2024 Academic Thesis Prize: Silvio MALTAGLIATI

Headlines, Research
Silvio MALTAGLIATI received the 2024 Academic Thesis Prize for his research work among PhDs graduating in 2023.

Thesis Title  - The law of the least effort : identifying and manipulating automatic self-control processes in the context of physical activity

Silvio MALTAGLIATI, lauréat du prix de thèse académique 2024Aware of the benefits of physical activity, most individuals report the intention to be physically active. However, half of them fail to translate this intention into action. One hypothesis to understand this intention-action gap lies in the inability to resist the attraction towards sedentary temptations – often referred a “self-control failure”. This thesis focuses on self-control, defined as the processes that favor the translation of intention into a behavior (here, physical activity) whose gratification is time-delayed, despite the presence of temptations toward alternative behaviors (here, sedentary behavior), whose gratification is more immediate. Self-control has long been associated with willpower and as relying upon deliberative and resource-taxing processes. Recent work has however shown that the most successful individuals in the pursuit of their goals are precisely those who rely the less on their willpower. In other words, the ability to successfully resolve conflict between physical activity and sedentary behaviors may rather be driven by automatic self-control mechanisms.
Several questions are unexplored and constitute the core of this doctoral program. What is the direction of these automatic self-control processes (1) and what are their effects on physical activity behaviors (2)? Finally, to what extent does the quality of motivation towards physical activity (i.e., autonomous and controlled motivation) influence the activation of these automatic self-control processes (3)? To address the first research question, automatic approach-avoidance tendencies towards physical activity were measured, using computerized reaction-time tasks, in the presence or in the absence of sedentary stimuli in a series of three studies. Physically active individuals were faster to « approach » than to « avoid » physical activity-related stimuli. Moreover, this difference in reaction times was more pronounced in the presence of sedentary stimuli (vs. neutral stimuli). The presence of sedentary temptations may therefore allow individuals to protect their physical activity goal. Regarding the second research question, we revealed, in a randomized controlled trial, that retraining individuals to approach physical activity, in the presence of sedentary temptations, to obtain personalized consequences (e.g., pleasure, health) during a computerized task was effective at improving implicit attitudes towards physical activity choices, as well as their preference for this behavior in a free-choice task. Although no effect on self-reported physical activity was observed, these findings support the potential of this intervention to alter automatic self-control processes. As for the third research question, a study conducted in the context of the lockdown imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic supported the importance of autonomous motivation in favoring the development of an automatic regulation of physical activity behaviors. This automatic mode of regulation may explain the relation between autonomous motivation and the reduction of the occurrence of desires towards sedentary alternatives. Regarding mechanisms that may underlie this observation, a series of three studies highlighted that a strong autonomous motivation towards physical activity, but also that supraliminal and subliminal priming of this type of motivation, were associated with the enactment of automatic self-control processes. In other words, only individuals whose autonomous motivation is activated may be able to rely upon these mechanisms to effortlessly cope with situations in which they are exposed to choices between physical activity and sedentary behaviors.
Overall, this doctoral work allows to develop our understanding of the automatic loop of self-control, the possibility to retrain it, as well as the conditions under which it may be activated.

Key Words: Sedentary behavior, physical activity, self-control, dual process models, motivational conflict

Doctoral School: ED ISCE - Health, cognition and environmental engineering
Research laboratory: Laboratoire Sport et Environnement Social (SENS - UGA)
Thesis supervision: Philippe SARRAZIN and Boris CHEVAL

> To find out about all the 2024 thesis prizes
Updated on  May 30, 2024