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Volume 11, No. 3—April 2001  
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The Wisdom Trap
A little self-knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
By Jim Holt

WEAKNESS OF WILL COMPRISES two great arts: the art of procrastination and the art of immediate gratification. Procrastination means putting off something you should do; immediate gratification means doing something you should put off. Most of us are quite skilled in the practice of both these arts. The theory, however, still needs work.

Take procrastination. Let's say you have a choice between doing four hours of an unpleasant task on May 1 versus five hours on May 2. If you are presented with this choice right now, you will, quite reasonably, opt for the four hours on May 1. But suppose you are presented with the same choice on the morning of May 1. Then you will probably opt for the five hours on May 2, even though this means an extra hour of unpleasantness. Why should the passage of a couple of weeks cause your choice to flip in this way?

Some thinkers have noted that our inclinations, unlike our reason, are strongly biased toward the present. Today's pleasures and pains are simply more vivid to us, even though we know tomorrow's will be just as real. No wonder we overeat and undersave, miss deadlines, and develop addictions.

If that were all there was to say about weakness of will, it would not be of much theoretical interest. In the last couple of years, however, new subtleties have been discovered in the dynamics of self-control. Observe, first of all, that among people who suffer from weakness of will, some have more sophistication than others. They are able to foresee their future failures of will and plan against them. More naive types believe that they will behave in the future just the way they would currently like themselves to behave: without weakness of will.

For instance, suppose I am planning to eat a pint of ice cream tonight and a pint tomorrow night. If I am superhuman—endowed with perfect willpower—I buy a quart on the way home and enjoy half tonight and half tomorrow night. If I am weak willed and naive about it, I buy a quart on the way home from work—and then end up eating the whole thing after dinner. But if I am weak willed yet sophisticated—that is, possessed of the foresight to predict how I'll behave—I buy only a pint of ice cream on the way home from work, even though this is somewhat more expensive. So: The superhuman eats half a quart of ice cream each night; the sophisticate eats the same amount but pays more for it (because he buys it by the pint); and the naïf eats a quart a night.

Given that you are prone to weakness of the will, your life will be happier if you are sophisticated about it rather than naive, right? Surprisingly, it turns out that self-knowledge is not always a good thing. That, at any rate, is what a pair of economists—Ted O'Donoghue of Cornell and Matthew Rabin of UC-Berkeley—have shown recently.

Here is a simple example adapted from their work. Let's say you have a choice of seeing a mediocre movie on Monday (3 pleasure units), a good movie on Tuesday (5 pleasure units), or a really great movie on Wednesday (8 pleasure units). A person with perfect willpower is obviously going to wait for the Wednesday movie and get a full 8 units of pleasure. But suppose you are a bit weak willed. Specifically, you value future pleasures and pains only half as much as today's. Which movie will you end up seeing?

If you are naive, you will forgo Monday's mediocre movie, because the prospect of Wednesday's really great movie is more appealing, even with its effective pleasure yield discounted from 8 to 4 by your weakness of will. On Tuesday, however, things look different to you. You now give in and see the merely good movie on offer that day, because it promises 5 pleasure units, which is greater than Wednesday's weakness-of-will-discounted 4.

But suppose you are sophisticated about your weakness of will. Then on Monday you foresee the self-control problem you will have on Tuesday; that is, you know that if you skip Monday's mediocre movie, you will end up seeing the merely good movie on Tuesday rather than the really great movie on Wednesday. You realize that your choice is effectively between Monday's movie and Tuesday's. And because your weakness of will on Monday discounts the pleasure yield of Tuesday's movie from 5 to 2.5, you go ahead and see Monday's mediocre movie for 3 units of pleasure.

Notice what has happened here. The naïf's lack of foresight helps motivate him to pass up the mediocre movie and garner 5 units of pleasure from the good movie. The sophisticate, by contrast, recognizes on Monday that he will give in on Tuesday, which makes waiting less attractive. So he goes for immediate gratification and ends up with only 3 units of pleasure.

In most real-world situations, O'Donoghue and Rabin stress, being naive about your weakness of will is more dangerous than being sophisticated. For instance, naïfs are far more prone to procrastination—always, for example, putting off saving for retirement today on the over-optimistic assumption that they'll start tomorrow. Still, it is sobering to realize that the lapidary inscription on the temple to Apollo at Delphi—"Know Thyself"—can sometimes be rotten advice.


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