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.

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.

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.

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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