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Self-control and Public Policy.

I have just finished a series of lectures at the University of Oxford on the topic of self-control, the culmination of my first stint in Oxford as a Leverhulme visiting professor (for which I am very grateful to the Leverhulme Trust). My theme has been self-control as a problem of self-management; taking ‘management’ seriously. The idea is that we need to think strategically about ourselves: rather than deciding how to act as temptations arise, we ought to plan for those occasions, or avoid them. That, I’ve argued, is how people who are successful at avoiding temptations when they conflict with their longer-term goals actually do it.

I don’t want to rehearse those arguments here (if anyone is interested, the podcasts of the lectures will be available online, and several people have kindly blogged about them). Instead, I want to think about its implications for policy.

In the lectures, I remained mainly at the individual level, asking what can each of us do to increase our self-control. I said there are three basic strategies worth pursuing:

(a) we can structure our environments to avoid temptations;

(b) we can alter the relative costs of temptations when we encounter them;

(c) we can exercise various skills to distract ourselves from temptations or to think of them in ways that make them less tempting.

Once we start to look for them, we can easily find examples of the first two strategies. A very banal example of the first: if you find doughnuts tempting but are worried about sticking to your diet, you might choose a route home that doesn’t have you walking past the bakery with its tempting smells. Diets also provide plenty of examples of the second. Telling everyone you have gone on a diet may change the relative costs of temptations by throwing your own reputation into the mix: now it is not only your diet that is threatened but also your dignity.

The third strategy is a little less familiar though there is experimental evidence that people spontaneously deploy it. Sometimes we are confronted by temptations we didn’t plan for and it is too late to change the costs, much less avoid them. Even children deploy skills to make it less likely they give in under these kinds of circumstances. They self-distract, by finding something engaging to do, or they may attempt to construe the temptation in a way that focuses away from those features that make it hard to resist. One way to do this is to see it as representative of a series of temptations: it’s not a sweet gooey chocolate bar, it’s an example of one of the many temptations you need to resist to remain resolute.

There is great reluctance on many people’s part to transforming this kind of advice into policy prescription. On the right, many people fear that asking governments and corporations to take steps to make it more likely that people avoid temptations or confront them in circumstances in which they are more costly (I set aside the third option for the moment) has negative implications for individual responsibility. It might prevent people from developing the capacity to take responsibility or it might simply be unjustified because people are (as a matter of fact) responsible for what they do. Even people who don’t share the political views associated with the more fervent versions of these views often feel some sympathy: we think that it is preferable that people take responsibility for their behavior than that they are ‘nannied’ into acting better.

It may be that the myth – and I think it is a myth – that most people who successfully exercise self-control in the service of their goals do so by exercising willpower contributes to the feeling that asking the state or corporations to take steps is second-best (or worse than that). Once we start to see that successful self-control is associated with indirect strategies, we will see social action more sympathetically. It would be unacceptably paternalistic to prevent people from straying from their diets (or from their savings plans, their education, and so on) but there are many things we can do that enable them to remain resolute if that’s indeed what they choose to do.

Many of these things are also familiar (much of it from the nudge literature): we can change the defaults so that people save more, for instance. That may be making the tempting options more costly by associating extra effort with them. We can choose what goods are taxed; that’s again changing the relative costs. We can also – democratically, as a group – choose to ensure that people aren’t confronted by the most tempting options when their capacity to resist is at its lowest. We know that tired and intoxicated people make worse choices; we might bear that in mind when we make regulations about the availability of alcohol (for instance).

To some extent, the third strategy may be pursued in a way that avoids the worries that motivate opponents of these kinds of interventions. We can give individuals the tools to make better choices, avoiding all kinds of paternalism. We can teach them strategies of self-distraction (first teaching them that such strategies are useful; we need to fight the myth of willpower) and we can teach them strategies of construal. We can also teach them how to structure their environment to avoid temptations and to change the costs, and teach them that these strategies are not second best.

Notice, though, that the third strategy can’t entirely replace the first two. It has limited power. Though it may give people the capacities they need to exercise self-control in many environments, if they are placed in environments in which the temptations are insistent and repeated, this kind of strategy will be little use. People can control their own environments only if they have options: I can avoid walking past the fast food restaurant only if there is an accessible route available from my workplace to my home which doesn’t take me past one. And I can use self-distraction only if the temptations are not too salient and too insistent. So giving people the tools they need to exercise self-control is not independent of some degree of regulation. We still need, say, zoning laws to ensure that fast food restaurants do not proliferate, and advertising regulation to ensure that the sights and sounds and smells associated with temptations don’t overwhelm our capacities for resistance. In the end, a concern with individuals and their capacity to take responsibility for their actions isn’t an alternative to some degree of regulation, but requires it.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. Interesting stuff. I kind of agree about the value of some of this sort of nudge+ stuff, but I have a couple of reservations.

    One is that it seems to me to assume too much about knowing what the desirable end-state is. Your fast food example is an excellent illustration. Perhaps some people do want to avoid temptation in the way you describe. But perhaps others do not, and perhaps they find the convenience of visiting McVeggies (say) terrific, (maybe since it lets them get a passable meal which is not obscenely bad for them, and catch the train, which means they can be fully attentive at their child’s bed-time). By passing a zoning law which caters to the first group’s tastes but not the second’s, the local authority is effectively picking winners. It might be argued that by not passing the zoning law the local authority is siding with the second group; but this depends on buying the idea that interference is the same as noninterference – many people disagree with this. Doesn’t this remain an issue even if you are giving a nudge (changing organ donation or savings defaults) not a push (like banning shops because you disapprove of their wares)?

    The second issue I have is with how this sort of nannying plays out in practice: with the distributional implications of these sorts of special interest interventions. Basically, the people who win these games are self-righteous middle class busybodies – people who are good at mobilising support and know how to play the system procedurally to thwart their fellow citizens’ choices. I think at the end of the day most of the opposition to these sorts of interventions comes not from “the right” but from ordinary non-political people who wonder “who are these strange people with horn-rimmed spectacles and beards, and why are they always telling me what to do?”

  2. Much of your worry doesn’t apply, Dave: I don’t wear glasses. I am sceptical that non-intervention is less problematic than intervention, but in any case that’s not the situation we face. We need to decide *who* intervenes, not *whether* there is intervention. Much of the research I cite comes from work in consumer psychology, funded by marketing companies. They have been applying the results for years in order to lead people to consume more, and more high-margin stuff, than they otherwise.

    To the extent possible, I want to avoid dictating how people act. To use your example, I want people to be able to go to a convenient McVeggies but also to be able to avoid it if they want. Zoning laws shouldn’t prohibit McVeggies from being near you, but ensure that without great inconvenience you don’t come within sight or smell of it if you don’t want to.

    1. Good news about the glasses, Neil. I find I need them for reading these days, as well as for hectoring people. The question of who intervenes is just the one I was getting at, since I read your post as being more about the tactics or process dimensions of enabling self-control than of deciding whose version of self-control should prevail. My concern on that score is that I’m far more sceptical about academics and elites wanting to use regulatory powers than I am about corporations using market power. For many/most(?) of us, ignoring regulatory incursions into our life is more inconvenient than ignoring corporate incursions into our lives. This is why I guess my inclination is to pay more attention to attempts to deploy insights from behavioural psychology in a regulatory context than in a market context.

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