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Devices: Self Control

October 25, 2014 Leave a comment

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.

 

Pattern Locking Patterns

October 15, 2014 Leave a comment

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.

Aging Out

October 3, 2014 1 comment

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.

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