Breakdown of will

This post is a reflection on George Ainslie’s book, Breakdown of Will.

Breakdown of Will orbits around a few really basic questions: Why do we feel like we need willpower at all? Why does it take so much effort to resist temptation? How can we make sense of the fact that people’s preferences are super inconsistent over time, and why is it that people so often undermine their own long-term goals?

In order to understand this bizarre behavior, we have to put aside some pretty foundational assumptions about identity. Most people live their lives in the first-person singular. You’re supposed to “be yourself” and “follow your passion” and “go with your gut"—as if there’s only one "you” that can be uncovered with enough introspection. The foundational assumption in Breakdown of Will is that we should stop thinking about the self as a singular entity. It’s better understood as an internal marketplace of competing interests—a mini society inside your mind that’s constantly at war with itself. There are a few examples of this idea in pop culture: the devil and the angel on your shoulder, the alter ego, Jekyll and Hyde. But Breakdown of Will takes this model of selfhood to the extreme.

Delaying gratification

Each one of us contains a lot of short- and long-term preferences that are always competing with one another. To go to bed on time or to stay up late? To drink or to stay sober? To eat the donut or the carrot? It turns out that there are some remarkably consistent patterns in how people make these trade-offs. Behavioral economists have created a model that pretty accurately describes how we choose between immediate and distant rewards. The easiest way to understand this model is to try a little thought experiment. Answer these two questions for yourself:

  1. Would you prefer $1,000 today or $2,000 a year from now?
  2. Would you prefer $1,000 five years from now, or $2,000 six years from now?

Most people choose $1,000 in the first scenario and $2,000 in the second scenario. This is because it’s easier to delay gratification when you’re comparing two options that are very far away (five vs. six years) than when you’re comparing two options that are very near (now vs. a year from now). The fancy academic term for this psychological bias is hyperbolic discounting.

Here’s a more everyday example: when I wake up feeling exhausted, I promise myself that I’ll go to bed at 10pm come nighttime. It’s easy to set this goal when night feels far away. By the time 10pm actually rolls around, I want to spend a few more minutes on Twitter. And before I know it, another hour has gone by. It’s easier for me to value a good night’s sleep at a distance (i.e. when I wake up in the morning) than when the choice is at hand (i.e. when I want to spend just a few more minutes on Twitter).

In general, we know that people are biased towards earlier, smaller rewards over later, larger rewards. How, then, do people manage to defend long-range interests against temporary preferences? Some people use external commitment tactics, like refusing to stock junk food in the kitchen. Some use third-party accountability, like public declarations of goals. Still others use physical devices, like pills that reduce appetite.

But the strongest and most versatile tactic seems to be raw willpower. People set rules or resolutions for themselves and adhere to them through sheer force of will. It’s surprising that the mere act of making up a rule can be such an effective antidote to impulsiveness. Why does this work, and what does it really mean to use willpower?

A mistaken metaphor

Breakdown of Will’s main insight is that we’re using the wrong metaphor to describe what the will actually is and how it works. Traditionally, we’ve thought about it as a kind of muscle that can be strengthened through repeated exercise—or as a corporate executive who can give orders directly to employees. Hence the term “willpower.”

In actuality, the will is more like a bargaining game or a “limited war” among your present and future selves. Limited warfare is the relationship of bargaining agents who have some incompatible goals, but also some common goals. For example: “countries want to win trade advantages from each together while avoiding trade war; merchants want to win customers from each other while lobbying for the same commercial legislation; a husband wants to vacation in the mountains and his wife wants to vacation at the shore, but neither wants to spoil the vacation by fighting; a person today wants to stay sober tomorrow night and tomorrow night will want to get drunk, but from neither standpoint does she want to become an alcoholic.”

The will to stick to a diet has the same nature as the “will” of nations not to use nuclear weapons. It’s not a muscle or organ that you can locate in a specific place, but a distributed network of cooperation among competing and shared interests. It hangs in the balance. (An aside for game theory nerds: the structure of this bargaining situation is a lot like an iterated prisoner’s dilemma).

Mutually assured destruction

Just as nations use trade agreements to cooperate with other nations, individuals use personal rules or resolutions to “cooperate” with future versions of themselves. What makes these agreements work for both nations and individuals is shared expectations about future behavior. For nations: they don’t use weapons of mass destruction because they expect that no one else will use them. Continued peace depends on the mutually shared belief that other nations also want continued peace. If these beliefs start to falter, the whole situation can quickly destabilize and devolve into an all out war.

How does this apply to individuals? Imagine you’ve just committed to a new personal rule: you’re going to go on a diet. You start off expecting that you’ll stick to it in the future as long as you stick to it now. Every time you sit down to eat, you’re putting your credibility with yourself on the line. In order to stay motivated, you must preserve your expectation that you’ll continue to stick to the diet in the future. Like nuclear-armed nations, your present and future selves “cooperate” with one another through shared expectations about each other’s behavior. They share some goals, but not all. Making the better long-range choice (e.g. the carrot instead of the donut) represents cooperation. Giving into temptation represents defection. If your expectations of continued cooperation start to falter, the whole diet can destabilize and devolve into unhealthy eating habits.

Personal rules represent self-enforcing contracts with your future motivational states; such contracts depend on your seeing each current choice as a precedent that predicts how you’re apt to choose among similar options in the future. Short-range interests evade personal rules by proposing exceptions that might keep the present case from setting a precedent. The will is a recursive process that bets the expected value of your future self-control against each of your successive temptations.

Although your future selves can’t punish you today in the same way that nations can punish each other, “the threat that weighs on your current self’s choice is the risk of losing your current stake in the outcomes that future selves obtain.” In other words, when you break a personal rule, you risk losing credibility with yourself and you make it more likely that your future self will ignore your current preferences altogether. In order to have willpower, you have to believe that your future selves will continue to cooperate with you. If you don’t, you’ll lack the motivation—the will—to strive towards your goal. And so, self-control is really a matter of self-prediction.

Is this real life

By now, this theory of willpower seems quite complicated and removed from reality. Most people don’t go around setting explicit personal rules for themselves, and they definitely don’t think of themselves as bargaining across time. How can a mental model that feels so non-intuitive be anything close to correct?

Breakdown of Will’s clever response to this critique: we often experience our personal rules as social norms or facts about the world rather than explicit resolutions like the ones we make on New Years. Some examples:

How can these rules develop in people who don’t explicitly set them? For an explanation of this process, Breakdown of Will turns to common law. It’s a handy example of how social rules can evolve without an executive rule-maker.

The English common law [system] has no lawgiver and no written constitution, only a tradition whereby the experienced users of the law cautiously try out new interpretations with an eye to seeing what precedents these interpretations set … Like the body of precedents that the common law has accumulated, a personal law develops within individuals. [Rules] that a person picked casually on first setting out to control a behavior … become bright lines after consistent repetition. What started out as one possible rule among many becomes the rule that you’ve followed for the past year, or the past decade, and thus stands out in future negotiations with yourself. Like the common law, this process doesn’t require an executive function to steer it.

Divinely-inspired rules

Religious people have commandments that come from God rather than personal rules that come from within. The internal marketplace of short- and long-term preferences is referred to as a battle between God and the Devil. When secular people create a rule, they’re putting their credibility with themselves on the line. When religious people commit to a divinely-inspired rule, the stakes are much higher. They’re being evaluated by God. Secular people feel motivated because they expect their future selves to continue to cooperate with their goals. Similarly, religious people feel motivated because they expect that God will continue to provide strength against temptation.

Each decision point puts this theory to the test. The more a religious person succeeds in resisting temptation, the more confident they feel in God’s help, and the easier it is to follow any given rule. The practical effect of this vow to God eventually becomes noticeable—thus proving his existence and leading believers to vouch for God to others. In the worst case, the impact of violating a divinely-inspired rule is disillusionment with the belief itself, which means loss of the extra motivation that accompanied the belief. Many people experience this as a crisis of faith or a paradigm shift.

God effectively plays the same role in religious people that “future selves” play in secular people—a third-party entity that inspires cooperation across time. In his book 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson writes about this analogous relationship between God and future selves. I think that his ideas, paired with those in Breakdown of Will, paint a pretty clear picture of what we’re really talking about when we talk about the will:

The discovery that gratification could be delayed was simultaneously the discovery of time and, with it, causality (at least the causal force of voluntary human action). Long ago, in the dim mists of time, we began to realize that reality was structured as if it could be bargained with. We learned that behaving properly now, in the present—regulating our impulses, considering the plight of others—could bring rewards in the future, in a time and place that did not yet exist. We began to inhibit, control and organize our immediate impulses, so that we could stop interfering with other people and our future selves.

The act of making a ritual sacrifice to God was an early and sophisticated enactment of the idea of the usefulness of delay. There is a long conceptual journey between merely feasting hungrily and learning to set aside some extra meat, smoked by the fire, for the end of the day, or for someone who isn’t present. It takes a long time to learn to keep anything later for yourself, or to share it with someone else (and those are very much the same thing as, in the former case, you are sharing with your future self). It is much easier and far more likely to selfishly and immediately wolf down everything in sight. There are similar long journeys between every leap in sophistication with regard to delay and its conceptualization: short-term sharing, storing away for the future, representation of that storage in the form of records and, later, in the form of currency—and, ultimately, the saving of money in a bank or other social institution. Some conceptualizations had to serve as intermediaries, or the full range of our practices and ideas surrounding sacrifice and work and their representation could have never emerged.

Our ancestors acted out a drama, a fiction: they personified the force that governs fate as a spirit that can be bargained with, traded with, as if it were another human being. And the amazing thing is that it worked. This was in part because the future is largely composed of other human beings—often precisely those who have watched and evaluated and appraised the tiniest details of your past behavior. It’s not very far from that to God, sitting above on high, tracking your every move and writing it down for further reference in a big book.

Peterson and George Ainslie seem to have independently arrived at the same conclusion: that our internal sensation of having a “will” is the product of an inter-temporal bargaining situation. Some of us cooperate with God. Some of us cooperate with future versions of ourselves. But from the looks of it, the underlying psychological mechanism is effectively the same!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also point to Matthew McConaughey’s (in)famous Oscar speech, in which he said that his hero is himself, 10 years in the future.

Permanent roommates

If it’s true that there’s a chaotic competition of interests going on inside each one of us, how do we manage to make sense to one another? There may be a lot of little “people” or “part-people” in your mind, but they’re all constrained to coordinate what they do because they are “permanent roommates.” Much like Dawkins' memes, these roommates compete for the right to “embody” you. What creates unity among your competing interests is that they are, in effect, locked up in a room together and forced to use the same resources for expression.

If this room is divided, so that only some of the person’s learned processes ever have access to particular resources for expression, she starts to behave like two people. This actually happened when neurosurgeons developed an operation for epilepsy that cut the main connection between the cerebral hemispheres … It’s disturbing to think of yourself as so fluid, so potentially unstable, held together only by the shifting influence of available rewards. It’s like being told that atoms are mostly empty and wondering how they can bear weight. Yet the bargaining interests in a society can produce highly stable institutions; perhaps that’s also true of the internal interests created by a person’s rewards.

I half-joked at the beginning of this post that these ideas are dangerous. Taken to the extreme, they seem somewhat indistinguishable from multiple personality disorder. I think of this disorder as a “glitch in the matrix"—a clue as to what’s really going on under the hood. Practically speaking, it’s likely that the model of selfhood presented by Breakdown of Will is too complicated to work with. It’s just much simpler to think of yourself as singular and coherent. Perhaps you could clearly define a few of your main alter-egos and try to understand what motivates them. (See: Beyonce and Sasha Fierce). But the complexity of this model doesn’t make it any less true. If anything, it sheds light on an age-old aphorism: we are strangers to ourselves.

Thanks to Kevin Simler for recommending this book and for inspiring me to read it.