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PhD studentships: 'Self-control and the Person: An Interdisciplinary account' project

Applications are invited for two PhD studentships in the Department of Philosophy at King’s College London, as part of the ERC-funded research project ‘Self-Control and the Person: An Interdisciplinary Account’, directed by Dr Natalie Gold.

One studentship is available within each of the following project areas:

As well as a strong philosophy background, interest in other relevant disciplines would be an advantage. In particular, Selves and Teams requires familiarity with rational choice theory; interest and experience with relevant psychology literature might be helpful for Willpower and the Will.

The successful candidates will undertake research on the topic of the project area under the supervision of the Principal Investigator and will help organise project events and seminars.

Informal enquires about the project or the positions can be addressed to"at"rocket 

How to Apply 

To be considered for the studentships, you need to apply to do a PhD at King’s in the normal manner and, in addition, to write a 500 word statement saying how you could contribute to the project area of the studentship you are applying for. This might cover, e.g., evidence of previous interest or work in the project area, evidence of relevant inter-disciplinary skills, and discussion of how your interests and skills will contribute to the project objectives. (See below for more information on objectives.)

Details of how to apply to KCL, including a link to the on-line application form and a list of the required documents, can be found on the postgraduate research pages of the Department website, under “How to Apply”. If you have already applied to do a PhD at King’s, then it is not necessary to submit another application.

It is the responsibility of applicants to ensure that their referees have uploaded their references by the deadline. The automated system will send referees details of how to upload the reference, but not until *after* the application is submitted. So applicants should make sure their referees are expecting the request and are ready to upload the reference in good time.

The statement of contribution should be sent to Please put “ERC studentship Willpower and the Will” or “ERC studentship Selves and Teams” in the subject line of your e-mail, and please put your name both in the subject line and in the body of the statement if it is sent as an attachment.

Both the on-line application (including the references) and the statement of contribution must be received by this time.

Further information

Project Summary

The goal of the project is to develop and test a novel account of how we achieve self-control, in part through developing a novel account of the person and exploring its implications for self-control. I take problems of self-control to be those where a person has to resist a current temptation in order to achieve a long-term goal. In the study of self-control, there is a general disciplinary divide. In philosophy, the main focus has been on willpower; in economics/ decision theory, the focus has been on external mechanisms by which someone can commit her future self. This project will bring the two approaches together. By introducing the concept of the self as a team over time and providing a novel formal model, we will bring willpower into the rational choice theory framework. Conversely, we will show that psychological mechanisms are of relevance to philosophy, by identifying mechanisms of willpower and investigating their implications for theories of rationality. The two approaches are further connected by framing: one theory is that that levels of agency are triggered by how the agent ‘sees’ the situation, and one mechanism of will-power is direction of attention.

Subproject Selves and Teams


In decision theory it is standard to represent a person as a sequence of adjacent, linked segments or time slices. Each transient time slice has the essential characteristics of an agent and, in particular, is the locus of the person's thinking about what to do, now and later. Problems of self-control are considered problems of diachronic inconsistency, where the course of action that seems best from the point of view of an early transient agent relies on a choice by a later agent that will not seem best from the later agent’s point of view. So the early transient agent would like to implement a plan that she cannot rely on her latter self to carry through. We can draw an analogy between inter-temporal choice and inter-personal strategic interactions, i.e. intra- and inter-personal situations (e.g. Elster 1979; Strotz 1955-56). In this framework, the early agent exerts self-control by altering the choices or the payoffs of the future self. 

Rational choice models throw up questions of the rationality and psychology of self- control. Regarding rationality, within the time slice framework it can be rational for the later self to default on the earlier plan. This conflicts with an intuition that many people have: that it is rational to carry out one’s plans. Are their intuitions wrong or is there some reason why is it rational for the transient agent to look to her best interests, as viewed from a global perspective? In economic psychology, it is generally accepted that problems of self-control are caused by hyperbolic discounting, a temporary high preference for imminent rewards (Ainslie 1992). This provides a good mathematical model of observed behaviour but it leaves unanswered the theoretical question: why does proximity of reward matter? Further, the time slice model fails to account for our sense of personhood, our sense of self over time. Its phenomenology does not ring true.

Bacharach (2006) raises the intriguing possibility that the answers to the rational and psychological questions can be provided by team reasoning, a mode of reasoning used by individuals in teams. Instead of asking the standard rational choice question “what should I do?” an agent who team reasons asks herself “what should we do?” and then plays her part in the best team plan (see also Sugden 1993, Gold and Sugden 2007b). There is some evidence that people do team reason (Bacharach 2006; Colman et al 2007; Guala and Mittone 2009), and also evidence that the primitives postulated by team reasoning, namely I and group are primitives of our mental ontology (Gold and Harbour, 2012). Team reasoning can explain some puzzles of rational choice theory, for example Gold and Sugden (2007a) show how team reasoning can explain the common intuition that it is rational to co-operate in prisoner’s dilemmas.

Applying team reasoning to intra-personal problems can preserve the attractive modeling structure of time slices, whilst giving a better account of the phenomenology of selfhood. By introducing two levels of agency, at the level of the time slices and at the level of the team over time, it gives us a basis from which to explore the conflicting requirements of rational agency. Further, intra-personal team reasoning gives a new rational choice theoretic account of self-control.


(i) conduct a comprehensive investigation of the analogies between the commitments involved in self-control and in keeping commitments to other people;

(ii) use this to extract implications about mechanisms and rationality of commitment keeping and self-control;

(iii) develop a model of the self as a team over time

Subproject Will and Willpower


In philosophy, there are two competing analyses of self-control. Traditionally, problems of self-control are assimilated to the puzzle of how an agent can act contrary to her better judgement. Following Aristotle’s discussion of this problem in the Nichomachean Ethics, this problem is given the name “akrasia”and the puzzle is how akratic action is possible. I will call this the judgement account of self-control. More recently, Holton (2010) has argued that lack of self-control is more appropriately understood as a failure to act on one’s intentions. I will call this the intentions account of self-control.

Both accounts have a role for “the Will”. Indeed talk of Will and willpower is common in philosophy (Pink, 1998; Pink and Stone, 2004). But there is little agreement about what the will is or does. Does the will choose between passion and reason? Or should the will be identified with our faculty of reason and reasoning? Or is it the means by which we carry out our intentions? Further, to the extent that philosophy of mind aims to understand the actual world studied by science (as, e.g., Papineau (2009) argues), it is desirable that our philosophical theories be consistent with our best scientific theories and data.

There is evidence that will power exists: that it lapses when we are tired (Baumeister 1994); that it comes in limited amounts that can be used up (Muraven 2000; Baumeister 1998); and that it can be improved by its repeated exercise (Muraven 1999). But this still leaves the question: what is willpower and how does it fit with our best scientific picture of the brain? The will cannot simply be a homunculus, the “real” agent who makes the decisions. Our analysis of willpower has to be consistent with our picture of the brain as implementing algorithms and with the idea that mental states stand in relation to brain states (e.g. they may supervene on brain states).

As well as problems of analysis, the intentions account throws up questions about the rationality of self-control. There is a debate about whether intentions are reasons and why keeping one’s resolutions can be rational (Gauthier 1986; Kavka 1983; Bratman 1987; McClennen 1990; Broome 2001). This relates to the questions of rationality in rational choice theory, indeed the rational choice theoretic framework sometimes features in philosophical debates, in decision theory (e.g. McClennan 1990). Unresolved issues include: what is the status of plans, what is their role, and why should an agent carry them out?

Presuming that intentions have some sort of standing, the converse question arises: when is it rational to relinquish an intention? Bratman (1987) says that it is rational to reconsider an intention just in case doing so manifests tendencies that it is reasonable for the agent to have. Holton (2010) adds the condition that it is not rational to reconsider something if the reconsideration manifests tendencies that it is not reasonable for the agent to have. He proposes a list of tendencies of reconsideration that it is reasonable for an agent to have, but admits that his criteria are “vague” and “incomplete” (p.75), and does not argue for them nor identify any underlying general principles.

There is also the issue of the relation between the intention and the judgement accounts. The two accounts have, so far, been treated completely separately. But having an intention and judging something best are usually connected: an agent who is deciding what to do judges an action as best and, at the same time, forms an intention to do it. Questions about the exact relation of the intentions account and the judgement account include: Can the two accounts be brought together? Are they competing or complementary? How do their prescriptions for overcoming problems of self-control differ?

Research Objectives

  1. analyze willpower, decomposing it into various psychological mechanisms;
  2. elucidate the conceptual boundaries between willpower and external mechanisms of self-control


  • Ainslie, G. 1992. Picoeconomics: The Strategic Interaction of Successive Motivational States Within the Perso.n Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bacharach, M. 2006. Beyond Individual Choice: Teams and Frames in Game Theory. Natalie Gold and Robert Sugden eds.. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Baumeister, R., T. Heatherton and D. Tice, 1994. Losing Control. San Diego: Academic Press.
  • Baumeister, R., E. Bratslavsky, M. Muraven and D. Tice, 1998. Ego-depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74 pp. 1252-65.
  • Bratman, M. 1987. Intentions, Plans, and Practical Reason. Harvard: Harvard University Press.
  • Broome, J. 2001. Are intentions reasons? And how should we cope with incommensurable values? In Christopher Morris and Arthur Ripstein (eds.). Practical Rationality and Preference: Essays for David Gauthier. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Colman, A., B. Pulford and J. Rose 2007. Collective rationality in interactive decisions: Evidence for team reasoning. Acta Psychologica 128, 387-97.
  • Elster, J. 1979. Ulysses and the Sirens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gauthier, D. 1986. Morals by Agreement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Gold, N. and D. Harbour. 2012. Cognitive Primitives of Collective Intentions: Linguistic Evidence of our Mental Ontology. Mind and Language, 27, 111-136.
  • Gold, N. and R. Sugden 2007a. Theories of Team Agency. In F. Peter and S. Schmidt eds.. Rationality and Commitment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Gold N. and R. Sugden 2007b. Collective Intentions and Team Agency. Journal of Philosophy 1043, 109-37.
  • Guala, F., Mittone, L., and Ploner, M.. 2009. Group membership, team preferences, and expectations. CEEL Working Paper 6-09.
  • Holton, R. 2010. Willing, Wanting, Waiting. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Kavka, G 1983. The Toxin Puzzle. Analysis 43, 33-6.
  • Muraven, M. and R. Baumeister, 2000. Self-Regulation and Depletion of Limited Resources: Does Self-Control Resemble a Muscle?. Psychological Bulletin 126 pp. 247-259.
  • Muraven, M., Baumeister, R. , Tice, D. 1999. Longitudinal Improvement of Self-Regulation Through Practice: Building Self-Control Strength Through Repeated Exercise. The Journal of Social Psychology 139, 446-57.
  • Papineau, D.. 2009. The Poverty of Analysis. Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 83:1–30.
  • Pink, T.. 1998. The Will. In E. Craig (ed). Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge.
  • Pink, T. and Stone, M. eds. 2004. The Will and Human Action: from Antiquity to the Present Day. London: Routledge.
  • Strotz, R. 1955-6. Myopia and Inconsistency in Dynamic Utility Maximization. Review of Economic Studies 23, 165-80.
  • Sugden, R. 1993. Thinking as a team: toward an explanation of nonselfish behavior. Social Philosophy and Policy, vol 10, pp. 69-89
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