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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.

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From time immemorial, the crux of the problem has always been the same: the conflict between short-term rewards, which we seem hard-wired to value disproportionately, and longer-term goals. A pan of just-baked chocolate brownies sitting right in front of us, in other words, is simply a lot more compelling than a long-term desire to be slim. And we understand, perhaps instinctively, that one brownie – or one cigarette, or one more drink, or just one hour of procrastination – will have no material effect in the long run. Except to the extent that one leads to another, and we find ourselves someplace we never intended to be.

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Isolation is the enemy of self-regulation. In one interesting study, lonely people ate more cookies and rated them as more delicious. In the absence of strong families and healthy communities, our battles with ourselves are much more likely to end in defeat.

To the Greeks, who were obsessed with the subject, the problem was akrasia, or failure of the will, and it's from the Greeks that we get the first great hint of a solution.

A successful strategy – from Odysseus

It happens in "The Odyssey," when Odysseus is en route home from the Trojan War and his ship is approaching the Sirens. He desperately wants to hear their singing. But he's been warned it could be fatal. So he stops up the ears of his crew with wax and has the men tie him to the mast, literally binding him against the future preference-reversal he anticipates. If I command you to release me, he warns, just tie me tighter.

This is the kind of thing we do today all the time instinctively, as when we say to a spouse, "Don't let me have more than one piece of cake at the party." Using such techniques can take self-control out of the realm of willpower and make it a much simpler problem of skill. Note also that Odysseus relied on his men – just as we'll have to rely on one another.

The support of others will always be essential to our self-control, but technology is increasingly allowing us to rely on our better natures. Progressive Insurance offers a device that drivers can choose to install in their cars. If it shows that you don't act like Dale Earnhardt Jr. – by making jack-rabbit starts and slamming on the brakes – you'll save up to 30 percent on your insurance. You'll also be acting to tame your own behavior by raising the price of recklessness.

Precommitment techniques

Progressive's transmitter is an example of the "precommitment device," a technique that people use to bind themselves to their preferred desires.

Most of us really ought to make more use of such techniques, as Dean Karlan and John Romalis did. The two economists each agreed to lose 38 pounds in six months or forfeit half his annual income to the other. They made a similar deal to keep the weight off afterward. This all worked well enough that Mr. Karlan later went on to found, a website that allows you to provide a credit card number and make a legally binding agreement to do (or not do) a certain thing. If you fail, you forfeit the money. If you're a Democrat trying to stop gambling, for instance, you might pledge to donate $1,000 to Sarah Palin's political action committee in case you give in. Talk about incentive!

Technology can't solve all our self-control problems, of course. We can't avoid or neglect the battle against self-destructive impulses. But struggling with self-control is better than the alternative, which is struggling with someone else who tells us what to do.

Daniel Akst is an editorial writer and columnist at Newsday. He is also the author of "We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess."


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