The Paradox of Akrasia 


How to Trick Yourself Into Making Smarter Choices

Imagine what you'll be like one year from now.  Of course you'll be smarter, healthier, and more successful in every possible way.  This is our projected self.  The greater the disparity between our projected self and actual self, the more unhappy we are.  Being unhappy sucks, so it's a no-brainer that as the rational, dopamine-seeking beings that we are, we'll do whatever it takes to align to our projected self... right?   Fast forward a year and odds are you'll be in the same place that you started; no bad habits broken nor good habits kept.  One study found that only 8% of people who set New Year's resolutions accomplish their goals and 44% quit before the first month[0].  Well what happened?  The short story is that we got lazy.  Despite our best intentions, we slowly fall into our old ways.  Quitting after gaining new information is not always a bad thing.  Maybe you learn that running a marathon is just not your thing; that's okay.  However, if you truly want to accomplish something, you shouldn't let laziness become your hurdle.

Why are we lazy?

Like all successful species we're built to reproduce.  The intelligence of our human brain took us leaps and bounds past other species in optimizing for the ability to survive and therein become efficient reproducers.  This generic tool did a great service for the reproductive capability of the species, but there was no way to restrict it to only focus on reproduction.  Of course our genes didn't build a brain without strings attached.  The genes have engineered a brain that could be manipulated in real time with the help of neurotransmitters; dopamine, which heightens the attraction between individuals, oxytocin, the "cuddle hormone", and norepinephrine to get us out of bed in the morning, just to name a few.  Sometimes you can actually feel the different "strings" being pulled.  "Directly after copulation, the devil's laughter is heard".  The "devil's laughter" that Schopenhauer is referring to is the realization that despite our higher intelligence, we're still slaves to our genes.  Because our genes are optimizing for reproduction we often act in a ways that does not rationally align with our goals (which I presume is more than just making babies).

Laziness is another example of a genes vs intelligence conflict.  To conserve precious calories (wild cheese burgers are hard to come by) we're genetically wired to be lazy; however we're ironically miserable as a result of our laziness.  In a study from the University of Chicago[1], when given the option to wait 15 minutes at the current location or make a 15 minute round-trip walk to another location to submit a paper, only 32% of participants chose to make the walk.  They performed a separate experiment where they did not give the participants an option but instead randomly chose some participants to stay idle and some to make the walk to the more distant location.  The participants that were forced to walk reported higher satisfaction in the experience than the people who stayed.  Is it that we are bad at predicting the type of things that makes us happy?  According to the study, that's not the case.  A third group of participants were asked to predict which task would lead to greater happiness.  A majority of the participants accurately predicted that the busy task would produce greater happiness than the idle task.  The paradox is that we will willingly choose the path of least happiness.  Laziness is that disagreeable friend of our business partner (our genes) whom we're forced to hang out with simply because we share the same investment.

It might be a bit depressing realizing that when it comes to laziness, the cards are stacked against us.  It's true that if we're optimizing for the intelligent self, too often weaknesses are introduced by the selfish drive of the genes.  However, occasionally there's a silver lining and we can make these weaknesses our allies.  Here are three examples of how you can make human fallacies work in your favor, specifically to help with self control.

Nudging to a Better Tomorrow

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein describe a way to leverage our laziness for good.  The idea of a "nudge" is to set a steady-state which is likely optimal for the individual.  In order to move away from this optimal steady state, it requires work; which our lazy selves are reluctant to do.  For example, many people find it hard to have the self-control to save money for retirement.  A study published in 2011 by the National Bureau of Economics[2] found that nearly half of US citizens could not cope with an unexpected cost of $2000, even if they were given one month to do so... WTF!  To help mitigate this terrifying vulnerability, Thaler and Sunstein recommend that employers create expertly designed default retirement plans for their employees[3].  These retirement plans would be near optimal for a majority of the employees and would require some extra work on the employees behalf to opt out for a different plan.

Keep reading, you've already come this far...

The sunk cost fallacy is the propensity for humans to allow their past investments to influence their future ones.  When investing in stocks, the amount of money you have lost [or gained] should not influence your current decision to buy or sell.  Our decision should only be affected by our prediction of the future price, yet we all have a little voice rationalizing, "I've already invested so much, I should continue investing to see it out".  However, the sunk cost fallacy can sometimes work in your favor.  Exercise is an investment of time and effort.  What you eat and future investments in exercise should be made independent of the cost you've already sunk.  However, the sunk cost fallacy will make it more likely that you will eat healthy and continue exercising so that you can reinforce the idea that your previous investment was not wasted.

Pain in the Butt

Your past reality is what you remember it to be.  We're more or less likely to perform the same task based on how pleasant or painful we remember that task to be.  Multiple experiments have found that your memory of a certain task is independent of the duration of the task.  What matters most in the way we remember an experience is the peak pain and the very last moments of the experience (sometimes this is referred to as the peak-end rule).  A study by Kahneman, Redelmeier, and Katz found that colonoscopy patients rated the experience as less painful and were more likely to return simply by leaving the scope in an extra three, unnecessary minutes[4]!  This extra three minutes minutes of doing literally nothing made the end of the experience less painful, causing the memory of the event to be regarded as more pleasant.  

Often we choose the lazy route because we dread a task due to its inherent unpleasantness.  The duration neglect bias would tell us that when performing such a task, we should extend the duration as long as possible to get the most done, while trying to evenly distribute the discomfort and minimize the displeasure at the end of the task.

Your turn

Have other nifty examples on how to trick your brain into submission?  Add them to the comments.

See Also

Save Me From Myself: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Schopenhauer's Philosophy
Escalation of Commitment


[0] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/223679624_The_resolution_solution_Longitudinal_examination_of_New_Year's_change_attempts
[1] http://home.uchicago.edu/~xyang4/papers/Idleness%20Aversion.pdf
[2] http://www.nber.org/papers/w17072
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nudge_(book)#Retirement_saving
[4] https://www.amherst.edu/system/files/media/0678/colonoscopy%25202.pdf