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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

In the Self Regulation Lab

Utrecht University is an utterly charming place. In amongst the cycling students and ultramodern architecture you can find sheep grazing on pastures scattered around the campus. The University is also home to something of interest within the behavioural sciences – the Self Regulation Lab. The Self Regulation Lab is part of the University’s Department of Clinical and Health Psychology. The Lab is run by Denise de Ridder and staffed by 19 academics and students. Professor de Ridder and her team have been working on questions of self-regulation for over ten years: long before the rise of nudge techniques raised the profile of self-control issues within policy circles.

What is interesting about the Self Regulation Lab is that while it acknowledges the crucial role of our automatic decision-making in human behaviour it does not seek to use this insight to promote the construction of centrally orchestrated choice architectures that can subtly regulate our behaviours for us. Instead, those working in the Lab are exploring the ways in which it may be possible to enable people to develop their own intuitive and reflective systems that can support self-regulation. At the heart of the endeavor is the realization that both system 1 (hot) and system 2 (cold) thinking can lead us to give in to temptation (whether it be the automatic response to temptation, or the cool head calculating why it is OK to follow our desires), and that both systems can help to regulate the other.

Professor de Ridder and her team liken self-regulation to a muscle. The muscle metaphor is important at two levels. First, it reminds us that our ability to self-regulate can be greatly diminished at certain times of the day and at particular moments in our life. So when we are most tired, distracted or distressed our ability to resist temptations (including unhealthy eating, smoking, alcohol consumption, or high carbon living) is greatly diminished. Second, it suggests that as with our biceps and triceps, it may be possible to develop our self-regulatory muscle. In the Self Regulation Lab de Ridder and her team work with people in order to set key goals (eating healthily, saving money, exercising more) and consider how best the temptations that get in the way of achieving those goals can be navigating.

The Self Regulation Lab is essentially searching for ways in which the insights of the behavioural sciences can be used to enable people to act in accordance with their short and long-term life goals. We feel that there is much to be learned from both the content and intent of the work being carried out in Utrecht.

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One Comment on “In the Self Regulation Lab”

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