PSYCHOLOGY REVIEW BY WRAY HERBERT

You are not the boss of you

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Sunday, January 16, 2011

My gym is packed right now. It's harder than usual to find a free treadmill or bicycle, and I notice lots of new faces in my spinning class. I applaud all this enthusiasm for health and fitness, and I don't fret about overcrowding. I know from past years that most of these newcomers will be gone by February.

I'm not gloating. I've had more than my share of failed resolutions over the years, so I know that good intentions go only so far. These folks truly want healthier hearts, trimmer bellies and more conscientious lifestyles. Others truly want to gamble less, lust less, drink less whiskey. They just don't know how to get from here to there. They don't know how to dig down and find a new reserve of willpower when human frailty raises its head, as it inevitably will.

But this is nothing less than the human condition, isn't it? Knowing what's good for us but doing something else? It's fair to say that every human struggles in some way with the torments of self-control, which is why I brought such good will to journalist and pop philosopher Daniel Akst's new volume on the topic. And it's also why I am so deeply disappointed with what Akst delivers here.

Akst's analysis is flawed on so many levels that's it's hard to know where to begin. But let me begin at the end, with his most prescriptive chapter. To be fair, I am going to quote Akst directly to make my complaints unambiguous. Here, for example, is his advice to people who eat when they are upset: "Is it rational to eat just because something is bothering you? If not, then find a way to cut it out."

Huh? Don't we all wish that trumping an irrational and self-destructive habit were as easy as finding "a way to cut it out"? Isn't that the entire dilemma - finding a way? It's not that people don't know it's a bad idea to eat out of worry - or drink, or consume porn, or shoot heroin. They just don't know the "way to cut it out."

Or how about this: "Maybe the best way to uphold one's desired desires is to form a habit." Again, huh? Akst's only example is "Dr. Evil's habit, in the Austin Powers films, of coyly holding his pinky to the corner of his mouth." But that's not really a good analogy. It's more of a tic. While tics and habits are related on a neurological level, it's simplistic to suggest that we can establish complex and difficult habits, like a rigorous, long-range diet and exercise routine, as easily as we master, say, the yo-yo. There are good strategies for ridding ourselves of bad habits and creating better ones, but Akst apparently doesn't know them.

Akst is confused about some important scientific points. For instance, he worries that the over-medicalization of our society - the view that everything is a disease - has diminished our personal responsibility for our actions. But as an example of this, he bemoans the fact that "sadness" has been "medicalized as depression, and society's most fortunate members - rich, well-educated white people - [feel] the need to take so much Prozac, Paxil, and other drugs to get them through their privileged days." This perspective is not only wildly inaccurate, it's an arrogant and dangerous view of a debilitating and often fatal disease that knows no class boundaries. Anyone with a passing knowledge of modern mental health and psychological science would know this.

Indeed, Akst betrays a certain contempt for modern science and its insights into self-restraint, as revealed by this statement: "I discovered that the very best guides to weakness of the will held no tenure, had no graduate degrees, and dealt with the problem [of self-control] without magnetic resonance imaging devices for peering into the skulls of undergraduates." He's referring to the ancient Greeks who, even without all the trappings of modern science, "nailed it."

Except that they didn't, really. Akst's tour through Homer and Aristotle and Plato and Socrates is fairly entertaining, but one doesn't come away with much that's helpful in dealing with the dilemma of self-control. Simply knowing that these philosophers taught temperance and self-mastery doesn't convey to us any tools for temperance and self-mastery. Again, we're missing the "way" to meet real, daily challenges such as getting to the gym and on the treadmill, and moving one foot at a time - when we really, really don't want to.

Wray Herbert, the author of "On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits," writes the "We're Only Human" column for the Association for Psychological Science.

WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY

Self-Control in an Age of Excess

By Daniel Akst

Penguin Press. 303 pp. $26.95


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