Elliot Berkman is an expert in motivation and self-control. He studies how people pursue their goals, including eating habits, exercise, smoking, and addiction. At the University of Oregon, he is an associate professor of psychology, associate director of the Center for Translational Neuroscience and the director of the Social & Affective Neuroscience Lab. Elliot warns that it is not necessarily a lack of self-control that causes us to eat that midnight snack. His paper on ego depletion found that self-control is not a limitless resource that runs dry as the day goes on.
Areas of Expertise (5)
Media Appearances (10)
Healthy choices are neither good or bad; only thinking makes them so
The Conversation online
Despite the intuition, health behaviors are not the result of a battle between two opposing forces. So what are they? My colleagues and I recently suggested that they are the same as any other choice. Instead of a battle between two forces, self-control of unhealthy impulses is more like a many-sided negotiation. Various features of each option in a choice get combined, then the total values of the options are compared. This is kind of a fancy version of a “compare the pros and cons” model.
The reason you're so tired after work has hardly anything to do with your actual job
Business Insider online
Normally, when we think about being tired, we think of physical reasons: lack of sleep, intense exercise, or long days of physical labor.
And yet, as Elliot Berkman, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, pointed out to me in an interview, in our day and age, when few of us have physically demanding jobs, we are wiping ourselves out through psychological factors. Yet as Carl Lewis, Gold Medalist and author of Inside Track points out — channeling your energy is everything — how can we maximize it?
After all, the physical effort we exert in our day jobs does not warrant the fatigue we experience when we get home. If you are a construction worker, a farmer toiling in a field, or a medical resident working both day and night shifts, then yes, physical exhaustion might be the reason for your fatigue.
But otherwise, Berkman points out, your fatigue is mostly psychological. "Does your body get tired until you really can't do anything at all?" asks Berkman. "Actually, it would take a long time to get to that point of complete physical exhaustion."
How to break the habit of checking your phone all the time
"Habits are a product of reinforcement learning, one of our brain's most ancient and reliable systems," Elliot Berkman, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, said in a phone interview. "It is adaptive to repeat behaviors that have been rewarded in the past, so we evolved to be highly attuned to the contexts where rewards occur and which behaviors are paired with them."
Your ultimate guide to conquering any and every goal
SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely) goals usually come up in work settings, but using that format when forming your personal goals is equally smart (sorry, had to), says Elliot Berkman, an associate professor at the University of Oregon who specializes in research on goals and motivation. So, rather than "I want to lose weight," make it "I want to lose 3 pounds by February." (Need some goal inspo? Steal some ideas from Shape staffers.)
The myth of self-control
As University of Oregon neuroscientist Elliot Berkman argues, people who grow up in poverty are more likely to focus on immediate rewards than long-term rewards. Because when you’re poor, the future is less certain.
“There are many ways of achieving successful self-control, and we’ve really only been looking at one of them,” which is effortful restraint, Berkman tells me. The previous leading theory on willpower, called ego depletion, has recently come under intense scrutiny for not replicating.
It’s not unusual to get your dream job – and then hate it
Why do we fail to consider that dream jobs have downsides? Partly it’s to do with the hidden graft needed to get most jobs done, according to Elliot Berkman, associate professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, in the US. And partly, it's to do with our expectations...
Are you being exploited by online marketers using "tricks for clicks"?
If anything, the internet has emboldened marketing psychologists even further, driving them to create new and enticing techniques—or what Elliot Berkman, assistant professor of psychology at University of Oregon, calls "tricks for clicks."
"The insidious, distracting suck of the Internet has become seemingly inescapable," Berkman said. "Calling us from our pockets, lurking behind work documents, it's merely a click away."
5 science-backed tips for actually achieving your goals
The Week online
"We have lots of examples where people can persist through pretty tough conditions, especially if they know there's an end in sight," says Eliot Berkman, assistant professor of psychology and director of the social and affective neuroscience lab at the University of Oregon. For instance, one study used non-smoking flights as a lab for examining self-control and cravings. Flight attendants who smoked were asked to record their cravings at regular intervals. Their desire to smoke increased gradually over the duration of the flight, spiking in the last five minutes before landing. But here's the clincher: This was true whether the flight was three hours or 13 hours.
"It's not that they ran out of willpower," Berkman explains. "They knew they only needed to engage willpower for X number of hours, so they made it happen. If you know in advance how much you need, you allocate out that much willpower."
Psychological tips for resisting the Internet’s grip
The Conversation online
The key is that self-control and resisting temptation are not the same thing. Odysseus had one, but not the other.
Instead, good self-control was characterized by the ability to avoid temptations in the first place. We often think of self-control as the ability to white-knuckle our way through temptation, but studies such as this one indicate that self-control can also be as simple as planning ahead to avoid those traps.
The next time you need to get something done, consider precommitting to avoiding the Internet altogether. Like Odysseus, realize that if you find yourself facing temptation directly, the battle may already be lost.
The psychological origins of procrastination – and how we can stop putting things off
The Conversation online
Because people are motivated to maintain a positive self-concept, goals connected closely to one’s sense of self or identity take on much more value.
Connecting the project to more immediate sources of value, such as life goals or core values, can fill the deficit in subjective value that underlies procrastination.
Inhibitory control (IC) is a critical neurocognitive skill for successfully navigating challenges across domains. Several studies have attempted to use training to improve neurocognitive skills such as IC, but few have found that training generalizes to performance on non-trained tasks. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the effect of IC training on a related but untrained emotion regulation (ER) task with the goal of clarifying how training alters brain function and why its effects typically do not transfer across tasks. We suggest hypotheses for training-related changes in activation relevant to transfer effects: the strength model and several plausible alternatives (shifting priorities, stimulus-response automaticity, scaffolding). Sixty participants completed three weeks of IC training and underwent fMRI scanning before and after. The training produced pre- to post-training changes in neural activation during the ER task in the absence of behavioral changes. Specifically, individuals in the training group demonstrated reduced activation during ER in the left inferior frontal gyrus and supramarginal gyrus, key regions in the IC neural network. This result is less consistent with the strength model and more consistent with a motivational account. Implications for future work aiming to further pinpoint mechanisms of training transfer are discussed.
Dynamic, momentary approach or avoidance motivational states have downstream effects on eventual goal success and overall well being, but there is still uncertainty about how those states affect the proximal neurocognitive processes (e.g., attention) that mediate the longer-term effects. Attentional flexibility, or the ability to switch between different attentional foci, is one such neurocognitive process that influences outcomes in the long run. The present study examined how approach and avoidance motivational states affect the neural processes involved in attentional flexibility using fMRI with the aim of determining whether flexibility operates via different neural mechanisms under these different states. Attentional flexibility was operationalized as subjects’ ability to switch between global and local stimulus features. In addition to subjects’ motivational state, the task context was manipulated by varying the ratio of global to local trials in a block in light of recent findings about the moderating role of context on motivation-related differences in attentional flexibility. The neural processes involved in attentional flexibility differ under approach versus avoidance states. First, differences in the preparatory activity in key brain regions suggested that subjects’ preparedness to switch was influenced by motivational state (anterior insula) and the interaction between motivation and context (superior temporal gyrus, inferior parietal lobule). Additionally, we observed motivation-related differences the anterior cingulate cortex during switching. These results provide initial evidence that motivation-induced behavioral changes may arise via different mechanisms in approach versus avoidance motivational states.
Research on eating relies on various indices (e.g., stable, momentary, neural) to accurately reflect food-related reactivity (e.g., disinhibition) and regulation (e.g., restraint) outside the laboratory. The degree to which they differentially predict real-world consumption remains unclear. Further, the predictive validity of these indices might vary depending on whether an individual is actively restricting intake.
Although inflammatory activity is known to play a role in depression, no work has examined whether experimentally induced systemic inflammation alters neural activity that is associated with anhedonia, a key diagnostic symptom of depression. To investigate this, we examined the effect of an experimental inflammatory challenge on the neural correlates of anhedonia—namely, reduced ventral striatum (VS) activity to reward cues. We also examined whether this altered neural activity related to inflammatory-induced increases in depressed mood.
Although persuasive messages often alter people's self-reported attitudes and intentions to perform behaviors, these self-reports do not necessarily predict behavior change. We demonstrate that neural responses to persuasive messages can predict variability in behavior change in the subsequent week. Specifically, an a priori region of interest (ROI) in medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) was reliably associated with behavior change (r = 0.49, p < 0.05). Additionally, an iterative cross-validation approach using activity in this MPFC ROI predicted an average 23% of the variance in behavior change beyond the variance predicted by self-reported attitudes and intentions. Thus, neural signals can predict behavioral changes that are not predicted from self-reported attitudes and intentions alone. Additionally, this is the first functional magnetic resonance imaging study to demonstrate that a neural signal can predict complex real world behavior days in advance.