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Akrasia, or Why You Act Against Your Own Better Judgment

Posted By Mark Sisson On February 9, 2012 @ 8:00 am In Health | 119 Comments

Akrasia: 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 [7] and partner [8] 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 [9]. 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 [10] 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 [11] – 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.


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