Feeling Conflicted?

Insights from the behavioral economics of dual motives

Posted Oct 01, 2014

We sometimes behave as if we had two selves, one who wants healthy lungs and long life and another who enjoys smoking, one who desires to improve himself by studying hard, and another would rather watch TV or socialize. These two selves are in continual contest for control: indulgence for the immediate self, and prudence for the future one. The classic movie Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an excellent demonstration. Dr. Jekyll is a repressed, orderly and compliant, Mr. Hyde, on the other hand, is indulgent and aggressive.

An important idea in behavioral is that our behavior seems to be controlled by a narrow-minded “doers” who cares about immediate gratification and a farsighted “planner” who is concerned with the long-term satisfaction. The person who makes plans and the person who fails to implement them are different parts of the divided self. Having just a plan or goal is not enough. No matter how strong the goal intentions, there is no guarantee that the goal will be achieved, because of the planner-doer gap (or the intention-action gap). In short, the idea of divided-self describes our mental life by the metaphor of two selves or characters in our mind. However, the interests of these two selves do not always coincide.

Many psychologists find it more useful to think of the mind as consisting of multiple-states that may to varying degree be in conflict with one another. In this view, there is no central executive control in the form of decider (CEO). Rather, decisions are made in cooperation of a coalition of different self-states. Neuroscientists argue that the mind consists of many different parts (mental processes), each operating by its own logic. Because they are designed to do different things, they don’t always work in perfect harmony. The key word is modularity, which is the equivalent of our “division of labor” in society. The brain is formed of centers dedicated to certain kinds of processing, such as vision, the body, memory, language, and emotion. A key insight is that the brain is a democracy. That is, there is no dominant decision maker.

This important insight about the human mind explains why we are conflicted, and inconsistent. The inconsistencies in the mind give rise to self-control problem. Indeed, the essence of self-control problem is mainly about conflict between two selves (e.g., one who wants to be thin and the other who wants to eat). That is, a person is both motivated to act in some particular way and also motivated to restrain that action. In the words of Nobel laureate Khaneman, life seems to consist of struggle between short-sighted self with long-sighted self and to balance these two is an art.

The divided decision model indicates that the ultimate determinant of a person’s choice is not her simple preference. Rather, people may have a variety of contradictory preferences that become dominant at different points because of their timing. If a person is vulnerable person (e.g., has a sweet tooth) and close to a box of chocolates or a bottle of whisky, she will value these options differently than when she is far away from them. The intensity of the preference of each self may determine the option chosen. That is, the contexts or circumstances of ordinary life influence individuals’ choices. One can be pulled in several directions and judging oneself after the decision is a bit like judging another person.

How do we help individuals with fragmented multiple selves to act as if they were single? First, self-awareness can prevent this bias. Second, people can act as single individual through the exercise of self-control. Since actions are taken by the Doer self, the Planner self can restrict the set of alternatives in order to influence the Doer’s desire to satisfy immediate gratification at the expense of long-run well-being.

If people can anticipate this change in desire, they can take precautions of the kinds chosen by Ulysses (in the story of Odysseus) when he had his men tie him to the mast as they approached the island of the Sirens. Able to foresee this temporary change in his preferences, he came up with an effective commitment device to foreclose his options.  The story of Odysseus is an example of pre-commitment strategy that one can use to limit his or her choices in advance against the foreseeable temptations.

For an addict, from a distance, he makes one choice to prevent himself from making the wrong choice if given an opportunity later (e.g., avoid driving by the liquor store on your way home from work). At the policy level, we can engineer our environment in such a way that enhances the capacity for self-control. For exam, the Illinois “self-exclusion program” allows problem gamblers voluntarily enroll in the program to ban themselves from receiving prizes over $600. The program provides a tool for individuals to strengthen their resolve (tying their hand). Of course, the strategy is not foolproof - you can always go out of the state and gamble all you want.





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Tononi, Giulio (2012). Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul. Pantheon.