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PHIL 181: Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature
- Weakness of the Will and Procrastination
Professor Gendler begins with a review of the situationist critique of virtue ethics,which claims that character plays only a minimal role in determining behavior. She then presents some countervailing evidence suggesting that certain personality traits appear to be quite stable over time, including work by Walter Mischel showing a strong correlation between an early capacity to delay gratification and subsequent academic and social success. Delayed gratification remains the topic of discussion as Professor Gendler shifts to Aristotle’s account of weakness of will and contemporary behavioral economics work on hyperbolic discounting. In the final segment of the lecture, drawing on work by Aristotle, Walter Mischel, George Ainslie and Robert Nozick, she presents several strategies for self-regulation: preventing yourself from acting on the temptation, manipulating incentive structures, and acting on principles.
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Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature
PHIL 181 - Lecture 11 - Weakness of the Will and Procrastination
Chapter 1. Situationism, Virtue Ethics and Character Recap [00:00:00]
Professor Tamar Gendler: Alright. So I left you at the end of last lecture with this incredible cliffhanger I put up on the slide, but… So let me get a running start and let you know where we were, finish up that lecture, and then move in to the topics for today.
So as you recall, at the end of last lecture I was talking about a particular critique which has been offered by contemporary social psychologists of Aristotle’s moral theory. As you’ll recall, Aristotle has a moral theory whose fundamental notion is that of the person with good character–the one who acts as the well-raised one, the person with practical wisdom would act. Aristotle calls that person the phronimos.
And John Doris, in the essay we read, gave voice to a concern which a number of philosophers have expressed in recent years, which is the concern that Aristotle’s moral theory commits a mistake. It commits what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error. And that’s the idea that it’s character rather than circumstance that’s the primary determinant of action. And Doris adduced a number of psychological studies that purport to show that the primary determinant of action is circumstance rather than some standing feature of the person.
So he told us the story of the guys in the phone booth and suggested that it’s a local feature of mood that determines whether people are likely to be helpful rather than a standing feature of character. He told us the story of the Good Samaritan study, again suggesting that it was circumstance or situation that affected behavior, not standing features of character. We ourselves read and thought about the Milgram experiments: circumstances in which people find themselves behaving in ways that one might think are out of character. And we talked about previously, and we’ll talk about it again, the idea of moral luck: the idea that one may find oneself in circumstances that lead to behavior.
So there is no doubt that there is an element of truth to the claim that circumstance is a major contributor to behavior.
It’s undeniable that there are circumstances that contribute to how it is that people act. But that strand of social psychology that Doris is stressing is, I think, only part of the story. So in addition to circumstance contributing to character, there’s a large body of research in psychology known as personality psychology which looks at a set of traits that seem to be pretty well established in people by their first year of life. These are traits that are quite stable over time, and that end up correlating with a large range of other measures.
These are things like openness to new experience, conscientiousness in carrying out responsibilities, extroversion as opposed to introversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism: a certain kind of anxiety. So although it is the case that circumstance plays a major role in determining how it is that people behave, it is also the case that there are contributions from individual personality. And one of the most dramatic pieces of evidence in favor of that are Walter Mischel’s famous deferred gratification studies which I’ll discuss now and then again later in the lecture.
It looks like, if Mischel’s studies which involve thousands and thousands of children are to be trusted, that the early capacity for self-regulation or delay of gratification in the face of temptation is highly predictive of all sorts of things ranging from SAT scores to social relations in school. Social and cognitive functions seem to correlate with the certain features about early experience.
So although it is undoubtedly the case that the situationist critique gets something right, and it is undoubtedly a mistake to think that the sole contribution to behavior is character, and that the features of the environment play no role, to say that the only contribution to behavior is circumstance and that there’s no contribution on the part of the individual is, I think, a mistake.
And those of you who are interested in looking at what those individual differences look like in children early on may enjoy watching some of the videos of the Mischel studies where you get to see children sitting in front of marshmallows, looking like this, or this, or this, or this. Or–poor thing–she’s destined for low SAT scores, but wow is that marshmallow going to taste good. So any of you who wants to watch some of these, here are three very different presentations of the marshmallow case. And again, these slides will be up so you can go get them off the Internet.
Chapter 2. Aristotle on Weakness of Will [00:05:43]
OK. So that’s the closing of last lecture, and obviously a straightforward segue into the topic of today’s lecture which is the question in some ways with which we began this section of the course: the question of strategies for regulating oneself in the face of weakness of the will. Now, what we emphasized in the last lecture was Aristotle’s picture of what it takes for someone to be virtuous. And Aristotle said that in order to be virtuous, you need to satisfy four conditions. You need to know what’s the right thing to do, you need to decide to do that thing because it’s the right thing, you need to do so stably, and you need to do so in a way that doesn’t cut against your inclinations. Those are the four features that are required to be virtuous on Aristotle’s picture.
And corresponding to virtue on the other end of the spectrum is the Aristotelian notion of vice which is basically its exact opposite. It’s a harmonious, stable, knowledgeable, decided tendency to act in keeping with exactly what’s wrong. So the vicious person has knowledge of what’s the wrong thing to do, decides to do it because it’s the wrong thing, stably does so, and doesn’t feel any inclination to do the right thing.
So those are two ends of the Aristotelian spectrum. In fact, there are two things which lie a bit beyond the end of the Aristotelian spectrum. As you know from you reading guide, Aristotle also identifies the notion somewhat akin to the state that Jonathan Shay calls the berserk state. This is the state that Aristotle calls bestiality, a state below virtue and vice. And he gives examples from some of the Greek tragedies of tearing a body apart limb from limb. So Aristotle thinks it’s possible to move out of the moral realm altogether. Vice, on the Aristotelian picture, is still a kind of stable and predictable way to act in the world. Bestiality lies below that. And above virtue lies this idea of divinity: a state whereby regulating with respect to virtue isn’t even required.
But the heart of the discussion that we read in chapter seven of Aristotle’s Ethics for today concerns itself with this range of states between virtue and vice. And Aristotle gives a really nice taxonomy of those which I think is helpful for understanding what it is to engage in self-regulation.
I should stress that I am no Aristotle scholar, and that what I’m providing is a somewhat contrived reconstruction. But I think it’s helpful for getting a handle on what these distinctions amount to. So we might ask first, what would a state look like that shares with virtue that one has knowledge of the right thing to do, that one decides to do it for that reason, and that one has the inclination, but that lacks the kind of character, or logical stability, that Aristotle takes to be a hallmark of true virtue?
That, I think, is the state that Aristotle calls temperance. One’s inclined to do the right thing because it’s the right thing. And one knows what the right thing is. But there isn’t the sort of predictable, law-like, stability of character that virtue requires. Corresponding to temperance, on the other side of the scale, is what Aristotle calls intemperance which is, in some sense, the mirror image of temperance. Here one is simply inclined to do the wrong thing because it’s the wrong thing. But not as a hard feature of character in the way that he gives in the case of vice, but just as a matter of temperament.
So the temperate person, with inclination, does the right thing. They’re inclined to do the right thing and they act in that way. The intemperate person, with inclination, does the wrong thing and feels no conflict in the face of it. What happens if we remove another one of the Aristotelian features? What happens if we have knowledge of what’s the right thing to do and the decision to do the right thing, but our inclination pulls us in the other direction? So we have made a decision to act in keeping with what’s right, at least at an abstract level if not a concrete one, we have a sense of what’s right.
Aristotle says, and I put this approximation in front of the knowledge that “what the continent and incontinent person have is the recognition of the general rule, but some difficulty recognizing whether the general rule applies in this particular case.” So the continent person has a sense of what the right thing to do is, has made a decision to act in keeping with that, but her inclination pulls her in another direction. She finds it difficult to avoid the chocolate cake. She finds it difficult to get up when her alarm rings. She finds it difficult to resist the marshmallow in order to get the second. But somehow she contains herself and acts against her inclination.
The mirror image of the continent person is Aristotle’s incontinent person. In terms of their decision, they are like the continent one. They want to do the thing that corresponds with morality. Like the continent person, they have a sense of the general rule, a little difficulty seeing how it applies in this particular case. And like the continent person, they have an inclination to go towards a pleasure which attracts them. But unlike the continent person, the incontinent person finds herself unable to overcome the inclination. And so, below the line, she acts in keeping with what’s wrong.
Finally, Aristotle considers a pair of cases where the attraction to doing the wrong thing is not a desire for a pleasure, but a desire to avoid pain. So in some cases, one doesn’t get full credit for being continent, one doesn’t resist a pleasure, but one is willing to put up with a certain amount of discomfort in the face of doing the right thing. Aristotle calls that resistance: continence in the face of pain. And corresponding to that, below the line, is softness, incontinence in the face of pain. Doing the wrong thing because one has given in to a certain kind of discomfort.
So I put this list before you because I think it’s not completely clear on a first read, or a second, or a third, or a fourth through Book Seven of Aristotle’s Ethics, how carefully structured Aristotle’s picture of the human soul and its strengths and weaknesses is. But I think that if we see it as a set of paired characteristics, each of which lacks or has certain of the features of paradigmatic Aristotelian virtue, then we can get a pretty clear sense of what the Aristotelian picture looks like. And I encourage you, armed with this framework, to go back to the text which we’ve been reading over and over in this class: the text at the end of Book One and beginning of Book Two of Aristotle’s Ethics. And try, yet again, to see what the picture of virtue is that Aristotle is concerned with.
Chapter 3. Incontinence and hyperbolic discounting [00:14:04]
So what I want to do in the remainder of the lecture today–and we’re going to need our clickers pretty soon–is to talk about Aristotle’s idea of incontinence. What it is to be in a situation where one knows what the right thing to do is, in the abstract. One’s committed to doing the right thing. But one has an inclination that pulls in the other direction, and one gives in to that inclination.
So we’re to ask, by starting to give you a choice. And let me say, this is a real poll. I have here the money, right here in this envelope. And I have here–I’m not kidding–I have here a class list. And during the ten seconds that you’re answering this poll, I will close my eyes and select a name from the class list. So I’m asking you right now. You’ll have 10 seconds once I start the timer to choose what you want. One of you is really going to get either $5 right now, or $6 on Thursday. And it could be you.
OK. So clickers out. We have 10 seconds left. OK. So let’s see what the responses are on this. OK. 22% of you want $5 now. 78% of you want $6 in two days. Sarah Cox? Sarah Cox, are you here? Sarah Cox, which did you choose?
Professor Tamar Gendler: OK. Well, I’ll keep this right with me, and I’ll put it in my copy of Aristotle’s Ethics so I’m good for my word. OK. 22% of you, however, would be just getting the envelope right now.
OK, second poll. Which do you choose? And again, I have money. I have a second envelope. It’s in my bag. And you can choose $5 in 35 days, or $6 in 37 days. OK? $5 in 35 days, or $6 in 37 days. Polling open. Ten seconds. Ten, nine, eight – $5, 35 days. $6 in 37 days. And let’s see how the numbers came out. OK. Alright. You experimental error folks are very good at showing the experimental error aspect of pushing buttons on these. Or maybe, maybe there are some of you who see this as being different.
OK, 20% of you were preferring to take $5 today over $6 on Thursday, even though almost none of you wanted to take the same decision in a month. Now, let me point something out to you which, of course, to the rational part of your soul is completely obvious. These bets are identical. I offered you $5 on the 15th versus $6 on the 17th. Or I offered you $5 on the 22nd versus $6 on the 24th. When it comes to the 22nd of March, oh 22% of you, who gave different answers in these two cases, you will be in exactly the same situation with respect to the $5 and $6 that you are with respect to the $5 and $6 right now. There’s no difference between this choice and this choice. Nonetheless, it turns out to be consistently the case that human beings and non-human animals have a tendency to start acting differently towards delayed rewards when they are happening in the far future and when they are happening in the near future.
So for many decades the psychologist, George Ainslie, has studied decisions that have the following structure. One has a choice between a smaller reward that one can get sooner, like the $5 as opposed to the $6, or a larger reward that one can get later. And Ainslie has studied this phenomenon in the context of human and non-human animals. And I’m going to read aloud a quote to you, which will be up on the slides on the web site, that gives you a sense of what this phenomenon amounts to. Ainslie calls it hyperbolic discounting. And he says “people often, and lower animals always, discount the prospect of future rewards in a curve that’s more deeply bowed than a rational, exponential curve.”
So it’s perfectly rational to discount future rewards if there’s uncertainty involved, right? If I offered you $5 now or $6 in 20 years, it would make perfect sense to take the $5 now because your degree of uncertainty about whether you would get the $6 is sufficiently great with respect to your degree of certainty that you would get the $5. But the difference, I hope, between thinking whether you and I and this classroom are going to be around this Thursday, as opposed to three weeks from now on a Thursday, is trivial. “Over a range of delays,” continues Ainslie, “from seconds to decades, there are pairs of alternative rewards such that subjects prefer the smaller, earlier reward over the larger later alternative when the delay to the smaller reward will be short.”, Right? Those of you who preferred $5 today as opposed to $6 on Thursday. “But prefer the larger, later reward when the smaller alternative will be more delayed.” $5 in 35 days versus $6 in 37 days. “Even though the time from the earlier to the later reward stays the same. The curves that fit the observed data best are hyperbolic. That is, they show value as inversely proportional to delay.”
So again, what happens is, that for a period of time, A, the larger reward is preferred to the smaller one, right? That’s you. It’s in 37 days. It’s in 36 days. It’s in 35 days. It’s in 34 days. All that time, you prefer the $6 two days later to the $5 now, or to the $5 two days earlier. And then all of a sudden as the event draws near, the value of the smaller reward looms larger in your mind.
Decision after decision has this structure. Suppose you want to train to be a competitive cyclist, or some sort of athletic endeavor, that’s your larger, later reward. Suppose that one of the things that’s incompatible with your becoming a competitive cyclist is the eating of Crisco covered cupcakes. You’re walking along, and at the beginning it’s completely clear to you that what you prefer is to be a cyclist. You wake up in the morning, you say: “what I’m going to do is plan for my bicycling. I’m not going to be distracted by stupid things like Crisco covered cupcakes.” And you walk along and still to you now, there’s your eyes, you see ahh, the reward of the bicycle is greater than the reward of the cupcake. And all of a sudden as the cupcake grows nearer, you take the smaller, sooner reward and the larger, later falls out from possibility.
Suppose you resolve that tomorrow morning you’re going to get up super early to write your paper for Philosophy 181, also called CogSci 281. So you set your alarm, and you have the ringing of the alarm. And when you go to bed you set it for 5:30. You can see that larger later reward is a bigger one. And it comes to be 5:30 in the morning and the alarm is ringing, and you turn it off. And oops, away goes the possibility of the larger, later reward.
Or suppose you’re one of Mischel’s subjects in the marshmallow study. Here’s your larger, later reward: two marshmallows. Here’s your smaller, sooner reward: one marshmallow. Ask in the abstract, it’s pretty clear to you two marshmallows is definitely better than one marshmallow until–until what? Until you’re sitting in the room with the one marshmallow and oops, you lost your chance.
Chapter 4. How to Self-Regulate [00:23:39]
So what I want to do in the remainder of the lecture today, is talk a little bit about the psychological state of the children involved in Mischel’s studies, and then connect that for you to some more general research on self-regulation. And finally connect that to the discussion of principles that we had in our reading from Nozick today.
So when Walter Mischel began doing these marshmallow studies roughly 40 years ago, there was a theory in place that the best way to engage in self-regulation was to think about the reward that you were going to get if you did the right thing. So on that theory, the best way for kids to be able to resist the one marshmallow in order to get the two marshmallows would be for the experimenter to make it incredibly vivid to them that if they waited, they could have two marshmallows.
So kids were brought into the room in one of two conditions. In one of the conditions, there was one marshmallow over here and two marshmallows over there. The rewards were visible. The kids came in. And they lasted, on average, about four minutes before they reached over and grabbed the single marshmallow, thereby losing the second. When the rewards were hidden, however, when the kids couldn’t see the marshmallows and were brought into the room and told you can either have one marshmallow now, or if you can wait long enough, you can have two marshmallows. Kids waited, on average, 12 minutes.
Then Mischel wondered what was driving the capacity of the children with hidden rewards to sustain their self-control long enough. So the second condition he tried was to take the kids who were in the circumstance where the rewards were hidden, and tell them to think really hard about the reward, think really hard about those marshmallows. The effect of thinking hard about the marshmallows was that the performance dropped to exactly the level that it had been in the case of the kids for whom the reward was visible. And in fact, thinking about the reward in the visible case made it no worse.
So the problem was that when you thought about the reward, it became salient and resistance became difficult. So, thought Mischel, what if we try it the other way? What if we take the kids for whom the reward is visible and ask them to think happy thoughts about something else, right? Look around the room, recite the alphabet, tell yourself a story of the three little pigs, do something to keep yourself distracted. And the result was that if the kids thought distracting thoughts, they acted exactly as the kids in the hidden rewards situation. And it made no difference in the hidden situation to think distracting thoughts.
So the presence of the temptation before your mind is part of what makes the temptation difficult to resist. And indeed, Mischel thought about this more generally. He presented kids with either a photograph or a real marshmallow, it didn’t matter which, and asked them either to pretend that it was real or to think about tastiness, think about how excellent that marshmallow is going to taste. And the delay which kids were able to impose upon themselves averaged about six minutes.
Whereas when he had even a real marshmallow before them, and asked the kids to pretend that it’s imaginary or to think about it abstractly, think about the number of marshmallows there are, think about the letter that the word marshmallow starts with, think about the nature of a candy store and how–I mean, these are four-year-olds–think about the nature of a candy store and how candy stores work in an abstract sense. Kids were able to regulate themselves for 18 minutes.
So what was going on here? What ties together the cases where we get very short numbers: kids are only able to last four minutes, then give in to the temptation. And what ties together the cases where we get large numbers?
Mischel’s hypothesis, and this fits with the material that we discussed on January 20th, is that there are two systems of processing rewards. There’s a hot system which acts on what Plato or Aristotle would call appetite, or perhaps spirit. It acts on the basis of passion. And when we think about things with a vivid, emotional attraction to them, that system gets activated and Plato’s horses, Aristotle’s non-rational parts, system one, aliefs and all the rest get going. That’s the system that’s active when the rewards are visible and there’s no instruction. When you’re thinking vividly about the rewards, the appetitive parts of soul are brought on line, and resistance to temptation becomes difficult.
By contrast, when kids are asked to think abstractly or to pretend that the marshmallow is imaginary, a cool, rational system–a system that is the one involved in belief that is Plato’s charioteer, that is the System Two of the dual processing tradition, that is the belief in the alief-belief tradition–comes on line. And in the face of this cool processing system, which gives us a sort of rational distance from what we confront, all of a sudden self-regulation becomes possible.
So Mischel’s studies fit in to a larger framework for thinking about how to overcome temptation. One which you’ll not be surprised to hear is articulated, as is almost everything that we’re thinking about in this course, in one of the two great founding narratives of the Western literary tradition–in this case, Homer’s Odyssey.
Odysseus, pictured here in elegant, white tunic, is trying to get home from the Trojan War. He’s trying to get back to his wife who is waiting faithfully for him at home, and it’s taking him about 20 years to do so. And along the way as he tries to go home, he faces all sorts of temptations which threaten to divert him from his path. And the temptation that he faces in this picture, illustrated here in the form of these beautiful flying women who look, to me, a little bit like dementors from Harry Potter. He, however, finds them enormously tempting. And he’s trying to figure out how to get the ship past the sirens, whose songs threaten to cause the ship to founder upon the shoal, so that he can get home to Penelope.
And what he comes up with are two different strategies. The first strategy he applies to his sailors. You will see that around the ears of each of them is cotton batting. He blocks their ears so that the apparent utility of the sirens is reduced for them. Unable to hear their song, the sailors are able to continue rowing the boat past their source of temptation.
What he does to himself, as you can see, is he has himself, at point A on the Ainslie curve, lashed to the mast. Because, like Mischel’s children and like Ainslie, he recognizes that when the siren’s song is available to him directly, he will be in that B state where the smaller, sooner reward–like turning off your alarm clock or eating that cupcake–looms larger to him.
So what Odysseus does is, he ties himself to the mast. Even though the temptation of the reward is evident to him, he has rendered himself unable to act on that temptation. And there is a tradition, in the contemporary decision theory literature, to use this metaphor of Ulysses and the sirens, Odysseus and the sirens depending which translation you use of the name, to think about strategies for self-regulation.
And it turns out that it’s helpful, I think, to think about these strategies as falling into three categories. If you’re trying to get past a temptation that has the structure that we’ve been looking at in this class; a smaller, sooner reward that, because of temporal discounting, looms disproportionately large in your decision structure. One way to get around it is by means of external constraints. You can separate yourself from the ability to act on the temptation. You can turn off the internet on your computer, you can use one of those cell phone condoms, you can render yourself unable to act on the basis of that which is going to distract you from your path. You can put your alarm clock all the way across the room you can take the cupcakes out of your house, you can put your credit card in a glass of water in the freezer. All of these are ways of separating yourself from the ability to act on the temptation.
Or you can separate yourself from the appeal of the temptation in some way. You can reduce its subjective utility to you by, for example, blocking your ears so you won’t even notice that the temptation is there. So that’s a way of externalizing responsibility for decision making in this case. And it’s an extraordinarily effective way of self-regulating. You are an agent in the world. The actions which you’re going to perform are actions on the world. And separating yourself from the ability to perform those actions is one way to get around temptation.
A second way to get around temptation, which we’ve discussed a lot in the last two classes, is by direct appeal to the spirited or appetitive parts of your soul. So you can manipulate incentive structures for yourself. You can change the relative utilities of the various rewards. You can subject yourself to interpersonal pressures. Remember we put the smiley faces on your computers so that the gaze of the eyes of others would help you stick to your tasks. Or you can cultivate habits, right? You can get spirit and appetite into line with reason by cultivating natural ways of responding to things.
But the third way that you can get around temptations, is the one which we haven’t discussed yet, and that is by means of reason. And it is in this light that Nozick discusses the roles that principles can play in allowing us not to be incontinent. So Nozick points out, quite generally, that what principles do is they group actions by putting them under a general rubric so that linked actions are viewed or treated in the same way. If one takes on as a principle to be a vegetarian, then any act of eating meat is seen as a violation of that principle. Even if one thinks there are circumstances where eating meat might be the right thing to do, all things considered.
What the principle does is to classify that act with other acts of eating meat so that the actions become symbolic of one another. Smoking a single cigarette isn’t so bad, but smoking lots of cigarettes is. And one thing that a principle can do is to let you have any one instance stand as an example of all. Principles, says Nozick, constitute a way of binding ourselves to the mast, not through external constraints like ropes, but through internal commitments to following their mandates.
And he points out that principles are effective in a wide range of cases. Intellectually, if you have the idea that there’s a principle that connects one set of facts to another, then the principle can transmit probability or support. The old cases came out a particular way. Every time you observed a certain kind of causation, it had a particular structure. You identified a principle, and you’re now in a position to make predictions about new cases.
Interpersonally, they let you appear to be a reliable person. Your past actions were of a certain kind, right? Every time I said I would give you money, I gave you money. So you can conclude on that basis I have a principle: repay my debts. And on that basis, you predict my future actions.
It’s in fact, exactly because of that, that I switched all the written exercises to Thursdays rather than having extensions on some of them. My thought was this: suppose I had given extensions on two of the essays from Tuesday to Thursday? I’d look unprincipled about the regulations for this course. How will I be in a position to enforce the course’s requirements if I appear unprincipled? Ah, suppose I adopt a new principle, the Thursday due date, with respect to which I am unwavering? Introspect a minute. Strangely, that seems more authoritative than having most of them due on Tuesdays and some on Thursdays.
Intrapersonally, conceptualizing oneself in terms of principles gives a kind of narrative continuity to one’s life. My past self was the kind of person who would never do X. My past self is the kind of person who always does Y. Articulating it in terms of a principle lets me connect my future self to my past self. It gives me a sense of continuity over time.
And finally, intrapersonally, principles provide ways of overcoming temptation. Ooh, every time I see a cupcake I want to eat it, but if I have a principle that I don’t eat dessert after 4:00 pm, then it’s easy. I don’t have to make a decision on a case-by-case basis. The single act of eating that cupcake once. Why that once? Why wouldn’t I then do it all the time becomes a way of committing myself to future actions.
Those of you who practice an instrument know that the easiest practice schedule is to practice every day. Because if you practice every day, there’s no question of whether this is one of the days that you’re going to practice. If you are committed to a certain kind of religious behavior, or a certain kind of dietary restriction, or a certain kind of exercise regimen, the easiest way to implement it is to say always, with respect to this domain, will I behave in those ways.
And, in fact, Nozick suggests that this is exactly the way to use principles to get past the Ainslie curve. The mark of a principle, he says, is that it ties the decision whether to do an immediate particular act to a whole class of actions of which the principle makes it part. The act now stands for the whole class. I discovered that I’m overusing a particular kind of relaxational substance on weekends. And the most straightforward way for me deal with that situation is to put a categorical restriction on my behavior. Moreover, points out Nozick, I can make use of a really interesting irrationality about myself to fight irrationality with irrationality.
Remember, I pointed out to you a few lectures ago, that people who lose a $10 bill on the way to the theater are happy to buy a new ticket when they get there. But people who lost a $10 ticket on the way to the theatre are unhappy to do so. That’s an instance of a general phenomenon known as sunk costs, that when we’ve invested a lot of effort in something, we’re reluctant to stop acting on its basis, even if right then we don’t prefer to do it anymore.
And so Nozick suggests that if during A, that period leading up to the Ainslie curve, we invest many resources in the future in pursuit of the larger reward, the fact that we tend not to ignore sunk costs provides us with a way to get past the temptation during the period, B, to choose the smaller, sooner. If I decide I want to go to six plays a year and I buy six tickets, then even if it’s raining on one of the nights that I was supposed to go, my tendency towards sunk costs will help me act on my action.
All right, last two minutes. Let me connect this to what we’ve done and where we’re going. This, as you know, is the last lecture in the first unit of the course. We began this unit by reading Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational popular chapter–and we ended this unit by reading Ariely’s Predictably Irrational popular chapter on procrastination. But, unlike your experience on January 11th, you now have a philosophical framework in which to place his discussion. Unlike on January 11th, you now have a psychological framework in which to place his discussion. You’ve read Haidt, you’ve read Batson, you’ve read the dual processing work, you’ve read Milgram, and Shay, and Stockdale and Kazdin. And you’ve read his own scientific presentation of the case, and you’ve thought about the connections between them.
What comes next? What comes next is a chance, in your 5th and 6th directed exercises, to address three psychology articles which you, yourself, are going to choose and summarize, and then come up with an experiment on the basis of. What comes next is a chance to think about the philosophical framework by writing your first and second essays. And what comes at the end of the course, and I’ll preview it now, is a chance to think about the connections between them in the context of your final directed exercise. Which is going to be to design a week of the course yourself in which you choose texts that you think multiply illuminate the topic.
So next lecture we’ll move on to our discussion of morality. And I’ll connect it back to some of the issues we’ve been talking about so far. And I look forward to seeing you on Thursday, and especially to giving away the $6 to the very rational student who was lucky enough to earn it.
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