Dedicated to the control-averse: ‘Don’t tell me what to do’ reaction linked to specific brain regions

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published July 19, 2018

Key Takeaways

Some people just don’t like being told what to do. Researchers have discovered that specific brain regions are linked with this control-averse behavior, and that people who are control-averse tend to resent restrictions on their freedom of choice and are compelled to reassert this freedom. They published their results in the Journal of Neuroscience.

“Our results indicate that the social cognitions [of] perceived distrust and lack of understanding for the other person play a key role in explaining control aversion at the behavioral level,” wrote the authors. “At the neural level, we find that control-averse behavior can be explained by functional connectivity between the inferior parietal lobule and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, brain regions commonly associated with attention reorientation and cognitive control. Further analyses reveal that the individual strength of functional connectivity complements and partially mediates the self-reported social cognitions in explaining individual differences in control-averse behavior,” they added.

Researchers led by Sarah Rudorf, PhD, Department of Social Psychology and Social Neuroscience, Institute of Psychology, University of Bern, Switzerland, combined functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) with a control aversion task. They included 51 students (mean age: 22 years; 23 female) from the University of Bern, who were asked to make decisions that were either free or controlled by someone else in allocating money between themselves and another person. Subjects chose between generosity options that increased in fairness and generosity.

The students had no history of psychological disorders or neurologic or cardiovascular diseases, and all were right-handed and nonsmokers.

They were asked to allocate money between themselves and another person (player A). Player A, however, first decides whether to let the subject choose freely (free condition) or requests a minimum amount of money (controlled condition). Researchers used 16 anonymous decisions from a pilot study as player A’s choices. Each subject had an equal number of free and controlled condition trials (eight each).

Subjects were presented with player A’s decisions, and then choose between sets of monetary sharing after 3 seconds. Monetary allocations were called generosity levels and ranged from a selfish allocation (subject:player A ratio=99:1 monetary units) to a more generous, equal allocation (80:80 monetary units). Also included were 97:30, 97:35, 95:60 options. Subjects were not limited in their response times and had a mean response time of 5 seconds.

Under the free condition, subjects could choose from all five choices; under the controlled condition, their selections were restricted to choices 2 through 5 (97:30, 97:35, 95:60, and 80:80). The most generous level (80:80) was the fairest and most equal option, with the highest payoff. Researchers used the difference between the mean chosen level under the free condition minus the mean chosen level in the controlled condition as the measure of control-averse behavior.

Subjects were also asked to indicate their feelings during each decision on a five-point scale, ranging from 1=happy to 5=unhappy, and an anger scale, ranging from 1=calm to 5=angry. Researchers also assessed subjects to rate their perceived distrust of player A’s requests, motivation to restore their freedom of choice, and whether fairness played a role in their decision.

Under the controlled condition, subjects chose lower generosity levels than in the free condition (mean: 3.50 vs 4.34, respectively; 95% CI: -1.19 to -0.81; P < 0.001) and exhibited high consistency in their choice preferences.

Researchers also observed a significant association of control-averse behavior in both the happiness and anger ratings. The unhappier and angrier subjects were making controlled choices compared with free choices, the greater their level of control-averse behavior.

The more subjects perceived their choice restriction as a sign of distrust from player A, the more control-averse behavior they demonstrated. In contrast, the higher they rated understanding player A’s request in the controlled condition, the less control-averse behavior they exhibited. Self-reported motivation to use their remaining freedom of choice was significantly and positively correlated with their level of control-averse behavior. Finally, fairness was positively correlated with the average level choice in both controlled and free conditions, and was not associated with control-averse behavior.

Researchers analyzed fMRI to identify a neurophysiological mechanism predictive of control-averse behavior, testing whether neural responses and their interactions could explain individual differences in control-averse behavior.

They observed localization of brain regions that were more strongly activated during controlled decisions than free decisions. They found stronger activation of the right and left inferior parietal lobule (IPL), clusters in the bilateral superior parietal lobule extending into the occipital cortex, and the right occipital cortex during decisions made in the controlled condition.

They also found that the higher the subject’s level of control-averse behavior, the greater the changes in right IPL-dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) connectivity during controlled decisions versus free. Further, they observed that immediately after the onset of subject choice options, activation in the bilateral IPL increased whether or not subjects had control-averse behavior. Finally, activation in the bilateral dlPFC synchronized with activation in the IPL only in subjects who were control-averse and only during decisions in the controlled condition.

Social cognition and right IPL-dlPFC connectivity were the best predictors of control-averse behavior. Researchers concluded that right IPL-dlPFC connectivity accounts for a significant part of the relationship between social cognition and control-averse behavior.

They concluded that when someone else controls one’s freedom of choice, willingness to share money is reduced. When subjects did not understand the other person’s behavior or perceived the restriction of their freedom of choice as distrust, the decision to give money is further reduced. Finally, they found that control-averse behavior has negative effects and motivates people to reclaim their freedom of choice.

Functional connectivity between the right IPL and the bilateral dlPFC/middle frontal gyrus were predictive of control-averse behavior. The IPL is associated with attention reorientation to both social and nonsocial stimuli and number processing, and may play a role in visuospatial and social context. The dlPFC has been associated with cognitive control and resolution of conflicts in decisions requiring self-control.

Control-averse subjects were more likely to dislike restrictions on their freedom and felt compelled to use their remaining freedom of choice.

“In conclusion, this study provides first insights into the neural drivers of individual differences in control-averse behavior, a social phenomenon that is ubiquitous in our society,” concluded the authors. “Our results suggest that a key driver of control-averse behavior is the connectivity between brain regions that are reliably, albeit not exclusively, involved in attention reorientation and cognitive control.”

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