Motivational incentives lead to a strong increase in lateral prefrontal activity after self-control exertion

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Self-control is key to success in life. Initial acts of self-control temporarily impair subsequent self-control performance. Why such self-control failures occur is unclear, with prominent models postulating a loss of a limited resource vs a loss of motivation, respectively. Here, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to identify the neural correlates of motivation-induced benefits on self-control. Participants initially exerted or did not exert self-control. In a subsequent Stroop task, participants performed worse after exerting self-control, but not if they were motivated to perform well by monetary incentives. On the neural level, having exerted self-control resulted in decreased activation in the left inferior frontal gyrus. Increasing motivation resulted in a particularly strong activation of this area specifically after exerting self-control. Thus, after self-control exertion participants showed more prefrontal neural activity without improving performance beyond baseline level. These findings suggest that impaired performance after self-control exertion may not exclusively be due to a loss of motivation.

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