14 December 2022: Too Much of a Good Thing? Modeling Excess Goal Pursuit in Anorexia Nervosa

Ann Haynos
Department of Psychology
Virginia Commonwealth University

Historically, physical and mental health concerns have been conceptualized as resulting from deficits in the ability to pursue long-term goals resulting from dysfunctions in decision-making abilities and underlying executive functioning brain circuitry. However, this perspective neglects a subset of health concerns that arise from “too much of a good thing” or excess pursuit of goals that society typically encourages (e.g., order/organization, work or academic performance). This talk will focus on one such presentation: the over-pursuit of weight loss that characterizes anorexia nervosa. In this talk, I will present data from a series of studies using a neuroeconomic approach and computational modeling (i.e., Hierarchical Drift Diffusion Modeling) of data derived from a translational foraging task to demonstrate that: 1) anorexia nervosa may be maintained by over-use of computational strategies (i.e., rule-based or value-congruent decision-making) designed to maximize positive outcomes; 2) these strategies appear to be supported by over-engagement of executive functioning circuits conventionally considered to be positive for supporting mental health; and 3) this phenotype expands beyond restrictive eating disorders to other mental health concerns characterized by excess goal pursuit (e.g., “work addiction”). These findings suggest that, paradoxically, that it may be paramount to reduce use of “good” executive functioning skills to treat this group of clinical concerns. Finally, I will provide a roadmap for future research aimed at understanding the computational pathways into severe and underserved problems of excess goal pursuit.