Category Archives: Psychology

Be ye doers

I’ve just been reading William James’s little treatise on Habit and found this passage, which reinforces what is becoming something of a leitmotif in my recent reflections: the gospel according to Goethe’s Faust — “In the beginning was the Act.”

(In James’s original, this passage is all one big paragraph. I’ve taken the liberty of breaking it up a bit as a concession to the preferences of modern readers.)

No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better. With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved. And this is an obvious consequence of the principles we have laid down. A ‘character,’ as J. S. Mill says, ‘is a completely fashioned will’; and a will, in the sense in which he means it, is an aggregate of tendencies to act in a firm and prompt and definite way upon all the principal emergencies of life. A tendency to act only becomes effectively ingrained in us in proportion to the uninterrupted frequency with which the actions actually occur, and the brain ‘grows’ to their use.

Every time a resolve or a fine glow of feeling evaporates without bearing practical fruit is worse than a chance lost; it works so as positively to hinder future resolutions and emotions from taking the normal path of discharge.

There is no more contemptible type of human character than that of the nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion, but who never does a manly concrete deed. Rousseau, inflaming all the mothers of France, by his eloquence, to follow Nature and nurse their babies themselves, while he sends his own children to the foundling hospital, is the classical example of what I mean. But every one of us in his measure, whenever, after glowing for an abstractly formulated Good, he practically ignores some actual case, among the squalid ‘other particulars’ of which that same Good lurks disguised, treads straight on Rousseau’s path. All Goods are disguised by the vulgarity of their concomitants, in this work-a-day world; but woe to him who can only recognize them when he thinks them in their pure abstract form!

The habit of excessive novel-reading and theatre-going will produce true monsters in this line. The weeping of a Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coachman is freezing to death on his seat outside, is the sort of thing that everywhere happens on a less glaring scale. Even the habit of excessive indulgence in music, for those who are neither performers themselves not musically gifted enough to take it in a purely intellectual way, has probably a relaxing effect upon the character. One becomes filled with emotions which habitually pass without prompting to any deed, and so the inertly sentimental condition is kept up. The remedy would be, never to suffer one’s self to have an emotion at a concert, without expressing it afterward in some active way. Let the expression be the least thing in the world — speaking genially to one’s aunt, or giving up one’s seat in a horse-car, if nothing more heroic offers — but let it not fail to take place.

— Habit, pp. 61-64

William Blake makes very similar points in several passages of the Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling. And being restrain’d it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire. . . .

He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence. . . .

Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.

Blake’s epigrams on this subject had always been opaque to me in the past — particularly the last one quoted, which seemed to be making the insane claim that it is better to commit a murder than to resist the temptation to do so. (I know these are the “Proverbs of Hell” we’re talking about, but still!) I suppose the word desire has carnal connotations, which led me to interpret Blake’s comments as being about temptations and how we ought not to resist them. James’s different wording — “a resolve or a fine glow of feeling” — served as a reminder that there are good desires as well (that, in fact, all our desires are desires for something good) and helped me see Blake from a different angle.

James sheds a similar light on Aleister Crowley’s notorious maxim “Do what thou wilt.” The key is to put the stress on the first word: “Do what thou wilt.” Inflected and interpreted correctly, this could indeed be characterized as “the whole of the law.”

Quoting that bozo approvingly kind of makes me want to take a shower, so here’s something on the same topic from a rather more reputable source:

Whosoever cometh to me, and heareth my sayings, and doeth them, I will shew you to whom he is like:

He is like a man which built an house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation on a rock: and when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, and could not shake it: for it was founded upon a rock.

But he that heareth, and doeth not, is like a man that without a foundation built an house upon the earth; against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell; and the ruin of that house was great.

— Luke 6:47-49

The emphasis on hearing and not doing — rather than simply on not doing — is something that never jumped out at me on previous readings of Luke (and Matthew, and the Epistle of James), but to which my attention has now been directed by William James. Hearing and doing is best; neither hearing nor doing is worse; but hearing and not doing — nursing the unacted desire to be good — is worst of all. Not only is one failing to do one’s duty in that particular instance; one is also building up a habit of reacting to moral appeals and moral emotions by doing nothing at all. And being restrain’d, the conscience by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire.

One of Iris Murdoch’s characters puts it well (if you overlook the cheap shot at Christianity):

Your ‘moral ambition’ or whatever you call your selfish optimism, is just the old lie of Christian salvation, that you can shed your old self and become good simply by thinking about it – and as you sit and dream this dream you feel that you are changed already and have no more work to do – and so you are happy in your lie (The Book and the Brotherhood, p. 25).

James presents the rather counterintuitive idea that “uplifting” art and literature — the type that evokes feelings of compassion and heroism — might be positively harmful to one’s morals, because it dissociates one’s moral emotions from the actions which ought naturally to follow from them (just as surely as a pornography habit emasculates a man by training him to dissociate sexual stimuli from sex). Too much looking at archaic torsos of Apollo and too little changing one’s life could actually lead to moral callousness, to a decreased sensitivity to the voice of conscience.

People often comment on the paradoxical fact that many of the Nazi leaders were great music lovers — and music, I suppose, would pose a greater danger than the other arts simply because it is so abstract, so far removed from action. When it comes to drama, even if you watch a play, are moved, and do nothing, you aren’t really doing nothing; the pathways of habits are being reinforced behind the scenes by mirror neurons. But the farther removed a given art form is from the actual witnessing of an action, the less this will be true, and the greater the danger that James warns of.

Of course this is not to suggest that art, music, and literature are to be avoided, but perhaps there is something to say for James’s advice “never to suffer one’s self to have an emotion at a concert, without expressing it afterward in some active way.”

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Sexual self-control: the ideal way to build willpower

Willpower can be strengthened with practice. (See this post and the comments.) The problem is that, if you practice any particular thing for long enough, it becomes an automatic habit, willpower is out of the picture, and it becomes useless as a strength-building exercise.

The only willed practices that can never become fully habitual, the only ones which will always require the exercise of the will to some degree, are those that flout our deepest natural instincts — those pertaining most directly to the evolutionary non-negotiables of survival and reproduction. As Hamlet says — emphasis added — “Use almost can change the stamp of nature.”

On the survival-related side, we have such practices as fasting and self-flagellation. The problem with these is that, well, they’re survival-related. You can only go so far with them before they lead to injury or death. No one this side of sainthood can actually fast for 40 days and 40 nights.

That leaves sexual lust as the most promising punching-bag on which to build one’s willpower muscles. Like our survival instincts, it’s not going to go away — you won’t just “get over” it as you might get over a desire to smoke or play video games — but unlike them, it can be safely flouted without risk of injury or death. And, aside from its effects on willpower, sexual self-control is a good thing to develop in its own right — something positively healthy, unlike fasting or self-flagellation.

And, given the sex-saturated nature of modern culture, most people aren’t even going to have to do anything very extreme in the lust-control department to find their willpower severely tested (and thus strengthened). As an indicator of just how crazy the current situation is, a 2009 study of the effects of Internet pornography ran into problems when the researchers were unable to find anyone at all to put in the control group! For most 21st-century men, even bringing their sexual behavior up to the level of the average caveman would be a major accomplishment.

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Bacon on habits

In his essay “Of Nature in Men,” Francis Bacon presents some unusual ideas about the formation and maintenance of habits.

Let not a man force a habit upon himself with a perpetual continuance, but with some intermission. For both the pause reinforceth the new onset; and if a man that is not perfect be ever in practice, he shall as well practise his errors as his abilities, and induce one habit of both; and there is no means to help this but by seasonable intermissions.

It’s hard to see how seasonable intermissions do anything to solve the problem. If practice strengthens both one’s errors and one’s abilities, it would seem that the cessation of practice would likewise weaken both equally. Intermissions would be helpful only if unpracticed errors faded away more rapidly than unpracticed abilities, which seems unlikely to be the case. After all, a habit is a habit, and its status as an “ability” or an “error” is a function of the value we impute to it, not of anything in the nature of the habit itself.

One possible way to make sense of Bacon’s statement is this: When we practice a particular skill, we learn ability by design but error by accident. Therefore, if a number of people practice the same skill independently, they would be expected to develop similar abilities but dissimilar errors — just as, in biology, conspecifics tend to be similar in their adaptive features but dissimilar in their deleterious mutations.

If a person returns to the practice of a particular skill after a sufficiently long intermission, such that he has to relearn everything more-or-less from scratch, it is almost as if a different person were learning the skill. He is dealt a new hand of good and bad habits relative to that skill. But the good habits will be mostly the same as the good habits he learnt before, while the bad habits (conceptualized as mutation-like copying errors) will be mostly new. Thus the good habits, which are being learnt for the second time, will come more naturally, being reinforced by traces of those long-dormant former habits, while the bad ones will not. If I were to pick up my old banjo again after these 20 years, according to this theory, I would quickly relearn a fluent forward-reverse roll but would be less likely to pick up my old “bad” habit of resting two fingers on the head when picking.*

That’s the best I can do with what Bacon has written, but I’m not at all sure that it would really work. Nor am I at all sure that it’s really what Bacon had in mind. It seems unlikely that he was recommending taking such a long break that you forget everything and have to start over from scratch.

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Elsewhere in the same essay, Bacon writes:

But let not a man trust his victory over his nature too far; for nature will lay buried a great time, and yet revive upon the occasion or temptation. Like as it was with Aesop’s damosel, turned from a cat to a woman; who sate very demurely at the board’s end, till a mouse ran before her. Therefore let a man either avoid the occasion altogether; or put himself often to it, that he may be little moved with it.

Here Bacon’s counterintuitive advice is to actively seek out frequent temptation if one is not able to avoid temptation altogether — and who, in the real world, is ever able to do the latter? This strikes me as extraordinarily bad advice, though I seem to remember reading that Gandhi did something of the kind, regularly sleeping with beautiful women — “sleeping” in the literal, not the euphemistic, sense — in order to inure himself to their charms and strengthen his chastity. I can see the logic behind the method, but I suspect it would usually do more harm than good. Each individual temptation would become weaker and easier to withstand, it is true, but that benefit would seem to be offset by the increased number of temptations.

If you want to minimize your number of skiing accidents, what is the optimal frequency with which you should go skiing? Well, never, obviously — but assume that’s not an option. Assume the minimum is once a year. If you keep to that minimum, you’ll only have one opportunity a year to have an accident — but the odds of having an accident in any given year will be relatively high, since you won’t be a very good skier. If you go skiing every week, on the other hand, you’ll become a good skier with a much lower chance of having an accident during any given skiing trip — but you’ll also have 52 times as many ski trips as the once-a-year skier. There surely is some number of ski trips per year which is the optimum, but it’s impossible to know in advance what that optimum is, or whether you ought to ski more often or less often than you currently do.

Thus Bacon’s advice — Lead us into temptation so as to deliver us from evil — doesn’t seem very practical. In trying to follow it, most people would probably end up just using it as an excuse to expose themselves to greater-than-optimal temptation in the subconscious hope of slipping up and yielding.

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*My old banjo teacher, Lee Ruff, considered this an error. Apparently not all pickers would agree. According to this site, “There has been a particular furor among banjoists over whether to plant the ring, the little or both of the fingers on the head to stabilize the hand as a picking platform.”

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How crazy do you have to be to think you’re God?

C. S. Lewis once wrote that if Christ was a mere man who believed he was God, he would be “on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg” — that is, a complete lunatic who could not possibly be considered a great moral teacher or anything of that nature. In this essay, Peter Kreeft takes Lewis’s point a step further and claims that mistakenly believing oneself to be God is even crazier than believing oneself to be a poached egg — that Christ, if wrong, was literally as crazy as it is possible for a human being to be.

A measure of your insanity is the size of the gap between what you think you are and what you really are. If I think I am the greatest philosopher in America, I am only an arrogant fool; if I think I am Napoleon, I am probably over the edge; if I think I am a butterfly, I am fully embarked from the sunny shores of sanity. But if I think I am God, I am even more insane because the gap between anything finite and the infinite God is even greater than the gap between any two finite things, even a man and a butterfly.

Is that really a fair measure of insanity, though? The gap between your beliefs (about yourself or anything else) and reality is a measure of how wrong you are, but being very wrong isn’t the same as being insane. To be insane, you have to be obviously wrong; your beliefs have to be inconsistent with, or at least completely unsupported by, the data directly available to you. Ontologically speaking, a man may have far less in common with God than with a butterfly or even a poached egg — but the fact that he is not a butterfly is still far more immediately obvious than the fact that he is not God.

Consider the following three (hypothetical) people and their beliefs about themselves.

  1. Anthony believes that he is entirely composed of matter operating according to deterministic laws of physics, and that his “soul” (if that word is even appropriate) is “made of lots of tiny robots.” (The phrase is from Daniel Dennett’s translation of an Italian newspaper headline about his philosophy.)
  2. Brian believes that he is an immortal, non-physical spirit temporarily inhabiting a physical body, and that his spiritual part is supernatural and not subject to the laws of physics.
  3. Christopher is completely normal physically. However, he is firmly convinced that he has no hands and that his arms terminate in horse’s hooves. He believes this even when he is using his hands, which he can do just as well as anyone else. When other people insist that he does not have hooves and that his hands are perfectly normal, he thinks they are just trying to avoid hurting his feelings.

Whatever the truth may be about the soul and its relation to the body, it’s clear that either Anthony or Brian (or, most likely, both of them) must be deeply and fundamentally wrong about his own most basic nature, whereas Christopher’s error concerns only some relatively trivial anatomical details. Nevertheless, we probably all know people who hold views like Anthony’s and Brian’s and consider them perfectly sane — or at any rate far saner than Christopher, who is clearly barking mad.

Now some people may believe — or think they believe — that Anthony’s denial of his own metaphysical free will (which, in their view, he uses every day) is every bit as insane as Christopher’s insistence that he has no hands. It is therefore important to keep in mind that the question under consideration is not whether a particular belief is a “crazy” one, but whether a person holding that belief can be assumed to be so severely mentally ill that none of his teachings on any subject could be of any value to us. If Anthony or Brian (whichever one seems crazier to you) had written a book about, say, biology or economics or parenting — or even about moral philosophy or religion — would you feel justified in dismissing it as the ravings of a lunatic? (The question is supposed to be a rhetorical one, and I hope you got the right answer.)

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Let us take it as axiomatic that Christians are not (as such) literally insane. Even if we assume for the sake of argument that the Christian creed is false, it is obvious that such people as Newton, Dante, and St. Thomas have much of great value to teach us. (See my essay about that here.)

Christians believe that Christ is the Eternal and Omnipotent God. They believe that in spite of the fact that he started his career as a baby, increased gradually in wisdom and stature, and needed to eat and drink like ordinary mortals — in spite of the fact that he died like an ordinary mortal, his last words being “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” — in spite of the fact that, after promising to return within the lifetime of his first-century disciples, he disappeared for 2,000 years and counting. Many Christians believe even “crazier” things about Christ — for example, that he and his Father are both one and not one, or that bread and wine can literally be his body and blood.

Christians believe all this, and yet, even if we assume it all to be false, they are still sane and perfectly capable of being great moral teachers. Is it really so different is someone falsely believes such things about himself? It seems different — it seems that any sane person would know the truth about himself in a way that he could not know it about another person — but I’m not so sure that it is.

At first glance, the Catholic’s belief that, despite his lying eyes, the bread and wine in front of him are actually the body and blood of Christ, seems to be on the same level as Christopher’s insistence that his hands are actually horse’s hooves. It’s not, though, because the Catholic’s belief is qualified in a way that makes it consistent with what he experiences: the bread is supposed to be flesh only in essence, while its “accidents” remain that of ordinary bread. Christopher’s belief about his hands has no such asterisk, which is what makes it more truly mad.

Similarly, no sane person is ever going to believe that he is simply God, but only God in human form. If Christ believed that he was God, but a God who had condescended to live and die as mortal, would it really be so obvious that he was wrong? So obvious that the belief would mark him as a raving lunatic and disqualify him as a great moral teacher? What aspects of his experience would be inconsistent with that belief? It would be an unusual belief, to be sure, an eccentric belief, but nowhere near the poached-egg level of madness. And if we assume that Christ was in fact a rather extraordinary mortal with seemingly “supernatural” abilities, and that he had been told by his mother that he had no biological father — well, then his belief that he was God hardly even seems all that eccentric anymore.

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Actually, this whole discussion is less hypothetical than I have been making it sound. The fact is that I am personally acquainted with a man who believes himself to be Jehovah incarnate, and he’s a very intelligent, creative, and insightful person with a keen if somewhat unconventional moral sense. (In fact, in his moral discourse I often find the same combination of astute insight, earnest benevolence, and biting sarcasm that is so characteristic of Christ himself.) I wouldn’t call him a great moral teacher, but it’s quite easy for me to believe that someone like that could be such a teacher. I haven’t bothered myself too much over the question of whether he should be considered “insane,” but in a way it doesn’t really matter. I’m forced to conclude, either that you can believe you’re God without being insane, or that you can be insane and still be an insightful moralist. Either way, the “Lord, liar, or lunatic” trilemma crumbles.

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Seeing what you expect to see

Just yesterday I was looking at the cover of one of my books and noticed something funny. It was a volume of English translations of Euripides, edited by David Grene and Richard Lattimore — only they had written his name as Richmond Lattimore, right there on the front cover! Then I looked at the back cover, and the title page, and a Sophocles book by the same editors — and I found that, by golly, the guy’s name actually was Richmond.

I read a lot of Greek literature in translation, and I must have seen Mr. Lattimore’s name hundreds or even thousands of times before without ever once noticing that it wasn’t Richard. They say the brain recognizes words mainly by how they begin and end (wcihh is why Esilgnh is slitl pltcefrey lbilege wehn you wtrie it lkie tihs), and I suppose the first time I encountered this particular name, my brain said something like, “R-I-C-something, ends with D — okay, I know this one.” After that, the more times I saw the name, and the more familiar it became, the more likely my brain would be to recognize it as a unit rather than actually reading it letter-by-letter and recognizing its mistake.

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This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. It was only last year that I discovered, much to my surprise, that Euripides himself was not called Euripedes — this after reading about a dozen of his plays and writing extensively about him in a notebook.

When I was a child, I was once discussing the characters in a Tintin book with my sister, and she mentioned the name Spalding. I said, “Don’t you mean Spadling?” She said she was pretty sure the character’s name was Spalding, but I insisted: “No, it’s Spadling — you know, like the basketball brand!” — at which point she went and got our Spalding basketball and showed it to me. You don’t forget an embarrassing experience like that. (Years later I tried to correct the same sister, then a grad student in philosophy, for saying Leibniz instead of Liebniz. I should have learned my lesson the first time.)

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I’m sure I’m not the only person who does this. Another childhood memory is of my father reading to us from The Lord of the Rings — and always pronouncing Rohirrim as “Rohimmir” (though I can’t be sure he thought it was spelled that way, I suppose). And I can’t count how many times I’ve seen people list “Jane Austin” as a favorite author — that is, an author whose name they must have seen written innumerable times and should be able to spell.

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Some of these mistakes are pretty easy to understand. There are 200 Austins for every Austen in the most recent U.S. Census, and Richmond is so unusual as a Christian name that I can’t even calculate how much less frequent it is than Richard, the seventh-most popular name for men in my country.

“Spadling,” of course, is not a normal name at all, but the -ling ending is fairly common in English, and I suppose that’s what my brain thought it recognized. It made the same mistake when I read Tolkien, reading Eorlingas as Eorlings. (I was really quite shocked to discover much later that the a had been there all along.) My father’s own Rohan-related misreading is harder to understand, though, since -im as a suffix for the name of a people should seem quite natural to a Bible-reader, much more so than -ir.

“Euripedes” and “Liebniz” are also hard to understand. I guess a lot of Greek names end in -edes, like Archimedes and — well, that’s the only one that comes to mind. I think I have a reasonable guess for “Liebniz,” though. My pre-teen philosophical education consisted of (1) reading everything Plato ever wrote, (2) reading everything Nietzsche ever wrote, and (3) nothing else. When I first encountered another German philosopher with a prominent ni-z in his name, my brain must have decided that ie was a more appropriate vowel than ei.

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The strange thing about errors of this kind is how confident we are in them. I wasn’t unsure about the names Spalding and Leibniz; I was confidently correcting people who pronounced them correctly! It’s not that I was unsure of Mr. Lattimore’s Christian name. If you had asked me two days ago, I would have said without hesitation, “Richard.” And if you’d said, “Are you sure it isn’t Richmond?” — well, as they say, I could have sworn his name was Richard. Why? Because I’d seen his name so very many times, and every single time I saw it as Richard.

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Willpower: Exercise or conserve?

After all the more or less fruitless posts on free will as a metaphysical problem, here’s something a little more practical. The following is from a recent article by John Tierney  discussing some of Roy F. Baumeister’s research on what they are calling “ego depletion” or “decision fatigue.”

[Baumeister’s] experiments demonstrated that there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control. When people fended off the temptation to scarf down M&M’s or freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, they were then less able to resist other temptations. When they forced themselves to remain stoic during a tearjerker movie, afterward they gave up more quickly on lab tasks requiring self-discipline, like working on a geometry puzzle or squeezing a hand-grip exerciser. Willpower turned out to be more than a folk concept or a metaphor. It really was a form of mental energy that could be exhausted. The experiments confirmed the 19th-century notion of willpower being like a muscle that was fatigued with use, a force that could be conserved by avoiding temptation.

According to this view, the best way to maintain a high level of willpower is to conserve it by not using it too much! This can be contrasted with the view that sees willpower as a muscle to be built up by constant exercise — what we might call the Hamlet theory of self-control (“Refrain to-night, and that shall lend a kind of easiness to the next abstinence”).

As the muscle metaphor suggests, the two views are not necessarily incompatible. Other things being equal, someone who has just run a mile will be weaker than someone who has not — but someone who runs a mile every day will be stronger. Baumeister’s experiments (at least the ones mentioned in the article) only measure the short-term effects of decision fatigue, so they do not rule out the possibility that willpower works the same way. It would be interesting to see the results of a study on the effects of a long-term regimen of willpower training.

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There can be little doubt that, when it comes to any one specific behavior, Hamlet is right that each abstinence makes the next easier — but this probably has more to do with establishing or disrupting habits than with building up willpower. Once something becomes a habit, it no longer requires much in the way of decision-making or willpower. The Spartans didn’t have to force themselves every evening to have nothing but black broth for dinner; this habit was probably so entrenched that nothing else even seemed like a live option. Once your brain has got the idea that this is just what we do, that no decision-making is required, willpower ceases to be an issue. When I was a Mormon missionary, I had an enormous number of rules to follow — get up at 6:00 every morning, never put your hands in your pockets, refrain from using the word “guy,” etc. — but after a few months none of them were very difficult to follow. This was not because my willpower had increased, but because the behaviors in question had shifted out of the realm of conscious decision and into the realm of habit. This is what Hamlet means when he says that use almost can change the stamp of nature.

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I’m interested in a different question, though: whether exercising one’s willpower can make it stronger in general, aside from the effect habituation may have on any one specific behavior.

Mormons have a practice of fasting for 24 hours (a complete fast: no food, no water) on the first Sunday of every month. Though there are other purposes for this (for example, the money saved by not eating is supposed to be given as alms), one rationale which I often heard was that by practicing self-control in this arbitrary matter, one built up one’s ability to control oneself in general, resulting in an increased capacity to resist temptation. I suppose similar thinking underlies other forms of asceticism and “mortification of the flesh.” Baumeister would probably say that fasting is bad for willpower in the short term (low glucose levels were found to negatively affect willpower), but could regular fasting really build up willpower in the long run?

One thing that makes this difficult to test (or to practice, for that matter) is that, whatever regimen of willpower training one decides to use, it is itself in danger of becoming a habit and thus ceasing to be a meaningful exercise in self-control. The Mormon program of fasting addresses this issue to some extent; because the fasts only occur once a month, they always represent a break in one’s routine and never become fully habitual. Still, though, one becomes accustomed to fasting and it ceases to be difficult. As a Mormon, I was virtually never seriously tempted to break my fast early, and it’s not clear that I was actually exercising self-control in any meaningful sense. Of course I felt hungry and thirsty, but mere desire does not always constitute a real temptation which must be resisted by force of will. Walking down the street on a hot summer’s day, you may feel uncomfortably warm, but are you ever seriously tempted to take off all your clothes? Does it really take any self-control to keep them on? When you see something in a shop which you want but can’t afford, is it really willpower that keeps you from stealing it? Our habits, and our idea of which actions are thinkable and which are not, determine whether or not willpower even comes into play.

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I suppose a regimen of real (non-habitual) willpower training would look something like a kung fu movie, where the master trains his student by making a series of unpredictable and often whimsical demands.

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Some notes on the dark arts of rhetoric

The most effective put-down is one that employs — and deftly eviscerates — the very same terms which would ordinarily be used for praise. This is roughly a million times more effective than name-calling. Witness Byron’s masterful deflation of pretensions of immortality:

Pride! bend thine eye from heaven to thine estate;
See how the Mighty shrink into a song!

The power of these lines hinges at least in part on the choice of the word “song” — put at the end of a line for extra punch. This is the same word usually used to refer to fame as a kind of apotheosis (as in “to be immortalized in song”), but Byron makes it sound rather paltry — not by actually saying it is paltry, but by casting his verse in such a way that the reader is forced to presuppose it is paltry. The addition of that little word “a” is also a slick touch. How much less glorious it sounds to be immortalized in a song!

Another good example of this is in the film The Aviator, when Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) says to Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), “Don’t you ever talk down to me! You are a movie star — nothing more.” By simply using the (usually positive) term “movie star” as an insult, he presupposes that both he and Hepburn already know that movie stars are contemptible — and presupposing your point can be much more effective than making it directly.

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Walter Winchell mocked Nazis by calling them “Ratzis” (Rational Socialists?) and “swastinkers”. Now “Nazi” itself is enough of an insult. Likewise for liberals, feminists, and fundamentalists. If you can ridicule or denounce something whilst using the very same name that its supporters use, it’s far more effective than making up some derogatory term.

Likewise, it’s usually better to embrace the common—even if hostile—terminology for what you support rather than insisting on something else. Groups that insist on politically correct euphemisms for themselves imply that they need euphemizing.

Insisting on special terminology for oneself or for one’s enemies is a sign of weakness. The best way is to use common neutral language, pushing it very slightly in the direction of sarcastically imitating the terminology used by your enemies—but not too much, or you’ll sound like you have a chip on your shoulder.

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When you compare the president to a Nazi, your scorn for the president sounds shrill, but your scorn for Nazis sounds reasonable. Again, this is because your comparison takes it for granted that everyone knows Nazis are bad. If X is the real target of your scorn, don’t compare X to something worse; instead, find excuses to compare other things to X in a way that presupposes a negative opinion of X.

I once saw this comment on a blog: “You sound like a goddamn Christian with all that ‘People hate me because I’m awesome’ bullshit.” This may have been an effective put-down of its ostensible target (an atheist who would presumably object to being compared to a Christian), but it’s a far more effective put-down of Christians. (Corollary: Pro-religion commentators who compare outspoken atheists to religious fundamentalists are shooting themselves in the foot.)

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These techniques are forms of sarcasm, which Studies Have Shown is more effective than direct criticism.

The psychologist Ellen Winner and her colleagues have shown that people have a better impression of speakers who express a criticism with sarcasm (“What a great game you just played!”) than with direct language (“What a lousy game you just played!”). The sarcastic speakers, compared with the blunt ones, are seen as less angry, less critical, and more in control. This may be cold comfort to the target of the sarcasm, of course, since criticism is more damaging when it is seen to come from a judicious critic than from a dyspeptic one (Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought, pp. 380-81).

Part of the power of sarcasm is that, to some extent, it only works if you’re right. “What a great game you just played!” will be understood as a sarcastic put down only if the listener already knows that he didn’t just play a great game, or at least has some doubts.

Sarcasm disarms its target. There is no safe reply. If you say, “What a great game you just played!” and I respond defensively (“Come on, it wasn’t so bad!”), I’m implicitly admitting that you are right. I understand your comment to be sarcasm, which means I know you couldn’t have meant it sincerely, which means I know I played badly. If, on the other hand, I don’t get the sarcasm (or pretend not to get it) and respond with “Thanks!”, you can answer with a withering “I was being sarcastic.”

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Filed under Psychology, Rhetoric