Comment »Posted on Friday 1 May 2009 at 1:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings, Psychology

A paper in this week’s Science describing research in to parts of the brain related to self-control reports that two regions come into play when making such decisions.

The research team offered participants a variety of foods, and asked them to rate the food for taste and health benefits. These ratings were used to pick an “index food” for each person, with average taste and healthiness. Participants were then asked to pick between eating this index food or another of their choice.

Activity in a region of the brain called the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) has previously been shown to relate to value-based decision, such as what food to eat. If activity goes down when choosing a food item, the person is likely to say no, whilst if it goes up they probably want to eat it.

This study found that in people with good self-control – those able to pick healthy food over tasty – another brain region comes in to play. Activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) increases when exercising self-control, influencing the vmPFC to incorporate health benefits into decision making.

That’s the science. But it’s not quite how it was reported by The Telegraph, The Daily Mail and The Sun. All three papers ran stories about the “angel” and “devil” parts of the brain, no doubt to invoke the classic image of the sort on the left.

It’s a nice concept, but I find it strange that all three papers that covered the story used the same angle. Where did it come from? My first assumption was an enterprising press officer had come up with the analogy to help get the story printed, but the press release shows no sign. I haven’t read the original paper (stupid access problems as always) but I’m assuming such an embellished metaphor doesn’t feature, as such language is typically frowned upon in journals.

It could be that all three reporters just happened to invent the analogy independently. I’m pretty sure however that they all come from one source. Contrast the phrasing in these two passages from The Telegraph and The Daily Mail respectively:

Participants with strong self control signals were able to balance health and taste in their minds and opt for healthier foods. Those whose “angels” did not speak loudly enough chose the tastier foods, regardless of nutritional value.

Participants with strong self-control signals were able to balance health and taste in their minds and opt for healthier foods, the journal Science reports.

But those whose ‘angels’ did not speak loudly enough chose the tastier foods, regardless of nutritional value.

I guess Science could have sent their own press release to the newspapers, but the story isn’t highlighted on their website. If Science doesn’t view it as important enough to pick out on their own, why would they go to the trouble of getting the mainstream media to?

I’m not suggesting there is some vast media conspiracy going on here, I just find it interesting to figure out the way in which our news is constructed. Anyone else got an idea for the origin of the devil/angel take on this research?


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