Control Yourself!

We tend to think of ourselves as rational actors – yet ultimately, we are very fallible creatures. We need regulation and restraint to overcome our irrational tendencies and to achieve better outcomes for ourselves and the world around us.

I teach psychology and behavioral economics, trying to understand what really motivates people, how people function, how people make decisions and

I want to reflect with you for a few minutes about one of the biggest problems we have, which is “self-control”.

There is a very interesting analysis, which was done recently, that asked the question of what do people die from? And how many of those deaths are caused by mistakes, that we make in human decision-making.
And about a hundreds years ago this was about 10 percent. Think about how could you kill yourself a hundred years ago by mistake. Maybe you pushed a rock over yourself or got into some bad accident. A few years ago this percentage was a little bit more than 45 percent.

Why? Because over the years as we’ve designed new technologies, we’ve created new ways for us to kill ourselves. Think about diabetes, think about obesity, think about smoking, think about texting while driving: We are creating all of those technologies without really understand what human nature is and often those technologies are incompatible with us. They create a situation in which we have to have a tremendous capacity to make a good decision and if we fail the mistake could be quite substantial.

Think about it: Imagine texting and driving. If you text and walk, what could happen? You would running into a pole – not a big deal. If you’re driving 100 km/h awfulsome you kill yourself and other people. So as we create new technologies, we basically stress our human ability to a higher degree. If you think about all of this problems of self-control: of temptation, of misbehavior. The question is, what do we believe, what is the human condition.

I personally believe: We have moments of clarity, we have moments in which we look at ourselves and we say: I don’t want to be obese, I don’t want to die from diabetes, I don’t want to text while driving. And those are important moments for us to understand what we really want from ourselves in the long-term. But then we have our “short-term-self”, which is tempted. We see cheese-cake, we see a movie rather than going to the gym, our phone vibrates while we’re driving. And all of those things are moments, in which we don’t take a long-term consideration into account and fail to temptation at the moment.

And I think the role of both, regulation and technology, is basically to get us to not be the people that we are in the moment. When we fall to temptation and try to get us to be more of the people, when we are when we think long-term. So, you can sit at home, maybe it’s before New Year and you can have all kinds of ideas for yourself – that’s great. Now we need a way to take this hope and aspirations and wishes and implement them into something.

You can think about people as having two sides: we have the long view rational self and we have the short-term irrational myopic emotional self, that often misbehaves and causes tremendous damage to ourselves and to others. The question is in this Jekyll-and-Hyde-kind-of, that caught to me: Who is the right one? And I personally think, that the right one is mostly the long-term side of ourselves, that thinks long terms and has the more rational more thoughtful consideration.

And what we should do is figure out how to suppress these short-term desires. My recipe for humanity is to figure out where our short-term wishes and aspirations and imposes drive us astray and think about ways to overcome them. And I think, if we’ll do it, we’ll get to a much better place.

Read more in this debate: Deirdre McCloskey, Barry Schwartz, Dan Ariely.

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