Wilson Quarterly contributing editor Daniel Akst’s new book We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess hit bookstore shelves earlier this month, just in time to bolster our resolve to keep our New Year’s resolutions. Associate editor Rebecca J. Rosen asked him about self-control and what we can all do to get a little more of it.
Self-control, or lack thereof, is a common thread running through a remarkable array of American social ills, from big problems such as obesity (no pun intended) and debt, to seemingly smaller challenges such as procrastination. How did you first begin to see that these disparate concerns were all related?
About 15 years ago I wrote the first—and perhaps only—novel in the English language that used stomach-reduction surgery as a plot device. St. Burl’s Obituary
was about a great fat man who becomes unrecognizably thin and then investigates his former life incognito. In those days bariatric surgery was a rare and dangerous thing, unknown to the general public. Now there are something like 220,000 such procedures a year in this country alone. It’s astounding, really. Anyway, as a result of St. Burl I was often asked to write about obesity, and my interest in the appetites began to grow. I also had an enduring interest in the subject of risk. These interests of mine came together when I realized that many of the same people who worry about terrorist attacks and strangers abducting their kids (both probably as likely to occur as a lightning strike) ignore the much more serious risks posed by their forks and cocktail shakers and cigarette lighters. Smoking alone claims 443,000 American lives annually, at least according to the Centers for Disease Control. And we know that a lot of these people want to quit—which means they have a self-control problem. Certainly no one wants to be obese, yet this too takes a terrible toll. It began to seem that we were all embarked on some kind of slow-motion suicide. Why should this be the case? And are things worse in this respect now than before? These are the questions I address in the book.
What role does marketing play in our tendency to overconsume?
Its role is of course very large, and this leads us to an overarching issue: the nature of capitalism. You can’t blame companies for trying to sell us things, and the reality is that it’s much easier and more profitable to appeal to our short-term desires than our long-term ones, since we give disproportionate weight to short-term rewards. But it’s important to note that capitalism is a double-edged sword. In our work lives it inculcates moderation, punctuality, thoughtfulness, planning, and a generally future-oriented outlook, as Adam Smith pointed out. The problem is that in our lives as consumers it fosters the very opposite, whispering to us to go ahead, cut loose, do it now, you deserve it, you’re entitled, etc. But capitalism is just freedom practiced in the marketplace, and so we are stuck with it. I sure hope so, since the alternatives are undoubtedly worse. I’ve said elsewhere that self-control is a wonderful problem, because it’s the problem of freedom, and it’s great to be free. But it’s a problem nonetheless, and capitalism plays a large (and complex) role.
Do you see any upsides to our impulsive nature?
Certainly it has some advantages, evolutionary and otherwise. Our impulses—our instincts—help us survive, give us a basis for moral choices, and are often a very good guide for behavior. A great example, to me, is Huck Finn. His considered course of action, when he’s rafting down the Mississippi with the runaway slave Jim, is to turn his companion in, and he beats himself for his reluctance to do so. Self-controlled Huck, in other words, wants to hand Jim over the authorities, and at one point actually sets out to do so. But he can’t bring himself to go through with it. In this case he and Jim are both rescued from his faulty “second order” preference, or the desire he would prefer to have, by his humane instinct to protect his friend.
We all know people who have remarkable self-control. How do they do it? Any tips for the rest of us?
Most of us, in some sense, have remarkable self-control. We aren’t throwing ourselves at one another in the streets, or slapping the boss when we’re pissed off, or otherwise behaving as if we’re guided only by raw instinct. But clearly some people have more success than others do at regulating their appetites. What’s the secret? I’m afraid it’s partly genetic, but fortunately that’s not the whole story. If you want to do a better job in this arena, the short answer is that to control yourself you must control your environment. You must also enlist others. And you must transform the problem from one of willpower to one of skill. Find ways to commit yourself—irrevocably—to your desired behaviors. Raise the price of the behaviors you want to avoid. In short, treat yourself (as B. F. Skinner did) as a kind of lab rat on the self-management front, and you’ll be surprised at the success you’ll have.