Enough self-control not to need it


I just finished Willpower, the new book by psychologist Roy Baumeister and NYT columnist John Tierney. My overall take on the book is towards the end of this post. I first was introduced to the science of self-control via the Bloggingheads video above, which I highly recommend. The most fascinating bit to me was the fact that aggregate self-control predicts happiness in couples, but that self-control “opposites” attract. If you’re high self-control, you’ll be attracted to the messy procrastinator, but you’ll be happier with the similarly fastidious, strong-willed mate. Neat stuff, right? So I was pretty excited for this book.

The video made clear that willpower was both a scarce resource in the short term – using it on one thing like resisting food meant you had less of it for something seemingly unrelated like holding your temper – and able to be strengthened over the long term. On any given day you have a finite amount of willpower, but like a muscle it can be strengthened over time.

That got me wondering if there was a tension between self-control and the sort of “choice architecture” pre-commitment devices  tricks recommended by folks like Dan Ariely. If Ariely recommends putting your credit card in ice so you don’t overspend, are you actually foregoing the opportunity to strengthen your self-control, to your long-term detriment?

I emailed philosopher Josh Knobe (from the BhTV video) about this in July 2010, putting it this way:

In the diavlog, you discuss how self-control is finite – at least in the short-term.  Yet, over the long-term it’s something you can exercise and grow.  So hypothetically let’s say I’m the kind of person who would have eaten the marshmallow.  I have low self-control that needs to be dealt with somehow.

One prescription would be to practice self-control and build up my resources there.  But it seems like there’s another solution that’s also being popularized at present, in line with some of the work of behavioral economists including folks like Dan Ariely.  This school of thought seems to suggest that if I have a tendency to make a certain bad decision that jeopardizes my long-term happiness, I can deal with that by taking steps to constrain my future actions, to alter the choices I’ll have to make in ways that make me more likely to make good decisions.

But does this strategy come at the expense of developing needed self-control?

To take a specific example… Say I have a problem with credit card debt.  I just can’t help myself from buying things with my credit card that I can’t afford.  Ariely says I’d be better off just carrying around cash since I feel a twinge of guilt when I pay with it, and I’d be less likely to build up debt.

But in a way, this is skirting the self-control issue.  I’m actively avoiding that circumstance where I lack self-control, which may be missing an opportunity to build up greater stores of it for the future.  You could object that I could still build up self-control in other arenas, while using the cash technique.  But if you consider these two strategies more generally, I still see at least a potential conflict.

So the question is this: in general, will I be better off coming up with tricks and systems to avoid decisions that require significant self-control that I might not have, per Ariely?  Or should I face these decisions head on, and use the practice to build up greater self-control in the long run?

Professor Knobe was kind enough to respond. He didn’t answer definitively but guessed that in practice it wouldn’t end up being a problem (my intuition as well). And yet I remained curious. So I was pleased to see Baumeister and Tierney provided the answer in Willpower:

Self-control is supposedly for resisting desires, so why are the people who have more self-control not using it more often? But then an explanation emerged: These people have less need to use willpower because they’re beset by fewer temptations and inner conflicts. They’re better at arranging their lives so that they avoid problem situations. This explanation jived with the conclusion of another study, by Dutch researchers working with Baumeister, showing that people with good self-control mainly use it not for rescue in emergencies but rather to develop effective habits and routines in school and work. (pg. 239)

So there shouldn’t be any tension here. To change your choice architecture takes self-control. If you’re taking tips about avoiding vices from Ariely or anyone else, you still are getting in your self-control “practice” in instituting the change. And so you build up self-control and then also don’t need to expend it in the face of temptation (since you’ve avoided it). That leaves you with built up discipline to institute new life changes to further avoid temptations, and so on. So in practice it seems clear to me that the tension I’d wondered about doesn’t exist.

So that was nice to finally have settled.

Now, the book in general… I have to say I think this is a mediocre book on a fantastic topic. Baumeister’s research is fascinating and Tierney is an excellent writer, but I felt throughout that the material was just a little thin for filling up a whole book. That’s how I interpreted the inclusion of things like David Blaine or Drew Carey and Oprah’s battles with self-control. They felt a bit like filler. Perhaps I’m wrong, and they were meant to make the book more accessible. But the writing was already admirably accessible and the material incredibly relevant. There seemed to be no need to add these lengthy anecdotes.

There was also a fair amount of confusion and potential contradictions. Am I supposed to only make one goal at a time? Or always have several? Both are recommended at different points. Should I make goals that are “bright lines”, like no drinking, or set realistic goals like cutting back only a little? Both are recommended. These contradictions aren’t inherent; I’m certain that in conversation with Baumeister or Tierney they could explain how these aren’t in tension. But many of these seeming contradictions went unaddressed (some were addressed, to be fair).

This is still worth a read if, like me, you find the subject fascinating. But I couldn’t help but think that it had the meat of about 3 excellent long-form magazine pieces (like the terrific one Tierney did on decision fatigue!) that could have cut out the attempt to read self-control lessons into figures in popular culture and could have been slightly more careful in their recommendations.

But this is stuff you need to learn more about. You’ll get a lot out of the book if you’re not familiar with the subject. If you’re not sold based on my lukewarm review, at least read the Tierney article or watch the BhTV video. As for me, I knew when I came home from work and decided to blog that I was using up willpower, leaving me less available to force myself to go for a run. But I’m going to try to use the last of my glucose – yep, read about it – to get a few miles in.

UPDATE: changed choice architecture to pre-commitment devices, which is a bit clearer. And I did get my run in. Go willpower.

Music as app

The New York Times on Bjork’s latest album, offered as an app/interactive experience:

via Wikipedia

The traditional, linear version of “Biophilia,” released this month, can be downloaded from services like iTunes. The far more exciting option is to acquire the “Biophilia” program from the iPad App Store. Alas, the iPad is the only device that delivers the full experience. But what an experience…

On the iPad screen a galaxy unfolds that you can twist and zoom and pan. Each of the 10 major stars represents a song. When you tap a star, you are offered ways to explore, understand and interact with the tune. There are lyrics and detailed musical analyses. You can watch a scrolling score of the song or simply listen as a colorful visualization passes by.

The real magic happens when you press “play.” That doesn’t tell the machine to play the song; it means it’s time for you to play the song.

Bjork and her team have created a small visual toolbox for each track. A few, like “Crystalline,” play much like a simple video game. In “Crystalline” you tilt and swivel the iPad to add colorful crystals to a growing agglomeration as you zoom along neon tunnels. It is one of the few elements of “Biophilia” in which you are not controlling the sound. Instead you are having a visual and motor-control experience meant to complement it.

Major points here. The one thing I do wonder: sure users can manipulate the songs within the confines/design of the app. But what about outside that? In some sense this seems like a major step forward in terms of producing “music” and offers users a fairly thin set of new options for experiencing it. But do those users really have control to fully reimagine it? Or can they only do so within the narrow mechanics of the artist’s vision? In other words, if listening is the ultimate experience-the-artist’s vision and remixing is creating an entirely new vision, this seems like a middle ground. Still working within the confines of the artist’s vision, but in a new way. So still huge points for creativity. All I’m suggesting is that this might not be a new bar for user control.

Will Google Reader save Google+? Or will G+ ruin RSS?

Becca Rosen has an interesting piece at The Atlantic on Google+:

But two changes Google is making may put a bit of life back into the site. First, Google Reader, the company’s RSS aggregator, will soon be better integrated with the site. You’ll be able to share through Google+, not just through your Reader connections. For people who use Reader, the wall of separation between these two services has always been a frustration.

My first thought is that this could get me active on G+. I’m not very social with Reader (on purpose) but I still do use it. Even with Twitter as my main info feed throughout the day, Reader is my backstop; I check it once a week and make sure I don’t miss anything good. It’s still a staple for me. So the integration could in theory make G+ more appealing. I could see using it as a Tumblr-esque spot, for thoughts and interactions too long for Twitter or Facebook but too short or raw for a blog post.

But here’s Dave Winer, creator of RSS, on the dominance of Reader in the shrinking RSS market:

Google seems to have the power to either seriously injure RSS, or perhaps set it free. Not sure which would happen if they radically changed course. I just know that users have made the other RSS reading tools be dependent on it. And that’s not a great way to do things. What makes RSS useful is its power tode-centralize. To re-centralize it for a little convenience is to miss out on the variety that’s possible if you’re willing to suffer a bit. Software is full of tradeoffs.

He reports that there are rumors of big changes coming to Reader, and I’d imagine G+ integration is one of those. So count me as both nervous and curious. I can imagine Reader/G+ integration working for me, but that’s a small issue. More important is that RSS remains a vibrant technology. What Google does with Reader will have a big impact on the use of RSS.


More to markets than selfishness

My recent Atlantic review of Yochai Benkler’s new book on cooperation and selfishness is heavy on the assumption that evidence of our lack of selfishness poses a real problem for standard free-market models of human behavior. And it surely does. A couple bits from the review:

The Penguin and the Leviathan seeks to dismantle the pervasive assumption that humans are motivated primarily by narrow self-interest. This is a seductive axiom, from standard economic analysis to fields like public-choice theory and game theory.


While most readers should be amenable to this conclusion, it is hard to overstate the extent to which it clashes with economic dogma. Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman chastised his profession in a 2009 essay for “mistaking beauty for truth,” claiming that economists had “turned a blind eye to the limitations of human rationality.” This vision of rationalityassumes the very narrow version of selfish motivation that Benkler deflates, and yet it continues to be central to the practice of economics.

But there’s another aspect here that I had hoped to weave into the review but didn’t because of length and complexity. And that is, basically, that selfishness is only one of the two big, high-level reasons why markets work better than planning. The other piece, arguably of equal if not greater importance, is complexity. Here’s Arnold Kling in a Q&A with (yes) himself:

Q: Why are so many intellectuals hostile to capitalism?

A: Because many intellectuals do not have first-hand knowledge of economics. They have heard that “incentives matter,” and this confirms their impression that capitalism is based on greed. Even intellectuals with training in economics take away from “incentives matter” the message that “we” (meaning intellectuals making policy) should manage, or at least tweak, everyone else’s incentives.

Q: How would you break down that hostility to capitalism?

A: By de-emphasizing “Incentives matter” and instead emphasizing that “unintended consequences matter.” That is the message of Adam Smith. It is the message of Hayek. Once we embed people in complex economic and political systems, selfish intentions can turn out well (because of competition), and good intentions can turn out badly (because of imperfect knowledge).

Dismantling the assumption of selfishness raises problems for free market economics, but one still has to grapple with the Hayekian emphasis on complexity, information, and unintended consequences. I’ve written about this before, as I think the internet also raises some important questions on that assumption too. From that post:

Markets prevail over central planning in large part due to the stupidity cognitive constraints of central planners.  We can only gather and process so much information.  Which means our actions have unforeseen consequences, the future is hard to predict, etc.  Here I’ll lean on Cass Sunstein channelling Hayek in his book Infotopia:

Hayek claims that the great advantage of prices is that they aggregate both the information and the tastes of numerous people, incorporating far more material than could possibly be assembled by any central planner or board… For Hayek, the key economics question is how to incorporate that unorganized and dispersed knowledge.  That problem cannot possibly be solved by any particular person or board.  Central planners cannot have access to all of the knowledge held by particular people.  Taken as a whole, the knowledge held by those people is far greater than that held by even the most well-chosen experts. (pg. 119)

I go on to throw out some thoughts on how the internet is changing the way in which we think about information overload, and how that might be relevant to markets. But the point I want to make here is simple: my review focuses on the problems with selfishness as an assumption, and how that matters for economics. It’s a mistake to ignore the Hayekian side of the free market coin. So, even though I couldn’t fit it in the review, I wanted to raise it here. If I were a free market economist and I wanted to dismiss Benkler, I’d use Hayek.

Not all internet intellectuals are created equal

Evgeny Morozov has a brutal review of Jeff Jarvis’s latest book up at The New Republic. Here’s a quick bit:

HAD JARVIS WRITTEN his book as self-parody—as a cunning attack on the narrow-mindedness of new media academics who trade in pronouncements so pompous, ahistorical, and vacuous that even the nastiest of post-modernists appear lucid and sensible in comparison—it would have been a remarkable accomplishment. But alas, he is serious. This is a book that should have stayed a tweet.

There are at least a dozen equally harsh parts. As it turns out, I’m not a big Jarvis fan. I’ve tried to read his blog before but found it tiring. Morozov uses Jarvis as an intellectual punching bag, picking vapid quotes and highlighting misinterpretations of more serious scholars. To some extent any “public intellectual” can be criticized for not bringing the depth of academic work to bear on the subject, but for my money if you’re looking to balance seriousness and accessibility you can do better than Jarvis. I go to Clay Shirky and Jay Rosen for slightly brainer but still public-facing thoughts on much the same subjects. (Here’s something recent from Shirky that I liked.) And of course, one can go more academic still into Lessig, Benkler, Wu, Zittrain, etc.

More importantly, someone could write a similar screed against anti-internet thinkers like Carr and Keen. But they’d be picking on the weak ones, rather than taking on more able opponents like Morozov or Matt Hindman. So what’s Morozov’s real beef?

Why worry about the growing dominance of such digitalism? The reason should be obvious. As Internet-driven explanations crowd out everything else, our entire vocabulary is being re-defined. Collaboration is re-interpreted through the prism of Wikipedia; communication, through the prism of social networking; democratic participation, through the prism of crowd-sourcing; cosmopolitanism, through the prism of reading the blogs of exotic “others”; political upheaval, through the prism of the so-called Twitter revolutions.

Morozov specifically references Benkler here:

Of course, there is no denying that the Internet alters our ideational and cognitive landscapes. A civilization that prides itself on building a Wikipedia is likely to have certain ideas about democratic participation, cooperation, research, expertise, and human nature. (The title of a 2009 talk by Yochai Benkler, the smartest Internet utopian and in many ways the anti-Jarvis, captures the stakes quite well: “After Selfishness: Wikipedia 1, Hobbes 0 at Half Time.”)

think about Yochai Benkler’s work in a slightly different way. Rather than crowding out, it’s opening doors. We don’t re-interpret collaboration through the prism of Wikipedia, as much as Wikipedia gives us a lens to better understand collaboration. As with all good science, the metric is usefulness. I get Morozov’s worry here, but don’t think it need apply to the quality work being done by serious scholars. In that sense, the problem is the abusers of digitalism, not digitalism itself.

The Progress of Urban Development

This is a quick departure from the blog’s main topics, but I’ve been writing a series for The Atlantic Cities launch, sponsored by Dow, on “The Progress of Urban Development.” The last post went up today, so all 31 are up here. I like some posts better than others, so I thought I’d share a few of my favorites here:

High-Speed Rail and the New Regional Economics

Aside from the particular merits of any individual project, high-speed rail is arguably a crucial component of an economic strategy centered around mega-regions, defined as large, contiguous economic areas containing multiple cities and their surrounding suburbs. As AtlanticSenior Editor and academic Richard Florida has argued, mega-regions are the relevant economic unit for the 21st century. And even a casual comparison between U.S. mega-regions and proposed high-speed rail lines reveals a connection.

How Cities Innovate

Technology is a major driver of economic growth in the modern world. But technological progress is not equally distributed around the globe. It is no accident that web startups are concentrated in Silicon Valley, biotech firms in Boston, and so on. In fact, approximately 20 metropolitan regions account for most of the world’s technological innovation, as measured by patents, an imperfect but widely acknowledged measure. It is no surprise that cities are drivers of technology innovation worldwide, and that a couple dozen cities are disproportionately innovative. Understanding why is crucial for promoting economic growth as well as for informing cities’ strategies for boosting innovation. The economic logic behind this is fairly simple and revolves around the concept of “clusters.”

A World With Fewer Farmers

In 1900, 41% of the U.S. workforce was employed in agriculture. Today, that number isless than 2%. Yet, the sector has kept pace with increasing demand for agricultural goods, thanks in large part to advances in mechanization and labor productivity. To many, these trends are inexplicably linked to the worst features of industrial agriculture, including unsustainable use of pesticides and commercial fertilizers, or to the decline of the family farm. But the relationship between urbanization and agriculture is more complicated. Understanding it is critical to the promotion of sustainable development throughout the world.

What “Food Miles” Misses

Scholars emphasize that assessing the environmental impact of food is an extraordinarily difficult task. But there is agreement that food miles are just one piece of the puzzle. For city dwellers this offers some relief. Eating local is not the end-all-be-all of environmental consciousness. So how can consumers make better food choices? The place to start is agreeing on a common definition for sustainable food production. And life-cycle analysis, though difficult, may offer a path forward. Some have pushed for food labels to include greenhouse gas emissions across the entire life-cycle. Others have emphasized that a price on greenhouse gas emissions would help food prices reflect their environmental impact. Eating sustainably is certainly still up for debate. And asking just how far food traveled to arrive on your plate is still a relevant question. It just isn’t the only one.

Review: The Penguin and the Leviathan

I have a review of Yochai Benkler’s new book up at The Atlantic today. Here’s the gist:

Benkler had described and classified the possible motivations driving Wikipedians in his 2006 tome The Wealth of Networks, in which he analyzed the Internet’s impact on the economics of information. In his new book, The Penguin and the Leviathan, Benkler builds on the lessons of Wikipedia to explain why humans cooperate, and to debunk the notion that we are compelled singularly by mere selfishness. The book is, in his terminology, a response to Wikipedia’s greatest gift. In taking aim at selfishness, Benkler puts in his crosshairs a fundamental tenet of modern economics, and this, ultimately, is what lends the book its relevance and gravity.

It’s a good book, and here’s my bottom line:

Benkler’s guidelines are useful at the micro level, but they are not far enough along to provide much guidance at the macro level. Whatever the merits of the Washington Consensus, it is an actionable macroeconomic agenda in a way The Penguin simply is not. This is not a criticism of Benkler himself, as he has done as much as anyone to push forward these lines of inquiry. But, given his framing, one cannot help but feel frustrated knowing that universal selfishness is both empirically wrong and yet necessarily at the heart of how we make decisions about economic policy.

Benkler’s work is both a formidable refutation of the assumption of narrow selfishness and a useful guide to building successful cooperative projects. And while the false assumption of selfish rationality will for now continue to guide the formal modeling of the macroeconomy, The Penguin and the Leviathan equips readers to begin changing the public conversation on the question of how humans work together. It is comforting to be reminded that most of us are not fundamentally selfish. It is long past time that our institutions in business and government realized as much.

I have some related thoughts to blog on this that I couldn’t fit into the review, but in the meantime, I wrote about much the same subjects last year in my post Markets and Networks.

The case for mockery

Note: this is NOT an endorsement of mocking your political opponents. But Karl Smith has a post at Modeled Behavior from a few days back that I want to address. He writes:

Krugman mocks James Pethokoukis’s reply on business uncertainty and the recovery. I think that mocking is not the best strategy for getting people to give up even ridiculous positions. It raises the cost to them of admitting that they were wrong.

Its like your facing a wrath of zombie ideas and your solution is to tightenmonetary conversation policy. And, I should note that I believe Krugman is doing it for the same reason that people are pushing for tighter monetary policy – he is letting is moral sense get in the way of his practical sense.

People with bad ideas should be mocked. But, intellectual discourse is not a morality play. The goal is to increase understanding, whatever the source of misunderstanding is.

So, how should we be dealing with an idea like “Business uncertainty is the cause of the slow recovery?”

Well, we want to lower the cost to rejecting this idea and so we should divorce rejecting it from rejecting other ideas that people hold dear.

There’s good stuff in here, for sure. In particular, the last line really matters, perhaps in a way beyond Karl’s intention. Divorcing self-worth from the policy idea in question is a crucial part of changing anyone’s mind (as I mentioned in this Atlantic piece, and as Chris Mooney covers here.)

But to take a step back, I think Karl is missing the practical point of mockery. I think the point is not to change the mind of the opponent being mocked. The point is to discredit that person so that others – less stringent in their beliefs – feel pressure not to associate with them by sharing the belief.

Imagine you’re a business person generally open to the idea that regulatory uncertainty is holding back the recovery and you’re at a party where the subject is being discussed. You hold no strong view and so you didn’t start the conversation. But a Krugmanite, whom you know personally, is discussing the issue, taking one of the two potential tacts.

In the Karl Smith scenario, your Krugmanite acquaintance says something like “I’m not sure about this regulatory uncertainty thing. I just can’t see the case for it.”

In the Krugman scenario, the Krugmanite acquaintance says, “I just don’t believe the quacks on the right are still parroting that regulatory uncertainty argument. I mean, the economy is complicated, and heck if I know how to fix it, but these loons keep going back to that argument, despite zero evidence for it.”

It seems possible that in the first scenario, you the undecided business man remain somewhat sympathetic to the regulatory uncertainty argument. It was, after all, framed as being in the realm of debate at least. But in the latter scenario, presuming you have some measure of respect for – and desire to be liked by – your Krugmanite acquaintance, you feel compelled to dismiss it. You might disagree with that Krugmanite on many issues, but perhaps you accept his framing of the debate that the regulatory uncertainty argument is out of bounds.

I happen to think that Krugman, in his mockery, is thinking very practically. Maybe the model I’m describing in favor of mockery works and maybe it doesn’t. And, again, whether it’s justified is a separate question I won’t try to answer here. But I suspect this model is a better explanation for why Krugman and some others (Yglesias?) indulge in mockery of their opponents. The aim is to discredit a certain argument or group of arguers in order to more favorably frame the “legitimate” debate.

Slouching toward Winklevi

My original post lamenting our potential “Age of the Winlevi” is here. And here’s the latest evidence:

Kickstarter is a cool website that you may have heard about. Basically people with ideas can propose them on the site, and then raise funds from a distributed network of Kickstarter readers. It’s not a revolutionary concept, people have been raising money from investors from time immemorial. But with the Internet, it’s easier to reach a kind of broad audience and you can cut out some of the active work of financial intermediation.

It seems, though, that someone already “invented” this idea and wants to sue. In particular, Brian Camelio, who runs an actual site and is by no means a pure troll, holds a patent on “Methods and Apparatuses for Financing and Marketing a Creative Work”

That’s Matt Yglesias. As he said, that’s what we usually call competition. I ended my last post on this with a long Lessig quote. Here’s just part of it:

This is a hard fact for lawyers to understand (protected as they are by exclusionary rules such as the bar exam), but most of production in our society occurs without any guarantee of government protection. Starbucks didn’t get a government monopoly before it risked a great deal of capital to open coffee shops around the world. All it was assured was that people would have to pay for the coffee they sold; the idea of a high-quality coffee shop was free for others to take.

This matters a lot. If we allow ourselves to fall into the trap (or don’t climb out of it, depending on your view) of a Winklevi IP culture, we’re signing innovation’s death warrant.