“The infancies of all things are feeble and weak. We must keep our eyes open at their beginnings; you cannot find the danger then because it is so small; once it has grown, you cannot find the cure.” —Michel de Montaigne, 16th century French essayist
Decision-making can be described from two frames of mind: local and global. A local choice perspective refers choosing between the available items one at a time. A global choice perspective involves organizing the items into sequences and then choosing between different sequences. For example, deciding each night which meal is a better choice is the local approach. However, deciding between sequences of meals for a week is the global approach. In the local choice, the best choice is the meal option that presents the highest pleasure. In the global perspective, the best choice is the sequence of items that has higher value.
The global perspective is consistent with the rational model of motivation. For instance, when planning for the long term, most people intend to eat healthy foods, exercise regularly, quit smoking, and spend less time on the Internet. But these plans require gratification to be delayed. Since on any given day the value of the present indulgence is always higher than the value of any distant reward (health benefit), people tend to go for instant gratification. It is just our perverse tendency to favor the short term over the long term, the lower over the higher. However, when they regret their past decisions, they are taking a global perspective. For example, going to the bar and getting drunk and then regretting it. From an immediate perspective, the choice is quite sensible, but from a long-range point of view, the act seems to be a mistake.
The mismatch between the local and the global perspectives refers to self-control problem. For instance, at the beginning of a meal, I might have decided not to have dessert (prefer health to indulgence), but when the time comes (local choice context) I find that I have somehow changed my mind (prefer indulgence to health). However, in my own calm and reflective mind (a global perspective), I place more importance on health than the desert. Self-control problem implies that individuals are acting against their own better judgment of what is in their long-term interest.
The local choice perspective explains that addiction results from people’s lack of awareness of the impacts of current indulgence (e.g., drug use) on future preference (i.e., habit formation). For example, when a person decides whether to have a drink, he typically does not take into account that he can get addicted. Rather, he simply compares the value of a drink now with the value of refraining now. The individuals make decisions in the moment from the strict perspective of temporary happiness, and oblivious to the long-term consequences.
In short, choices that create an undesirable way of life are made one day at a time; they are not made at the level of a long-term lifestyle consideration. On any occasion, using drugs (or overeating) produces limited harm. The damage occurs after repeated indulgences. No one would choose to be an addict. One day of drug use does not mean addiction. As the days accumulate, the addictive behavior emerges. Consequently, a person who never chose to be an addict ends up an addict. Similarly, someone who has a second helping of dessert every night ends up twenty pounds heavier without any intention.
The local choice perspective also explains why is relapse so often preceded by the excuse that this is a “special occasion”? The excuse reflects an underlying dilemma. From a local perspective, the indulgence (drug use) is the best choice; but from a global perspective, abstinence is the best choice. The ideal solution is to somehow do both. This is impossible, except in one situation. If the situation can be framed as the “special occasion” (or “last time”), then the dilemma disappears, since the person can say to himself that a new and better life will begin tomorrow (“I’ll start my diet Tomorrow Syndrome”).
So a better treatment solution for the relapse problem is the realization that failure in any occasion is a predictor of failure in all occasions. If I give in today, I shall fail tomorrow as well. By connecting future decisions together, one sees both the immediate and long-term consequences. In other words, behavior feeds on itself. Small steps on Monday make you more likely to commit a similar behavior on Tuesday.