I discount the idea of the self more than most people. I don’t think that it is useful to think about ourselves as definable individuals the way most people do, and as a result, I don’t think self-control, discipline, and individual responsibility should be as prominent in our economic and political systems as we make them. From my perspective, the systems, structures, and environmental conditions of our lives shape our decisions and behaviors to a much greater extent than I think most people want to admit.
Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler provide evidence that supports my position in their book Nudge. Sunstein and Thaler write about the hot-cold empathy gap which describes how much self-control we predict we will have when we imagine a temptation versus how much self control we actually have when faced with a temptation. It is easy to say that we are going to limit how many sweets we eat at a Christmas party when we are still at home, getting ready to leave. But once we have arrived at the party and smell fresh baked cookies and pies, our self-control is effectively thrown out the window.
“When in a cold state,” write Sunstein and Thaler, “we do not appreciate how much our desires and our behavior will be altered when we are under the influence of arousal. As a result, our behavior reflects a certain naivete about the effects that context can have on choice.”
What is important to take away from this quote is that there is a disconnect between the way we expect to behave and the choices we expect to make and the actual behaviors and decisions of the moment. I believe that systems and structures matter a lot, but if we set up certain systems and structures in our lives without recognizing how hard it will be to actually make the choices and decisions that we expect to make, then we have not actually built any type of system or structure that we can be successful within. We can buy all the swiss chard that we want and write out a weekly menu full of healthy foods, but if we buy a pack of Oreos at the store convinced that we will only eat one a day for dessert, we will be unlikely to actually stick to our plan at 2:30 on Wednesday afternoon when we crave something sweet.
Environmental effects are important and often overlooked when we think about our decisions and behaviors. This is because our reflection is done in a cold state when we are not tempted by mindless TV, cookies, or sleeping in for an extra hour. If we want to be successful and develop systems and structures that will actually encourage self-control and good decision-making, then we have to predict how we will feel when we are in hot states, and we have to arrange our environment in a way that completely prevents the choices we want to avoid. We can’t have Oreos in the house at all, we have to install a website blocker to stop us from browsing social media, and we have to place the alarm away from the bed, so we have to actually get up when it goes off. Expecting that our self-control will hold is a good way to fail when temptation is all around.