If posts so far in January are any indication, we’ll spend some of the year ping-ponging between the always-intriguing topic of personal change and the various recipes for change cooked up by the presidential candidates. And as I’ve noted here, I’m increasingly convinced that personal change and societal change may be much more closely linked than we generally think.
I just did a magazine interview with Dan Ariely, the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of behavioral economics at MIT. He has a new book called Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.
Behavioral economics challenges the traditional, Adam Smithian model of standard economics, which views people as thoroughly rational bean-counters who reliably compute the value of all the options we face and make the best decision to advance our interests. As Ariely notes, generations of economists have used this model of human psychology to reach conclusions about the effects of pricing, taxation, health-care policies and more.
Behavioral economics teaches that pursuit of our reasonable goals is constantly sidetracked by irrational behaviors, those “hidden forces” of his title. We’re not only irrational, but predictably irrational–our irrationality happens the same way, again and again. Caught up in the hustle of everyday experience, we may not even notice that we’re subverting ourselves yet again.
One lesson I took from the book brought me back to a discussion I had with friend and fellow blogger The Fab Sage a few years ago. It was probably around the New Year, when we typically engage in weeks of e-mail discussion of New Year’s resolutions, sketching out all the things we’d like to do better or not do at all once the calendar rolls over. (This is usually followed by weeks of recriminations when the hoped-for changes don’t materialize.)
He was talking about the failure of knowledge and “will power” alone to produce change, and I popped up with something like this:
“What if you sent me $500 along with a list of the organizations or public figures you cannot stand–lobbyists, pressure groups, noxious celebrities? Then you set up your renewal plan for the year. Would you like to be running a 15-minute mile by March 1? Okay. Start your training. Give me a series of weekly goals. And if you don’t make those weekly goals, I’m sending $100 a week to an organization you believe is ruining America. Want to lose 10 pounds by April 15? Start munching the lettuce, or get ready to send your hard-earned cash to your enemies.”
Setting up a penalty system like this would get us out of a very familiar, irrational trap that constantly snares us. Suppose we want to lose 10 pounds. Of course we know that gooey snacks should be the first thing to go. But we’re at a restaurant, and they bring the dessert tray, and geeeeeeee…..look at that creme brule! Why couldn’t the diet start next week?
Look at what we’ve done to ourselves. We’ve set up a choice between the certainty of instant pleasure delivered by a great dessert vs. the distant and almost theoretical pain of a burgeoning waistline. Raise this glass of wine or pastry to your lips and you will experience, right now, a reward. Oh, sure, waaaayyyy down the road you may knock off a few brain cells, or gain a couple of pounds, but that’s nothing compared to the instant gratification of the treat you’re having now. And now almost always wins, because now is now, while “then”. . . well, “then” may never happen, right?
If we were thoroughly rational creatures, of course, we’d just focus on the distant goal of losing the ten pounds, do the pros and cons, and realize that the gooey sweet thing does not fit the program. But we’re not throughly rational in those “hot states” of temptation and desire. So we need to even up the scales by creating more punishments for not doing what we know, in our rational minds, we should do.
Every diet book ever written could be tossed in the garbage if we had a powerful set of fast-acting disincentives, because all such books have the same premise: Give up this great sensation now, and weeks or months down the road, something good will happen. But, as all cheating dieters know, if you do gobble the fattening goodies, nothing bad will happen right now.
So. Is there a politician, company or interest group you simply cannot imagine supporting? The ACLU? Focus on the Family? The National Rifle Association? PETA? Greenpeace? Fox News? R. J. Reynolds?
Set up a deal with a spouse, friend or coworker. Write out the checks. Then get started on that diet, exercise plan or other grand scheme. I bet this time it works.