In a September 15 article in Pacific Standard, David Destino writes on the powers of accountability and how a sense of being grateful leads to greater self control. Have a nasty habit? Crave the candy bar(s)? Destino says the best defense is thinking about the many positive features of your life.
Included in the article is the now infamous “marshmallow test” conducted by Walter Mischel in the late 1960s. As part of the test, a group of children were told that by delaying gratification they would be rewarded by a doubling of the treat. A child who loved candy bars would be presented with a single bar, told he could eat it now or wait a bit and receive another, and then left alone in the room. Mischel and his coleagues watched from a distance and observed the techniques used to deny the temptation to indulge. The children used a variety of techniques: some sang songs, looked away or found some other stimulation to distract themselves from the treat. Mischel went further and continued to gather data on his participants and found that those who were capable of delaying instant gratification then went on to lead more successful adult lives: they had less debt, more stable families and a slew of other features that suggested the long term power of self control. From Mischel’s work came a sense of the importance of cultivating self control in people. Is it possible to teach self control?
Destino notes the popular belief that because self-control is so important the process of cultivating techniques to assist in self control are important to teach children. He notes movements like Alcohol Anonymous which focus less on the personal factors that lead individuals to dangerous behaviors and more on techniques to avoid the dangerous item of desire. If the item can be avoided then perhaps the individual can resist the temptation. But what can be said of the success of techniques? Are there less alcoholics in society? Is obesity now a problem we read only of in textbooks?
Far from it.
Instead we live in a world rattled by addictive temptations. From food to technology it seems our every human feature has some item designed to stimulate our pleasure. We exist in a world of plethora filled with countless ways to find just what we want.
Destino offers a second way to defend ourselves from temptation. Choose instead the path of gratitude. Consider what you have to be thankful for and focus on cultivating these benefits. He notes of programs that force an individual to do a good deed if some undesireable action occurs. Termed “pre-commitment” some common actions are an automatic donation to a charity if an expensive item is purchased. Would less people buy the latest IPhone if in purchasing it a equally priced donation was sent to a charity? Might the dreaded candy bar consumed require an hour of service at a soup kitchen? While such actions can seem cruel they do create a greater sense or accountability. We might think we know what’s best for us but faced with the myriad of temptations we are weaklings in the struggle. Studies now show that our self control is like a muscle: use it frequently and it gets sore. Destino writes of a study where subjects were more likely to commit an undesirable act after fighting the temptation for a plate of chocolate chip cookies. We get worn out, it seems, and need something outside of our brains to keep us on the course.
Behavioral changes are difficult to make. Patterns beget habits beget lock-in beget comfort. In our habits lie our sense of self and perspective on reality. Are we based upon our patterns? Do our needs for structure make our patterns a simple source of comfort in life? Though we refer to ourselves as free-thinking individuals we remain locked into a schedule. The work schedule, the daily meals, the daily grind of every social function: our gears for daily life.
Indeed our very biology is ruled by specific sets of patterns. Sleeping with its REM cycle is model for the perfect day: not too fast and not too slow; a perfect pace for progress. The reproductive system has its pattern and Circadian rhythms have been shown to have powerful effects on living things on Earth. From jet-lagged travelers to solar starved plants, these rhythms play a vital part in life.
So it’s no surprise then that these patterns are difficult to change. Changing sleep patterns or diet? Prepare yourself for war. Just a simple change of diet means a rapid sway to life. What defines the perfect diet? Does perfection actually exist? Too often we seek patterns in existence where a pattern just doesn’t exist. How often do I need to sleep? Are these curtains certified dark enough? From the big ideas to tiny details a swath of decisions must be considered. Ever different, the individual is impossible to simplify to specific needs and goals. There are various suggestions for the ways we live our life. What does he or she want? From what culture does she stem? Ultimately the ingredients that make up who we are are wildly different. The decision, in the end, remains with us. Though troubled yet we are we hold our power to our change.
On the Econlog website, Bryan Caplan writes on “aging out of addiction” and highlights other research suggesting that at some point people make the decision to not be addicted. He concludes with an idea that addiction is a “choice to be immature” and one that ends ultimately when a person decides enough is enough. Included in his brief post are selections from an article that tracks the stats of high profile addictions: “cocaine addiction lasts four years”, “alcohol addiction is resolved within fifteen years”, among others. And yet despite this presentation of averages (not his, but used to support his claims), the choice to limit one’s perspective to an averaging of numbers smacks of cruel disregard for the millions forced to suffer. Yes, while optimistic and ultimately written to suggest that addiction is not an insurmountable problem, the battles of addiction stem from such a wild variety of factors that a consideration of these and the comprehensive network of support that exists warrants something more than claims of choosing to grow up. What is said for human struggle?
As the so-called “winner’s bias” fools us into thinking that risky decisions are more worthwhile than they really are (start your own business in college- it worked for Mark Zuckerburg!), the choice to limit one’s observation of the successful ends discards the tragic tales of loss. Hume wrote that our “dignity demands” that we treat others not as the “means to end” or as tools for our use, but as “ends” or independent creatures deserving of our respect. Are we not viewing the humans hidden in these stats as tools who have been repaired? So complicated is the human mind that to simplify its functions and the chaotic array of experiences that it must navigate down to a procedure of “choosing to be immature” strikes one as misguided and quite cruel. What must be said of the battles of the addicted? Of the countless family members and counselors who fought to help those addicted to these substances? While sobriety will come (for some) and a day arrive when the individual is able to decide to get help or to defy the temptation, such decisions come with immense amounts of work. To disregard these efforts is a mistake and eerily discards the dangers of the substances at play.
Are men less emotional than females? A 2012 study of Irish males who attempted suicide found that, despite their experience of emotional vulnerability, a cultural hegemony discouraged their expressions. The men, according to the study felt emotionally vulnerable but were unable to speak to their emotions and chose suicide as a viable solution. What restrained their expression? Their sense of “masculinity norms” that constricted their ability to speak of what they felt.
One wonders how broadly these conclusions can be applied to global masculine behaviors. Does a global hegemony of masculine norms constrict male expression of emotion? One need only listen to a Sunday post-game show to hear a fountain of emotion. Listen to sports radio and one can hear a buffet of dread, concern, alarm, and stress that borders on a funeral.
On the morning following the loss of a local NFL football team, this author writes of an experience of hearing incredible expressions of male emotion. Sunday is, it seems, a day of great catharsis for the bevy of local football fans whose hopes lie pinned to a roster of fifty three professional football players. My goal is not to mock these men; instead, I seek to indicate a stark phenomenon of culture. Is sports radio an island of catharsis?
In Totem and Taboo, Freud writes on the role of outrage and its response. He writes of a “violation of taboo”, an action where a social rule is broken. What follows these violation is the issue, existing in a world where immediate punishment does not follow, there is no lightning bolt from the clouds, we must take upon ourselves as a society to enact punishment. The reasoning for this, Freud writes, is to “deprive the envied transgressor of his enterprise”. He describes the pleasure that stems from these violations as “fruits” whose infectious nature make them behaviors which if left unpunished will, placed into contemporary terms, go viral and increase in our behavior. If no-one pays for gas, if everyone steals the candy bar, will everyone do the same?
A certain level of paranoia permeates this perspective. Freud links these actions with “the savages”, a group without specific historical placement and one whose actions closely mimic those of “the neurotic”. Here again Freud uses an entity to represent the collected mass. These specific cases representative of the populace at large are the basis of science (experiments of a few derive conclusions from which larger actions can be taken).
Back to outrage though and this recent news story of a t-shirt company printing a college logo with blood stains. The college, Kent State, was the scene of “the shooting of unarmed college students by the Ohio National Guard on Monday, May 4, 1970 (Wikipedia). Though never explicitly communicated by the shirt, the blood stains suggest the shootings and aim to convey to the viewer the historical event. We see the blood and see the Kent State logo and remember the event on May 4, 1970.
In response to the shirt, Kent State issued a press release expressing their “offense” and “great outrage”. Using collective pronouns like “our” and “we”, the press release expresses the opinion of the University at large, seeming to include some unknown quantity of individuals associated with the university. And yet on what basis does this outrage extend to those involved? The authors of the release do not write on their experience with the event. It remains unknown how those directly affected by the events of May 4, 1970 feel.
Perhaps they are offended and perhaps anyone who has ever attended or even heard of the Kent State shootings is included in the press release. Are we to specify who is allowed to feel outrage at the t-shirt? Of course we’re not, but in this immediate response one wonders how far the extension of outrage goes. What is the purpose of Kent State’s response? Is it outrage or a collection of needs? Might Freud’s observation that the need to punish also extends to a need to control future insults? Would another company violate the norm and print similarly themed shirts if Kent State didn’t respond with this release?
All of this remains a mere observation of a series of events. One cannot fully comprehend the intentions of all involved. Why was the t-shirt made? “There’s no such thing as bad press” is often cited and is perhaps linked to Oscar Wilde who wrote ” the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” Was the t-shirt’s aim to upset one to garner more attention? One will never know the reasons but inherent in these actions are the raw, exposed emotions that lurk beneath the surface. Contained within our tragedies and lurking in our memory is a raw fuel. Companies might choose to engage with this fuel and ignite it with an action, but in doing so the reaction will be unpredictable and intense. Do they want this reaction? For what purpose was the fuel engaged? Offend to sell a t-shirt?
.“If you wait for perfect conditions, you will never get anything done.”
― Ecclesiastes 11:4
Perfection is a relative condition. Your ideal self might be a nightmare for another. The ideal number, an ideal form: one’s relative impression of what-should-be is a self-defined determinant.
As with many pitfalls of consciousness, one’s ability to self-justify perfectionism provides the warm balm in the face of cognitive dissonance. Faced with the question, “Am I taking this too far?” or “Have I finally lost control”, one’s list of past successes lights the way to justify behavior. Greet the doubt with explanation: the reason for success, my only saving grace. A spiraled list is possible as one’s quest for something higher assumes a risk for a reward. We exist in a world where great risk takers have been rewarded for their efforts. Read a biography of Steve Jobs and one will note the list of anecdotal moments of perfectionist tantrums. Can we link this need to his success. Be wary readers, correlation is not causation and one wonders just how many great ideas were lost by Jobs’ obsession with a perfect shade of blue.
Ironically, the quest to understand perfectionism involves an on-going struggle for a “perfect” model. Frost’s Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale” appeared in 1990. Its six item breakdown of common ‘perfectionist’ features lasted but a single year as Hewitt and Flett’s model of 1991 expanded the list to forty-five items. Then again a change was needed and in 1996 with the Slaney model titled “Almost-Perfect Scale” a broader sense was founded. In 2000’s, Daniels and Pierce made an attempt. Yes, the quest remains in progress: never perfect, always striving.
Despite the numerous models, a common collection of personality traits appear in the models. In general, these revolve around an obsession with the self. It branches far and wide and swarms to encompass every aspect of one’s life. Whether physical or mental, the quest for perfectionism casts one into an impossible gauntlet of needing more. Never perfect, always striving. “I refuse to be content.”
Ultimately, the solution lies not with perfecting the personal piggy bank of life. To make the fix? You need to break the pig. To be perfect is impossible, so to crack the need is to solve the puzzle. The solution to perfectionism lies within the heart of the perfectionist: accept yourself for who you are and come to terms with the ugly, stinky mess that is existence here and now.