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We Have Met The Enemy

Self Control In An Age of Excess

Daniel Ekst

Greg Kilgore sells motorized toilets for fat people. Very fat people. His Liftseat 600 is so-named because it will smoothly raise a 600lb person to a standing position. The next model will be lift 750lbs .... because there is a demand. He also sells a clever inflatable mattress which can elevate obese people without endangering caregivers. It is rated for 1700lbs - not far short of a ton.

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A generation ago, bariatric (aka stomach stapling) surgery was rare. Today it is so common that a whole industry has sprung up around it. Med centers that do nothing else, finance companies to help them pay for it, websites and companies that 'take away the roadblocks to getting the patient to the table.'

The problem is that temptation is everywhere today: credit cards for all; legalised gambling with lotto and casinos; fast food outlets.

But social restraints are no longer there. Protestant/Puritan traditions mean a lot less; Victorian conformity gone. Western society sees itself as liberated from backbreaking labour, prefabricated sex roles, and taboos against physical pleasure.

We have been battling self control since Adam and Eve.

Americans seem obsessed with safety, with their bike helmets and laws, yet as a people they're on a slow-motion suicide trip. Dangerous habits such as smoking, drinking too much, eating the wrong foods and having risky sex are blamed for about half of all American deaths.

Probably nothing better captures the essence of self-control than humanity's struggle with weight. Just a generation ago, the world's biggest food problem was hunger, but today there are more obese people than starving.

The price of calories is at an all-time low. 1919 the average American had to work 2and 1/2 hrs to buy a 3lb chicken. Today it takes 15 minutes, and it comes already plucked. ("OK I've plucked and stuffed the chicken, you can kill it and cook it") Americans never used to eat French fries because they were so labor intensive to prepare. But modern technology makes frozen fries cheaply, and potato consumption has soured.

Most insured Americans regularly take at least one prescription medicine, mostly for obesity related blood pressure or cholesterol pills. Much rather pop a pill than get up off the couch and exercise.

Each year a million people commit suicide - more than are murdered. Suicide decisions are rarely well considered, invariably impulsive. Having a gun in the house makes it easy to gratify the impulse. Even just storing ammo in different room can provide a crucial break to give the person time to calm down.

Lot of evidence to support idea that taking away the easy means of killing yourself reduces suicide. Bridge in Washington DC - they put up safety barriers, stopping all suicides there, and no increase in suicide rates elsewhere. UK changed from coal gas (CO2 poisoning)to natural gas 1970's, and suicide rate dropped by a fifth.

Can hire people to stop yourself giving in to temptation. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner) was an opium addict; he paid strong men to keep him clean. US firm Hired Power professional sobriety minders, often former drug or drink addicts. Odysseus and the Sirens: tie yourself to the mast so you can hear but not be swayed.

Pre-commitment works because of our 'time inconsistency' - we have good intentions when we're cold and rational, but when temptation is immediately at hand, we succumb.

Pre-commitment has to be binding to work. Alcoholics can take Antabuse, which makes you sick if you drink. But you have to take it every day, which means a new act of will is required every day, which is why Antabuse implants, which last a year, invented.

Most extreme form of pre-commitment was in Cold War, when one country would let the others know that any nuclear attack would automatically trigger massive retaliation that you had no power to halt. (for married people who want a bit of action on the side) has motto "Life's short, have an affair" yet the reality is, life has never been longer.

One self-disciplining act is Covenant Eyes, which you install yourself. It tracks all the websites you visit, and emails the list to an 'accountability partner' who cd be yr partner, pastor or yr mother. You can uninstall it, but that fact is also emailed to the partner.

We are faced with invisible prices - top up cards for phones or metro rides etc. We no longer pay attention to prices which just get auto-deducted.

Society has changed - premarital sex is taken for granted, as is birth control. A little adolescent experimentation with drugs is permissible; homosexuality is accepted. A tectonic shift away from tradition toward personal choice. Same with money - although plenty of people ready to criticize affluenza, nobody craves the opposite.

Result of all these changes is that each of us must rely more on ourselves for the kind of restraint that was once imposed externally.

'Anomie': lacking clear norms or standards.

Once boys in shorts yearned to dress like men; now grown men try to dress like boys.

There are 2 states of matrimony in the US - one for those with an education, and a much less stable one for those without. Education is associated with better impulse control. Americans have a shorter wait for no-fault divorce than in any other country, and speed kills self-control. Not so much that the law has changed, as social pressure. A little social pressure can do a lot of good, as in the campaign against smoking, and as in that case, third parties benefit.

American studies found that female suicide rates down 20% in states which allowed unilateral divorce. Murder rates also declined so much that couldn't be just bad relationships ending, but that continuing relationships also improved.

Aristotle's idea of a flourishing life - avoiding both excess and deficiency. A good life is not the zealot's self- denial or the hedonist's constant pursuit of pleasure.

Getting it right takes constant practice. Cultivating good habits means piling one good deed on top of another. Each good choice increases the likelihood of future good choices

Refrain tonight
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence
The next more easy

For use almost can change the stamp of nature
And either master the devil, or throw him out (Hamlet)

Aristotle understood that living the non-excessive life puts a huge burden on ourselves, so he emphasized the need for a few good friends.

Ignorance is not an excuse, unless it's the particular type of ignorance such as shooting an enemy because you haven't learned of a ceasefire yet.

Ignorance induced by drunkenness or rage is simply inadmissible.

If make people think of self-control by getting them to unscramble sentences about it, they immediately make healthier snack choices than if given sentences about self-indulgence.

We are inconsistent - we take credit for worthy actions while blaming outside agencies for the unworthy things we do. Aristotle thought we ought to claim both equally.

He saw 2 types of weakness: 'asthemia' - doing something bad while knowing what is right - eg resolve to diet but find an excuse for gluttony and 'propeteia' or impetuosity - acting without thinking - led blindly by your impulses.

Social rituals to help manage appetite - Greek drinking parties where wine always diluted with water, the pace of drinking was controlled, and the number of drinks limited. Aim was socilaizing rather than inebriation.

Don't Eat The Marshmallow T-shirts

Table with 2 plates and a bell. One plate had 1 marshmallow, the other had 2. When the experimenter left the room the kid has a choice. He can either wait until guy comes back and get two marshmallows, or he can ring the bell and summon him, and get 1 marshmallow. What mattered was what went on in the kid's head. If he thought about how delicious the marshmallow would be, he wouldn't last a minute. But if he thought about it being a puffy cotton ball or a cloud floating past, he could wait 20 minutes. Or, turn his back or hide under table.

Those who cd wait at 4 yo, were, 10 years later, more academic and socially competent, more able to cope with frustration ,and more able to resist temptation.

Self control same as most things - the wiring makes a difference, the experience makes a difference. And the wiring and the experience interact and change each other.

Clear evidence that the ability to delay gratification is linked to higher intelligence, more social responsibility and more ambition for achievement.

Underachievement at school in US blamed on many things - poor teachers or textbooks, large class sizes, race, low family income, absent fathers etc. But by far the greatest correlation is self-control. American kids have trouble making choices that require them to sacrifice short term pleasure for long-term gain.

Can teach self-control - disciplines such as martial arts, music lessons or anything that requires sustained attention.

Many kids diagnosed ADHD have simply never learned self-control.

'Hot' and 'Cold' - when we're Cold (rational) we seriously underestimate power of the hot state to shape our own behaviour; we underestimate power on other people's behaviour; we can't understand the 'hot' actions we've taken in the past, and when we're hot we're numb to our cold selves.

But we need both sides - people with damaged to prefrontal cortex, which controls both emotions and decision-making, lose not only their emotions, but also the ability to make the most basic decisions.

Supernormal stimuli - exaggerated characteristics preferred to real: geese will try to retrieve a volleyball to the nest if it has the right colours and markings; a bird will feed a fake chick in preference to its own if the fake's beak opens wider and has more dramatic colouring.

Humans today live in a world of supernormal stimuli - heavily sweetened drinks, large breast implants, big screen larger-than-lfe films, mesmerizing computer games. We didn't evolve to cope with a world where we could get sweet, high cal foods at a moment's notice, encounter thousands of strangers, many of them undressed, in a single afternoon, or spend next year's earnings with a few swipes of plastic.

Experimenter greets participants holding a drink, which he casually asks them to hold while he writes something down. Then they are asked to rate someone based on a list of their characteristics. Those given a hot drink to hold rated person warmer than those given a cold drink.

Expose people to a list of words related to rudeness, and they are far more likely to interrupt a later conversation. Prime them with words related to old age and they'll walk more slowly down hall afterwards. Play an investment game with a briefcase on the table and they'll be stingier than if it's a backpack. Fill out a questionnaire in a room with a faint smell of citrus disinfectant and you'll be 3 times more likely to tidy up afterwards.

Macbeth effect: asked one group to recall a time when they'd acted unethically, control group just recall day at park. Then given list of words with letters missing, which they had to complete. Possible completions were wash/wish shower/shaker soap/step. Ones who'd thought of unethical behaviour chose clean associated words.

A second study had groups copying out a story. Half got a story about helping someone, half about sabotaging. Then had to rate a list of products, some cleansing, some not. The ones who'd copied the sabotage story rated cleaning products much higher than others, where the control group had no preference.

Third study had same writing task, and were then given choice of reward - either a pencil or antiseptic wipe. Ones who'd read sabotage story, 2 out of 3 chose the antiseptic. Those who'd read helping story chose pencil 2 out of 3.

So this is the Macbeth Effect - exposure to either your own or others moral transgressions stimulates a need for physical cleaning.

'Mindless eating': we are strongly influenced by external cues, though we all deny that we are. Eat more in low light, if given bigger portions, and if in company of other big eaters.

In every culture men are more violent and impulsive. Women are more religious and better able to defer gratification.

So many unseen factors influence action and control that we should give up the idea that we have freedom of action. What we have is veto power - not 'free will' but 'free won't'.

The amount of self control people can muster is strongly responsive to rewards and punishment.

We have problems with time. First ask someone if prefer $10 now or $12 in 3 weeks. Ones who choose '$10 now' are asked if prefer $10 in 20 weeks or $12 in 23 weeks. They will all choose $12 option, even though the wait is exactly the same.

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General Theory of Crime suggested by Gottredson and Hirschi. Idea that crime caused by poor self control. Most crimes take little time or effort, and provide immediate (though limited) gratification. Criminals are also more likely to be involved in other marginal and self-destructive behaviour - smoking, abuse drugs, fight, miss school - and tend to have a lot of accidents: car crashes, fires, unwanted pregnancies.

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Anger can be controlled. Set aside a sum of money that you will give away if you allow yourself to be angered. Enough to make yourself think twice before losing the plot.

Small co-operative societies are intolerant of anger, whereas others as in US, seem to think it's a sign of authenticity. Problem that venting anger seems to escalate it. The physical manifestation of an emotion magnifies it. (You can cheer people up by forcing them to smile by gripping pencil between their teeth). Repressing the outward signs softens the emotion. You don't lose control, you abandon it.

Addictions could be seen as a self control issue, because they are actually on the continuum of normal appetite. No more stark contrast between short term and long term preferences. And doubt that you can call addiction a disease because you can influence an addict with incentives, whereas not with cystic fibrosis. Most addicts are not truly compelled, since most manage to quit even without outside help. One study found that only 12% of heroin addicted Vietnam vets still hooked 3 years after returning to US. When stress of combat duty ended, so did most of the compulsion.

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Addicts respond to incentives. It turns out that rehab treatment for drug abuse has very low success rate - except for pilots and doctors, who afterwards face random testing and potential loss of their licenses and careers. And it doesn't have to be threat of big punishment - very small payments/movie tickets can be enough.

'Peanuts' effect - one more cigarette or one more drink is peanuts in the grand scheme of things, but the cumulative effect of the choices adds up.

Procrastination classic failure of self control because procrastinators always have a strong preference not to delay. Some tactics: Demosthenes embarrassed himself into seclusion to practice speaking by shaving off half his hair and not wanting to be seen in public. A writer posted an embarrassing pic on Facebook page and vowed to leave it there until finished his book. Victor Hugo had his valet lock up his clothes so that he had to stay in and write. precommitment website. Can even have a double kicker - if you fail, you not only lose your money, it goes to a group you hate. One woman who signed up for a $10 fine if ate any sugary foods admitted to eating some gingerbread "I only had a little piece, but now I'm feeling that since it cost me $10 I should have had the whole thing."

Should give up the naive idea that we will ever have perfect self control and instead set up lives to rely as little as possible on will power in the face of temptation.

'Ego depletion' studies - researcher asks people to exercise self-control by resisting a plate of chocolate biscuits, then present another self-control task. The depleted ones always perform worse on second task than control group who hadn't faced earlier temptation.

This suggests that perhaps part of our modern problem is that today we are faced with so many temptations that we are in a permanently depleted state.

Telling lies has same effect as resisting choc biscuits. Depletes self control resources, and so do worse at second task.

You can use guilt - a mirror above an honesty box makes a big difference.

Albert Ellis founder of cognitive behavioural therapy. As a 19 yo forced himself to overcome shyness by speaking to every woman he found sitting by herself in New York Botanical Gardens.(He spoke to 130 women, and although only got one date, "no-one called the cops on me.")

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Idea of CBT is to not spend years trying to get to the bottom of the causes of your behaviour, but to change your thinking about the problem. Focus on the things you can control.

(Author's comment: "If I had told my wife not to let me have a drink in the evenings unless I could show her 3 new pages from the day's work, this book might have been in your hands months sooner. If she had withheld sex, it would have been done in 2007.")

In America, you are either Homer Simpson or Ned Flanders. Homer is a slave to his appetites most of the time, although his fat-clogged heart is in the right place. Ned is a paragon of self control, but only because he is in thrall to a cultish view of religion.

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