A comparative perspective offers an excellent means for understanding the basic mechanisms of self-control. In comparison to human studies, animal studies offer higher levels of control over environmental aspects such as satiation and motivation and allow greater opportunity for repeated testing over time. In addition, animal studies allow for self-control assessments distinct from other cognitive and social capacities that are universal in humans (e.g., language and cultural influences). Although our initial task is to demonstrate that nonhuman animals can regulate their impulsive tendencies, our ultimate goal is to determine how that happens. What does the organism do to assert self-control? How is attention directed, and what behavioral strategies are efficient in supporting self-control? What role does the behavior of other animals play in self-control and can changes in social situations improve self-control? Are self-control capacities a limited resource (like aspects of memory or even muscle exertion)? What brain regions support inhibitory processes in these animals, and do they match those found in humans? [Finally, how does development interact with each of these questions?] The significance of these studies is a better understanding of why self-control fails, how such failures are linked to environmental and biological influences, and what strategies might be used to improve self-control in situations in which impulsivity is the likely response of the organism. The consequences of self-control failures cannot be overstated. Overeating, drug use, risky sexual behavior, compulsive gambling, and physical aggression all occur because of a lack of behavioral restraint, and they have direct negative effects on health, wellbeing, and society. All of these behaviors result from short-sightedness in evaluating outcomes, a central feature of impulsivity. The well-established literature on delay discounting indicates clearly that animals (including humans) typically value things nearer in time while devaluing those further in the future (e.g., Estle et al., 2007;Green et al., 2004;Kagel et al., 1986;Logue, 1988;Odum &Rainuad, 2003). Of course, in some instances short-term interests should be valued at a premium given uncertainty about the future. Never knowing when one would next encounter a plentiful food source or an opportunity to mate meant that activities available here and now were highly valued. However, with the development of future-oriented processes such as planning, and the emergence of accurate memories of past opportunities taken and avoided, organisms could anticipate the likelihood of better future rewards and the cost of taking or avoiding current rewards.

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Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
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Georgia State University
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