You vs. temptation: Why self-control has gotten so hard
Human nature hasn't changed, but the ease of indulgence – from food to credit cards to the Internet – has. The good news is that we can outsmart our impulses.
The latest grim news in our battle with our waistlines is that the problem is going global: A new report in the medical journal The Lancet has found that the rate of obesity worldwide has doubled since 1980. Some 500 million people now qualify, and three times that number are "merely" overweight.Skip to next paragraph
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That individuals the world over increasingly find themselves in such straits is in its way good news, despite the dire medical implications. Traditionally, after all, the world's difficulty with hunger was that there was never enough food. Perhaps someday, if we are fortunate, obesity will supplant famine altogether in the catalog of the world's problems.
If it does, it will only provide further evidence that in the future, for more and more of us, our greatest challenge will be managing our own appetites and addictions in an environment of expanding freedom and affluence. Meeting this challenge won't be easy. Humans evolved to cope with an environment of relative scarcity and respond powerfully to stimuli – fats and sweets, for example – that were vastly less common in our ancestral landscape than they are today.
Human nature hasn't changed, but the landscape of temptation sure has. Technology is a leading culprit. From refrigeration to credit cards to automobiles to the Internet, technology makes it possible for more and more people to live surrounded by "supernormal" stimuli. Technology goes hand-in-glove with capitalism, which plays a large but complex role as well.
Seduction at every turn
In our work lives, the discipline and demands of commerce have typically been effective at inculcating moderation. But it's a very different story when we get off duty; in our lives as consumers, capitalism beckons and seduces us at every turn to indulge.
In the future, self-control is only going to get harder. People across the world are more affluent, more mobile, and less tradition-bound. Behaviors that were once taboo or outlawed are gaining acceptance, and so can be indulged stigma-free. In this country, where casinos were once legal only in Nevada but are now found all over the place, it's only a matter of time before marijuana is decriminalized or made legal. Other drugs may someday follow.
But let's face it. Legalizing drugs; permitting gambling; making cheap, high-calorie foods instantly and effortlessly available – these developments will require ever more effective self-regulation if people are going to avoid running into trouble. Our track record with food – talk about substance abuse! – is not encouraging.
The good news is that the problem of self-control is hardly a new one, and we can learn a lot both from those who've wrestled with it before and from a new generation of scholars who've devoted themselves to the topic.
Self-control – the ability to override impulses in favor of a longer-term goal – is a burgeoning field of academic study, with psychologists, economists, philosophers, and marketing experts probing willpower and its failings.
We now know that small children who can refrain from seizing a treat grow up into more successful adults in almost every way. Among students, self-control is a better predictor of academic success than IQ. Women tend to be better at self-control than men, and older people better than younger. To a significant extent, it appears to be hereditary – but there's also plenty of room for playing a better game with the hand we are dealt.