You are not the boss of you

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - book­world@wash­ Wray Her­bert, the author of “On Sec­ond Thought: Outsmart­ing Your Mind’s Hard­Wired Habits,” writes the “We’re Only Hu­man” col­umn for the As­so­ci­a­tion for Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

WE HAVE MET THE EN­EMY Self-Con­trol in an Age of Ex­cess By Daniel Akst Pen­guin Press. 303 pp. $26.95

My gym is packed right now. It’s harder than usual to find a free tread­mill or bi­cy­cle, and I no­tice lots of new faces in my spin­ning class. I ap­plaud all this en­thu­si­asm for health and fit­ness, and I don’t fret about over­crowd­ing. I know from past years that most of these new­com­ers will be gone by Fe­bru­ary.

I’m not gloat­ing. I’ve had more than my share of failed res­o­lu­tions over the years, so I know that good in­ten­tions go only so far. These folks truly want health­ier hearts, trim­mer bel­lies and more con­sci­en­tious life­styles. Oth­ers truly want to gam­ble less, lust less, drink less whiskey. They just don’t know how to get from here to there. They don’t know how to dig down and find a new re­serve of willpower when hu­man frailty raises its head, as it in­evitably will.

But this is noth­ing less than the hu­man con­di­tion, isn’t it? Know­ing what’s good for us but do­ing some­thing else? It’s fair to say that ev­ery hu­man strug­gles in some way with the tor­ments of self-con­trol, which is why I brought such good will to jour­nal­ist and pop philoso­pher Daniel Akst’s new vol­ume on the topic. And it’s also why I am so deeply dis­ap­pointed with what Akst delivers here.

Akst’s anal­y­sis is flawed on so many lev­els that’s it’s hard to know where to be­gin. But let me be­gin at the end, with his most pre­scrip­tive chap­ter. To be fair, I am go­ing to quote Akst di­rectly to make my com­plaints un­am­bigu­ous. Here, for ex­am­ple, is his ad­vice to peo­ple who eat when they are up­set: “Is it ra­tio­nal to eat just be­cause some­thing is both­er­ing you? If not, then find a way to cut it out.”

Huh? Don’t we all wish that trump­ing an ir­ra­tional and self-de­struc­tive habit were as easy as find­ing “a way to cut it out”? Isn’t that the en­tire dilemma — find­ing a way? It’s not that peo­ple don’t know it’s a bad idea to eat out of worry— or drink, or con­sume porn, or shoot heroin. They just don’t know the “way to cut it out.”

Or how about this: “Maybe the best way to up­hold one’s de­sired de­sires is to form a habit.” Again, huh? Akst’s only ex­am­ple is “Dr. Evil’s habit, in the Austin Pow­ers films, of coyly hold­ing his pinky

My gym is packed right now. I ap­plaud all this en­thu­si­asm for health and fit­ness, and I don’t fret about over­crowd­ing. I know from

past years that most of these new­com­ers will be gone by Fe­bru­ary.

to the corner of his mouth.” But that’s not re­ally a good anal­ogy. It’s more of a tic. While tics and habits are re­lated on a neu­ro­log­i­cal level, it’s sim­plis­tic to sug­gest that we can es­tab­lish com­plex and dif­fi­cult habits, like a rig­or­ous, lon­grange diet and ex­er­cise rou­tine, as eas­ily as we mas­ter, say, the yo-yo. There are good strate­gies for rid­ding our­selves of bad habits and cre­at­ing bet­ter ones, but Akst ap­par­ently doesn’t know them.

Akst is con­fused about some im­por­tant sci­en­tific points. For in­stance, he wor­ries that the over-med­i­cal­iza­tion of our so­ci­ety— the viewthat ev­ery­thing is a dis­ease — has di­min­ished our per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity for our ac­tions. But as an ex­am­ple of this, he be­moans the fact that “sad­ness” has been “med­i­cal­ized as de­pres­sion, and so­ci­ety’s most for­tu­nate mem­bers — rich, well-ed­u­cated white peo­ple—[feel] the need to take so much Prozac, Paxil, and other drugs to get them through their priv­i­leged days.” This per­spec­tive is not only wildly in­ac­cu­rate, it’s an ar­ro­gant and dan­ger­ous viewof a de­bil­i­tat­ing and of­ten fa­tal dis­ease that knows no class bound­aries. Any­one with a pass­ing knowl­edge of mod­ern mental health and psy­cho­log­i­cal sci­ence would know this.

In­deed, Akst be­trays a cer­tain con­tempt for mod­ern sci­ence and its in­sights into self-re­straint, as re­vealed by this state­ment: “I dis­cov­ered that the very best guides to weak­ness of the will held no ten­ure, had no grad­u­ate de­grees, and dealt with the prob­lem [of self-con­trol] with­out mag­netic res­o­nance imag­ing de­vices for peer­ing into the skulls of un­der­grad­u­ates.” He’s re­fer­ring to the an­cient Greeks who, even with­out all the trap­pings of mod­ern sci­ence, “nailed it.”

Ex­cept that they didn’t, re­ally. Akst’s tour through Homer and Aris­to­tle and Plato and Socrates is fairly en­ter­tain­ing, but one doesn’t come away with much that’s help­ful in deal­ing with the dilemma of self-con­trol. Sim­ply know­ing that these philoso­phers taught tem­per­ance and self-mas­tery doesn’t con­vey to us any tools for tem­per­ance and self-mas­tery. Again, we’re missing the “way” to meet real, daily chal­lenges such as get­ting to the gy­mand on the tread­mill, and mov­ing one foot at a time — when we re­ally, re­ally don’t want to.


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