From Kindergarten through much of elementary school (in the 1960s), grade cards that I had to bring home to get signed by my parents (and the teachers were wise to forgeries) included not only grades (A, B, C, D, E) for reading, writing, and math, but also grades (O-utstanding, S-atisfactory, U-nsatisfactory) for behavior and attitudes. One of the behavior and attitude areas was Self-Control, and I almost invariably got a U. Didn't matter that I got all As on the academic subjects. My parents would have been prouder had I gotten Cs on academic work and an O on self-control. In retrospect, I don't think it was lack of self-control; I think it was a combination of smart-aleckiness and quick-wittedness. I could catch teachers in their grammatical and mathematical mistakes, find humor in their amphibolous sentence constructions, or identify puns based on homophones (like the word “homophone” itself: a telephone for a gay male; that would get me sent to the principal’s office). I was not a fully passive, fully compliant kid. I have a history of interest in the topic of self-control. It ended up being around the fringes of my Ph.D. dissertation on Aristotle on reasoning about action. I ended up publishing a couple of scholarly articles on akrasia. Akrasia is the Greek word that refers to the failure to carry out our intentions (a “lack of” krasia “power”). It is that puzzling notion of failing to do what I want to do, and not because someone else is restraining me. I know now that tonight I do not want to eat half a bag of potato chips. And I know that even when, tonight, I open up the bag of chips. But once I open up the bag of chips, smell the aroma, taste the first few, and get distracted watching bull riding on the television (and get distracted thinking of the amphiboly in that phrase), I end up eating half the bag of chips.
A couple of weeks ago while looking at my library's new books shelf, a book caught my attention. Daniel Akst, We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess (New York: Penguin Press, 2011). On the cover is a chocolate covered donut with sprinkles, but attached to the donut is a lit fuse, making the donut look like an explosive. It wasn’t the cover that attracted my attention; it was the title and subtitle. The subtitle captures the theme of the book well. There were good old days when self-control was not as hard. Think of the days before there were bags of potato chips, days when almost all your food was made from scratch. You could not just reach in the cupboard, grab a box or bag of ready-to-eat food, and stuff yourself. You had to plan. Go down to the cellar to get a couple of potatoes, get a fire going in the stove, get out the fry pan, put in a scoop of lard or bacon grease, slice the potatoes thin, put them in the pan and fry them for thirty minutes. In the mean time, you have not milked two of your cows, or hoed the weeds in your bean patch, and now your butter or bean supply is going to be short. Now we live in an age of excess, where distractions to our intentions are all over the place (like the internet on which you are now reading this post). It is just so easy to be distracted, to procrastinate, to not do what we say we really want to do.
Akst ranges over scholarly work from philosophers, psychologists, and brain scientists. Humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. For instance, near the beginning of the book (around p. 13) he reports Harry Frankfurt's distinction between first order and second order desires. First order desires are immediate, felt, action-motivating desires. Second order desires are desires we have about our desires. Example: "I desire to eat a deep-fried peanut butter, banana, and bacon sandwich" expresses a first order desire, while "I want not to desire to eat such a fat bomb" expresses a second order desire. Think of the person who has an addiction, and wants to not have the addiction. On almost the last page of the book, Frankfurt is referred to again. In between he refers to Homer, Hesiod, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and numerous 20th century philosophers who have had important things to say about akrasia and self-control. From the social sciences he relates large quantities of studies, many of which suggest that humans do not have as much control over their actions as they sometimes suppose. One thing I found fascinating were the studies on "priming." If I hand you a warm cup of coffee or hot chocolate, and ask you to describe a memorable grade school teacher, I will much more likely hear from you about a teacher that you liked, enjoyed, for whom you have "warm" feelings. If I hand you a glass of ice water and ask the same question, I will much more likely hear from you about a teacher that you didn't like, didn't enjoy, for whom you have "cold" feelings. Were I to ask you why you selected that teacher to describe, you would not recognize that I primed you to select that one. We are not as free or in control as we sometimes think we are. From the natural sciences, Akst relates much research about recent work on neurophysiology, on functions of different parts of the brain, on neuronal activity in the various parts of the brain, and in varying effects of chemical neurotransmitters (like dopamine and serotonin). For example functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brains of murderers shows a much decreased, compared to the rest of the population, neuronal activity in the pre-frontal cortices (the part of the brain that has executive, decision-making functions). Reduced dopamine concentrations in the prefrontal cortex are thought to enhance distraction, to make it easier to not stay on task. Is your lack of self-control more a matter of natural, uncontrollable aspects of your brain, or is it more a matter of your history of decisions, your environment, things you can control? We know that serotonin levels are correlated with depressive states. Serotonin levels can be adjusted chemically (for example, with Prozac). Serotonin levels can also be adjusted by psychobehavioral therapy (helping the person to identify events that contributed toward the depression, and modifying the behavior to diminish symptoms and feelings of depression). Prozac is cheaper than behavioral therapy (one therapy session costs as much as a two month supply of Prozac), so for insurance companies it is the favored remedy. So even if you think it is nature (“I have low serotonin, therefore I am depressed”), it doesn’t follow that you can’t do something about it. You can take Prozac, hoping it functions analogous to training wheels on a bicycle. It keeps you from crashing while you learn to balance eventually without it. In any case, we don’t have all the control of ourselves that we sometimes think we have.
While Akst ranges over the work of scholars and researchers, it is not meant to be a book for them. It is a book for a learned audience, for people who continue to be curious about themselves and the folks around them. I dare say that folks in leadership positions (supervisors, coaches), and in positions where they need to influence others for decision making (salespersons), ought to find the book fascinating. Too, those who are being supervised and being influenced by others might want to read it to gain a greater measure of self-control in their lives. And for those of you who, unlike me, have issues of self-control, you might learn a few tips to help you in your second order desires. One such tip is the notion of “pre-commitment.” In our cool, calm, collected moments, we arrange aspects of our lives in order to fend off in advance likely temptations. We don’t go to the grocery store hungry. We buy a year-long membership at the health club, and pay in advance for a personal trainer, so we don’t skip out on exercise. We have someone else handle our finances and give us a weekly allowance so we don’t blow our family budget on beer and the lottery. We drive an indirect route to work so we don’t go by the convenience store to pick up a pack of cigarettes and a jumbo soda. We put a photo of ourselves when we were thin on the refrigerator to keep us from reaching in for the ice cream. We keep photos of our spouse and children on our desk or in our wallet to keep us from pursuing liaisons that would be destructive to our spouse and children (and ourselves).
Now where did that bag of chips go? Did someone hide them from me?