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Building character virtue empowers people to make good decisions. Should we spend money now or save it for the future? Should we consume unhealthy food now or be the gatekeepers of our long-term health? By developing the ability to make virtuous decisions automatically, people can act on the positive roots of human nature. Most psychological research focuses on willpower to fight temptations but remains largely silent on how people habitually act in virtuous ways. The aim of this project is to change how we think about virtuous behaviors, switching from models emphasizing the inhibition of evil temptations to models of the transformative power of positive human habits.

The proposed research provides a neuropsychological basis for the development of good character habits and identifies the conditions under which such habits are learned and performed. Specifically, the surveys and interviews for Goal 1 will provide a road map to the development of virtuous habits in a general population as well as with recovering addicts. Goal 2 quantifies the neural substrates associated with habitual performance at various tasks. To address this goal, we plan a meta-analysis of prior research tapping the neural activation supporting task perseverance, along with a set of lab experiments to identify the neural mechanisms behind good habits of saving for the future and healthful eating.

The ultimate aim of our research is to change the prevailing scientific model of self-control to reflect more accurately the ways in which people successfully act in virtuous ways in daily life. With this information, we intend to educate people about the benefits of automaticity and the empowerment of forming and acting on virtuous habits. In addition, we wish to engage intervention scientists and practitioners to focus on beneficial habits as a target goal of behavior change interventions.