.
Research on prospection may also help to accommodate the idea that both semantic and
episodic processes are sufficient for resolve in different contexts. The development of “good
habits” that Ainslie equates to the successful operation of resolve may involve shifting
contributions along a gradient of semantic and episodic processes (Irish & Vatansever, 2020;
Szpunar et al., 2014). For instance, episodic simulation might be required to get resolve “off
the ground”, but after repeated (successful) instances, resolve could be eventually implemented
in entirely semantic terms (for a similar suggestion about external precommitment see Bulley
& Schacter, 2020). In this case, we should hypothesize that people with hippocampal damage
who have deficits in the ability to imagine the future (Schacter et al., 2017) would be less
capable of initiating intertemporal resolve in Ainslie’s terms but perhaps less impaired when
it comes to maintaining “good habits” once these have been established (see Bakkour et al.,
2019; Kwan et al., 2012; Palombo et al., 2015).
In the foregoing, we have pointed out some costs associated with ambiguities in Ainslie’s
otherwise encompassing big-picture account of willpower. We have provided some examples
where pinning down specific mechanisms leads to testable predictions, focusing on the nature
of the metacognitive and prospective mechanisms involved in recursive self-prediction where
increased clarity would be perhaps most instructive.
Conflicts of interest: None
Funding statement: AB is supported by an Australian National Health and Medical Research
Council CJ Martin Biomedical Fellowship APP1162811 (GNT1162811). DLS is supported
by by National Institute of Mental Health grant R01 MH060941 and National Institute on
Aging grant R01 AG008441.
Bakkour, A., Palombo, D. J., Zylberberg, A., Kang, Y. H., Reid, A., Verfaellie, M., Shadlen,
M. N., & Shohamy, D. (2019). The hippocampus supports deliberation during value-
based decisions. ELife, 8, 128.
Benoit, R. G., & Schacter, D. L. (2015). Specifying the core network supporting episodic
simulation and episodic memory by activation likelihood estimation. Neuropsychologia,
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Bulley, A., & Schacter, D. L. (2020). Deliberating trade-offs with the future. Nature Human
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Irish, M., & Vatansever, D. (2020). Rethinking the episodic-semantic distinction from a
gradient perspective. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 32, 4349.
Kwan, D., Craver, C. F., Green, L., Myerson, J., Boyer, P., & Rosenbaum, R. S. (2012).
Future decision-making without episodic mental time travel. Hippocampus, 22(6),
Palombo, D. J., Keane, M. M., & Verfaellie, M. (2015). How do lesion studies elucidate the
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Schacter, D. L., Addis, D. R., & Buckner, R. L. (2007). Remembering the past to imagine the
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Schacter, D. L., Addis, D. R., & Szpunar, K. K. (2017). Escaping the Past: Contributions of
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Suddendorf, T., & Corballis, M. C. (2007). The evolution of foresight: What is mental time
travel, and is it unique to humans? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30(3), 299351.
Szpunar, K. K., Spreng, R. N., & Schacter, D. L. (2014). A taxonomy of prospection:
Introducing an organizational framework for future-oriented cognition. Proceedings of
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Many fundamental choices in life are intertemporal: they involve trade-offs between sooner and later outcomes. In recent years there has been a surge of interest into how people make intertemporal decisions, given that such decisions are ubiquitous in everyday life and central in domains from substance use to climate change action. While it is clear that people make decisions according to rules, intuitions and habits, they also commonly deliberate over their options, thinking through potential outcomes and reflecting on their own preferences. In this Perspective, we bring to bear recent research into the higher-order capacities that underpin deliberation—particularly those that enable people to think about the future (prospection) and their own thinking (metacognition)—to shed light on intertemporal decision-making. We show how a greater appreciation for these mechanisms of deliberation promises to advance our understanding of intertemporal decision-making and unify a wide range of otherwise disparate choice phenomena.
Full-text available
Choosing between two items involves deliberation and comparison of the features of each item and its value. Such decisions take more time when choosing between options of similar value, possibly because these decisions require more evidence, but the mechanisms involved are not clear. We propose that the hippocampus supports deliberation about value, given its well-known role in prospection and relational cognition. We assessed the role of the hippocampus in deliberation in two experiments. First, using fMRI in healthy participants, we found that BOLD activity in the hippocampus increased as a function of deliberation time. Second, we found that patients with hippocampal damage exhibited more stochastic choices and longer reaction times than controls, possibly due to their failure to construct value based on internal evidence during deliberation. Both sets of results were stronger in value-based decisions compared to perceptual decisions.
Full-text available
Deficits in episodic memory are associated with deficits in the ability to imagine future experiences (i.e., mental time travel). We show that K.C., a person with episodic amnesia and an inability to imagine future experiences, nonetheless systematically discounts the value of future rewards, and his discounting is within the range of controls in terms of both rate and consistency. Because K.C. is neither able to imagine personal uses for the rewards nor provide a rationale for selecting larger future rewards over smaller current rewards, this study demonstrates a dissociation between imagining and making decisions involving the future. Thus, although those capable of mental time travel may use it in making decisions about future rewards, these results demonstrate that it is not required for such decisions.
In almost 50 years since Tulving’s seminal episodic/semantic distinction, advances in cognitive neuroscience have fostered a dramatic change in our understanding of declarative memory. Functional neuroimaging evidence reveals considerable overlap in the neural substrates of episodic and semantic memory systems, while studies in clinical populations underscore the blurred boundaries between them. Leveraging new insights on ‘gradients’ of macro-scale and region-specific cortical organisation, we propose that instead of localisations based on categorical cognitive constructs, gradual transitions in neural engagement offer a more parsimonious account of declarative memory. Positioned at the apex of this macro-scale organisation, the default mode network may provide a common neural substrate upon which both semantic and episodic memory representations are anchored.
It has been suggested that the simulation of hypothetical episodes and the recollection of past episodes are supported by fundamentally the same set of brain regions. The present article specifies this core network via Activation Likelihood Estimation (ALE). Specifically, a first meta-analysis revealed joint engagement of core network regions during episodic memory and episodic simulation. These include parts of the medial surface, the hippocampus and parahippocampal cortex within the medial temporal lobes, and the lateral temporal and inferior posterior parietal cortices on the lateral surface. Both capacities also jointly recruited additional regions such as parts of the bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. All of these core regions overlapped with the default network. Moreover, it has further been suggested that episodic simulation may require a stronger engagement of some of the core network's nodes as wells as the recruitment of additional brain regions supporting control functions. A second ALE meta-analysis indeed identified such regions that were consistently more strongly engaged during episodic simulation than episodic memory. These comprised the core-network clusters located in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and posterior inferior parietal lobe and other structures distributed broadly across the default and fronto-parietal control networks. Together, the analyses determine the set of brain regions that allow us to experience past and hypothetical episodes, thus providing an important foundation for studying the regions' specialized contributions and interactions. Copyright © 2015. Published by Elsevier Ltd.
Prospection-the ability to represent what might happen in the future-is a broad concept that has been used to characterize a wide variety of future-oriented cognitions, including affective forecasting, prospective memory, temporal discounting, episodic simulation, and autobiographical planning. In this article, we propose a taxonomy of prospection to initiate the important and necessary process of teasing apart the various forms of future thinking that constitute the landscape of prospective cognition. The organizational framework that we propose delineates episodic and semantic forms of four modes of future thinking: simulation, prediction, intention, and planning. We show how this framework can be used to draw attention to the ways in which various modes of future thinking interact with one another, generate new questions about prospective cognition, and illuminate our understanding of disorders of future thinking. We conclude by considering basic cognitive processes that give rise to prospective cognitions, cognitive operations and emotional/motivational states relevant to future-oriented cognition, and the possible role of procedural or motor systems in future-oriented behavior.
In a dynamic world, mechanisms allowing prediction of future situations can provide a selective advantage. We suggest that memory systems differ in the degree of flexibility they offer for anticipatory behavior and put forward a corresponding taxonomy of prospection. The adaptive advantage of any memory system can only lie in what it contributes for future survival. The most flexible is episodic memory, which we suggest is part of a more general faculty of mental time travel that allows us not only to go back in time, but also to foresee, plan, and shape virtually any specific future event. We review comparative studies and find that, in spite of increased research in the area, there is as yet no convincing evidence for mental time travel in nonhuman animals. We submit that mental time travel is not an encapsulated cognitive system, but instead comprises several subsidiary mechanisms. A theater metaphor serves as an analogy for the kind of mechanisms required for effective mental time travel. We propose that future research should consider these mechanisms in addition to direct evidence of future-directed action. We maintain that the emergence of mental time travel in evolution was a crucial step towards our current success.
Remembering the past to imagine the future: the prospective brain
  • D L Schacter
  • D R Addis
  • R L Buckner
Schacter, D. L., Addis, D. R., & Buckner, R. L. (2007). Remembering the past to imagine the future: the prospective brain. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 8(9), 657-661.
Escaping the Past: Contributions of the Hippocampus to Future Thinking and Imagination
  • D L Schacter
  • D R Addis
  • K K Szpunar
Schacter, D. L., Addis, D. R., & Szpunar, K. K. (2017). Escaping the Past: Contributions of the Hippocampus to Future Thinking and Imagination. In D. E. Hannula & M. C. Duff (Eds.), The Hippocampus from Cells to Systems: Structure, Connectivity, and Functional Contributions to Memory and Flexible Cognition (pp. 439-465). Springer.