Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
9 Feb

Akrasia, or Why You Act Against Your Own Better Judgment

choicesAkrasia: it’s the word of the day. It may be a 25¢ word, but it’s a concept with which we’re all familiar. Essentially, it’s acting against one’s own best interest. We’re not talking here about the noble, altruistic deeds that purposefully put others’ needs before our own. Akrasia encompasses that irrational, confounding state of mind in which we wittingly throw caution, reason, and consequences to the wind in order to pursue a choice we understand will be bad for us. In other words, we know better. In fact, we know pretty much exactly what repercussions will befall us. That chocolate donut in our hand, for example, will undoubtedly cause our IBS to flare up – or have us bemoaning the paunch look later. Staying up late to watch one more episode of Breaking Bad will leave us comatose in tomorrow’s big meeting. Skipping yet another workout keeps us on track to lose all the gains we’ve built up the last few months. Stewing over the day’s stresses and playing out angry scenarios in our heads will keep our kids and partner at arm’s length and us up half the night with stomach pain.

But damned if we don’t make the choice anyway. Why? What’s wrong with us that we go down these roads when we clearly understand the fallout? Is it temporary insanity? Delusion? Just human nature? Can we truly write off our responsibility so easily as that – “hominids will be hominids”? As much as we’re subject to evolutionarily honed instincts, I think we have enough higher order thinking skills to generally pull ourselves back from the brink when we’re so inclined.

Philosophers for millennia have proposed all manner of explanations and parameters for akrasia. We lose our footing in a convoluted jumble of justification gone awry. “Baser” instinctual appetites (e.g. for food, sex, risk) get the better of us. We tell ourselves a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Emotion trumps logic. We’re weak of will.

Modern science, on the other hand, has illuminated the battle for self-control in its own way. Willpower, experts say, is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it becomes. On the other hand, research also suggests it’s a finite supply each day. The more we resist temptation in a given day, the weaker our will gets as the day goes on. Setting ourselves up for success by avoiding as much temptation as we can and reducing the mental clutter of meaningless decisions (e.g. Should I buy the teddy bear or floral print paper towels?) can go a long way toward avoiding disruptive impulses and conserving our willpower resources.

Nonetheless, I think there’s more here. Akrasia as a state of mind suggests something deeper, perhaps more pervasive in our lives. The concept begs a more intimate study, a more individual inventory. When I’ve talked to readers, clients, and friends about what has held them back from embracing better choices – a better life overall – they offer profoundly personal chronicles. Sure, their accounts can generally be distilled into some core – and common – themes, but the power behind their tales is poignant and personal experience. It’s a story – not an abstraction.

When we examine why we’re occasionally – or not so occasionally – drawn to act against our best interest, I think it’s helpful to know the potential toward akrasia is universal. We’re all subject to the conflicting impulses and better spirits of our human heritage. The complexity that defines our exercise of free will at turns confounds, frustrates, and amazes. Yet, within this theoretical idea we find a more nuanced and telling version of our own journey (sometimes struggle) in cultivating healthy self-interest. If we’ve decided what rational self-interest looks like for our life, what do the forces that contest it look like in our imaginations – relics of the past or ambiguities of the present as they so often are? What shape do they take? What voices do they have?

Part of self-control is self understanding. Knowing the circumstances that test your confidence. Preempting the script that tends to play in your head when life gets tough or you have time on your hands. Only then can you divert the narrative, anticipate your needs, and genuinely tend to your weaknesses before they get the better of you. It’s about understanding within a circumstance that this, too, shall pass. The power to choose in full consciousness today determines who and what ultimately directs your overall life story.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. Let me know your thoughts on today’s concept.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Great timing for this post! Just last night I was browsing my favourite forum until 3AM last night when I knew I had to be up by 8. Damn my laptop!

    JamesR wrote on February 9th, 2012
  2. As a relatively new Grokette, I have a few thoughts about this. Every other “diet” or fitness goal I have ever set for myself has barely ever reached takeoff. I look forward for reasons to avoid exercising and cheating. Since starting this three months ago, it has been dramatically the opposite. I am petrified of accidentally eating non-primal food or being in a social situation where I have to eat something I don’t want. The difference is that the primal lifestyle is intensely rewarding. I had trouble sticking to a way of life that did not reward me. Now when I look back on it that way, I’m willing to re-classify myself as a person with the willpower to stay healthy, but poor willpower to things that make me feel bad.

    That being said, I am TERRIBLE about staying awake too late, even though the effects are so obvious the next day. With this article in mind, I am going to work on that.

    Thanks for everything, Mark.

    Anonygrok wrote on February 9th, 2012
  3. I was so taken with this will to fail idea that I googled it and came across a recommendation for a book by Dorothea Brande called Wake Up and Live! Has anyone read this? Here’s an excerpt:

    Failure indicates that energy has been poured into the wrong channel.

    It takes energy to fail. A powerful struggle must be waged against the forces of life and movement in order to remain inert, although this struggle takes place so far beneath the surface of our lives that we do not always become aware of it. Physical inaction is no true sign that life-force is not being burned away. So even the idler is using fuel while they dream.

    All that is necessary to break the spell of inertia and frustration is this: Act as if it were impossible to fail. That is the talisman, the formula, the command of right-about-face which turns us from failure towards success.

    Success, for any sane adult, is exactly equivalent to doing one’s best. What that best may be, what its farthest reaches may include, we can discover only by freeing ourselves completely from the Will to Fail.

    Fay wrote on February 9th, 2012
    • Have not read this book – but it sounds like a good one to put on the reading list. Thanks for sharing.

      I was thinking thoughts along these lines when I read the other comments about “will to fail”.

      There’s a saying – where mind goes, there energy flows. Its sorta like the saying – whatever we subsidize we get more of. When we invest energy in the idea of failure it makes failure more likely. That’s why I don’t ruminate on lapses. I just stop and boot strap myself into “doing my best”.

      rarebird wrote on February 9th, 2012
  4. Great article! I am very guilty of staying up way too late. But I’m working on it. I think this also helps to highlight why many find it difficult to go primal/paleo. My family, despite knowing how bad it is, chooses to eat terrible food as they are saying how they need to eat better and/or lose weight. There is something in the mind that gets a thrill out of doing what’s wrong. I hope that made sense.

    Rachel wrote on February 9th, 2012
  5. Like :)
    Good timing, as I find that I am getting stronger in my mind to do the right things as the days tick by in this new year.

    Margie wrote on February 9th, 2012
  6. Akrasia: Giving up what you REALLY want for what you want RIGHT NOW.

    Island Girl wrote on February 9th, 2012
  7. Richard from freetheanimal.com posted month or two ago about book called “The Flinch”. It talks much about same things as akrasia. It really helped me see how i talk myself out of things.

    Best thing its free, http://www.amazon.com/The-Flinch-ebook/dp/B0062Q7S3S .

    Ossi wrote on February 10th, 2012
  8. Attitude = Priorities = Decisions = Actions = Results.

    2 attitudes (spiritual/carnal)
    2 priorities (heavenly/worldly)
    2 decisions (good/bad)
    2 actions (right/wrong)
    2 results (blessing/cursing)

    Life is much simpler when we realize there are always only 2 choices. Never more, never less.

    Justin wrote on February 10th, 2012
    • Interesting…..I like how you put that.
      Although, the first one: spiritual/carnal, could mean different things to different people. What exactly do you mean?

      Renee wrote on February 23rd, 2012
      • Hi, Renee. The verbiage isn’t as important as the principle. For attitudes you could say Humble/Arrogant, Teachablle/Unteachable, etc. The bottom line is approach life knowing there are always only TWO ways to go and it’s a LOT easier to choose the right way. My personal guidance comes from bible doctrine but please note, I do NOT practice a religion!

        Justin wrote on February 24th, 2012
  9. Did you ever see that Peanuts episode where Charlie Brown goes to see Lucy at her doctor’s stand, and she starts naming things that might be wrong with him, and then she describes “pantophobia” (the fear of everything) and he yells “THAT’S IT!!!” and Lucy goes flying backwards and lands in a pile of snow?

    This was like that.

    Marcheline wrote on February 10th, 2012
    • Yes, I’ve see it – and laughed my butt off!

      Do you mean that learning about “akrasia” was an “aha” moment for you?

      Btw, poor ol’ neurotic Charlie Brown might benefit from a change of “therapist” (stay away from that mean, overly directive, judgmental Lucy!)

      rarebird wrote on February 10th, 2012
  10. Wow, went from reading your post to this article linked from Cranky Fitness:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/03/how-your-cat-is-making-you-crazy/8873/

    May be that acting against our own better judgement may be the result of a common parascitic infection! It’s a long article but interesting and worth the read. Maybe a connection with akrasia in some cases?

    Amy wrote on February 10th, 2012
  11. If you have to rationalize doing it, then you either aren’t ready, or shouldn’t do it at all. Easy way for me to avoid having things sneak up on me.

    Joss wrote on February 10th, 2012
  12. Another timely article as usual mark. Just got done writing a willpower piece and excited to have this post to link back to!

    lisa wrote on February 10th, 2012
  13. I think If I hung my rescue inhaler around my neck it would be visible enough to remind me to never eat the chocolate that is in front of me every day at work… I have not had a problem with it until I attempted to lower the fat in my paleo diet.

    lynn wrote on February 16th, 2012
  14. Great post. Akrasia may be the name for the behavior, but the behavior probably arises from our need to habituate. A new book, by C. Duhigg, “The Power of Habit” is coming out any day now about how habits control so much of our lives. A review mentioned that rats taught one path to a reward food, then switched to other less rewarding paths for even longer, immediately will revert once the old path is opened. It certainly rang true for me: I can go months without veering off my primal path, then one event can send me down that old path. But, at least now it can be a one time event, and not days or weeks worth.

    Nan wrote on February 23rd, 2012
  15. Akrasia…… Sounds a bit too much like Crazy! lol

    Either way, I suffer from it, too. It has been a struggle for me all of my adult life.

    Lora wrote on February 23rd, 2012
  16. We are all human and all make choices, always have. This stuff is semi-interesting to read about, but I don’t see the point really. I’m my business, we call this stuff “Gee whiz”
    “Gee whiz, there are things going on inside my head!”
    So what. :)

    DFH wrote on March 21st, 2012
    • The question “what’s the point” is right on point. I am a management consultant working with a variety of businesses every day. One of the most persistent challenges is staff and management not doing what they know is best. They pay me to tell them what they already know, but don’t do. My completely unscientific estimate is that if everyone in businesses and organizations did what they knew was the most effective, best practices, they would save up to 20% – and put me out of a job.

      Egalitaire wrote on March 30th, 2012
  17. consider for a moment that you are made of two identities–one that is for something and one that is against this thing, particularly, one that says, “eat it! it will taste good!! just a bite or two won’t hurt!!!” (of course, it’s probably two that a bite or two won’t hurt. the problem is that one leads to two, two leads to three, and very often three leads to very many bites.) the other identity says, “no don’t do that. don’t take that bite. you know it won’t just be one or two bites. it’s not good for you and it proves that you are not looking after yourself and that you are weak.”
    my suggestion is that the self that says have a bite or two has a good intent and a poor method. i recommend that you put yourself into this ‘temptation’ identity and feel what it is like to be for the bite(s). as this identity find out what your intent is. here is a sample, “i just want you to enjoy yourself. life is short. i am trying to look after you so that you will feel good and enjoy the moment.”
    knowing the good intent of this part of you is helpful but not sufficient. the next step is to establish a conversation between these two selves and to facilitate their relationship so that they can work together as it turns out that they have the same goals but not the same methods or understanding of human nature. the self that wants to say, “no” to the bites has a longer range view and the self that wants to encourage the bites tends to be more pleasure and immediacy oriented. working out their differences and finding ways to align has great possibilities. as well, trying to shut down a part of yourself has implications that are not the best.
    enjoy the inner conversation!

    dr. avraham cohen wrote on March 21st, 2012
  18. ‘Akrasia’, eh? It’s been said before; and translated into modern English 400 years ago thus:

    For I do not that good which I will; but the evil which I hate, that I do. [Romans 7:15] [Latin]

    http://www.drbo.org/x/d?b=drb&bk=52&ch=7&l=15#x

    Johnfused wrote on March 21st, 2012
  19. :)

    Janish K a wrote on September 11th, 2012

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