Executive Function of Self

Executive Function of Self Definition

The executive function of self refers to the internal capacity to choose and to direct one’s own behavior. Although behavior undoubtedly is shaped by forces outside of one’s control, including genetics, cultural norms, and happenstance, some behavior is consciously intended and therefore shaped in part by the person. The executive function of self is used whenever people plan, choose, or control their own actions.

An appropriate analogy is to a chief executive officer (CEO) of a complex organization or business. In business, most daily affairs proceed without the direct oversight or awareness of the CEO, yet the CEO makes key choices and is ultimately responsible for charting the course of the organization. In daily life, most individual behavior also is accomplished without executive guidance, yet the self occasionally intervenes to choose which of several possible actions to perform or to alter its habitual responses.

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Scope and Importance of Executive Function of Self

Executive Function of SelfThe executive function is a hallmark characteristic of human selfhood and is relevant for several areas of psychology. In social psychology, research on delay of gratification, choice, and self-regulation all concern the executive function of self. Enduring short-term pain for long-term gain requires the ability to plan for the future and to forego immediate relief or pleasure. Making a choice commits a person to one course of action and places some responsibility for the consequences on the self. Keeping cool in a crisis involves regulating fear or anxiety, or at least the appearance of them. All these behaviors require executive action. Furthermore, forces that undermine the executive function, such as distraction, fatigue, and stress, impair all of these behaviors.

Clinical psychology supplies dramatic evidence of the consequences of impaired executive functioning. For instance, major depression reflects a lack of mood control, and addictive behavior signals a lack of impulse control. Improving the capacity for executive control promises to provide powerful treatment for several psychological disorders. Evidence already exists to support the benefits of executive control in normal, healthy individuals. Personality psychologists have found that people who excel at executive control enjoy greater successes in life, including better grades, more satisfying relationships, and greater happiness than people who struggle with executive control.

In cognitive psychology, the executive function of self is studied in connection with learning and memory, planning, and the control of attention. Generally, people with high executive ability are faster learners, make better use of plans and strategies, and more ably control their attention than people with low executive ability. The executive function is also crucial for performing novel tasks and for coping with unfamiliar situations. When habits and prior learning provide only rough guides to behavior, the executive function of self intervenes to generate new responses and to steer behavior in new directions.

Developmental psychologists examine changes in executive function over time and have found that the capacity for executive control is closely related to the growth and maturation of the frontal lobes of the human brain. Moreover, damage to the frontal lobes is associated with deficits in executive functioning, including poor planning, faulty reasoning, and an inability to coordinate complex social behaviors. Perhaps the most infamous case of frontal lobe damage is Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who had a tamping iron blown through his skull in 1848. Following the accident, Gage had problems controlling his emotions and abiding by social and cultural norms, although his memory and intelligence remained intact. Researchers now believe Gage suffered severe damage in areas of the brain involved in the executive function of self.

Enduring Issues in Executive Function of Self

The idea of willed, intentional action seems to contradict the scientific pursuit of material, especially biological or chemical, causes of behavior. Some theorists believe the notion of a willful “little person” or homunculus in the brain that controls behavior is an unsatisfying and unscientific explanation that cannot be empirically tested or verified. Other theorists accept the idea of a homunculus or internal controller while acknowledging the shortcomings of this approach. These theorists work as if a homunculus or internal controller exists and await a more precise specification of its biological foundations. Still others study the executive function of self by examining overt behavior or the subjective feeling of executive control and ignore the call to locate its biochemical basis.

Another unresolved issue concerns the measurement of the executive function of self. The executive function appears to be involved in a variety of behaviors, and there is little or no consensus regarding which single task or test best measures it. As a result, many researchers rely on multiple tasks to assess the operation of the executive function, whereas other researchers focus more narrowly on specific tasks, such as tasks that involve mainly planning or response inhibition. Each approach has its drawbacks. The broad, multitask approach seems ill-suited to specify the precise capabilities of the executive function, and the narrow, single-task approach may not capture all of its varied capabilities.

The problem of measurement contributes to another issue: whether the executive function of self should be considered a general purpose capacity, used in emotional, cognitive, and behavioral processes alike, or whether the executive function should be considered a more specific capacity, used, for example, in attention control or planning for the future. On balance, the evidence suggests that the executive function of self is a general purpose capacity used in a wide variety of behaviors. However, this conclusion may be the direct result of imprecise measurement. More precise definition and measurement of the executive function of self may help to specify its core features and clarify its scope and breadth.


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