The Mind of a Flip-Flopper

Why do we change our minds and behavior?

Posted Nov 04, 2016

A fundamental research question in behavior change research is why are old habits so enduring even when we gain insight about their damaging effects and are determined to change them? For example, why do people fail to stick to their goal for eating healthy diet in order to maintain weight loss? What leads a person to temporarily prefer poorer alternative? How can we explain such behavior that goes against our own self-interest?

//creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Dr.CVSB (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

One possible answer is that people have self-control problem in the form of a present-biased preference, where one places extra weight on more immediate rewards. The future (e.g., 1 year) is a long way off, particularly if there is an appealing snack (cookie) in front of you right now. For instance, most dieters have good intentions to eat less by counting calories, but then on weekends they lose their resolve. They know their long-term interest but pursue short-term pleasure.

The present bias explains why there is a warp in our attitude toward delay. When we can hold all alternatives at a distance, our evaluations of them remain true to their values in our lives. But our desire for a reward increases when we are closer to it, and unless we somehow commit ourselves to our previous preferences, we give in. For example, an ice cream may seem like a bad idea when considered a few days before it appears at a birthday party, but as the party approaches the ice cream becomes ever more appealing while the dietary consequences diminish in importance.

The addicts and overeaters want to discontinue their behaviors at some point, but not today. It always feels better to defer unpleasant efforts. They continuously procrastinate, and the difficulty of overcoming such procrastination is the main problem with addiction and obesity. The cost of having yet another piece of cake or smoking yet another cigarette may be so small that it is reasonable to see it as insignificant.

The present bias describes conflicts between short- and long-term motives. Although we tend to view ourselves as a single and integrated self, people can be viewed as multiple selves with different points of view. Thomas Schelling was the first to note that people behave sometimes as if they had two selves, one who wants healthy lungs and long life and another who enjoys smoking, one who yearns to improve himself by studying hard, and another would rather watch TV or socialize. The two are in continual competition for control. In this case, behavior is controlled by a series of narrow-minded “doers” who maximize immediate satisfaction, and a broad-minded “planner” who maximizes overall satisfaction.

The idea of the divided-self suggests that 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 plate of freshly baked cookies or a bottle of whisky, he will value these options differently than when he 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.

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. Moreover, when people see themselves as totally distinct from their future selves, then the future selves’ well-being is none of their concern. Thus, future selves are considered to be strangers, to whom one can pass the buck and imposes a sometimes a heavy burden.

What can a person (or an addict) do to overcome the present bias? Becoming self-aware of these forces actually helps to improve the bias. Knowing why people fail to consider future consequences is an essential ingredient in improving decision- making, as well as the development of effective treatment solution. One approach is to attach penalties to temptation and rewards to long-term goal pursuit. For example, some former alcoholics try to stay dry by taking disulfiram (Antabuse), a drug that has the effect of making the user violently ill if one takes a drink. Within a few minutes of ingesting alcohol, the user will experience severe nausea and vomiting.