Weapons of Mass Consumption

Has modern technology ruined our self-control?

The good times are killing us, Daniel Akst suggests in We Have Met The Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess, but at least he believes there are steps we can take to keep ourselves from having too much fun. Compared to other critics of American affluence, this qualifies him as an optimist. His general take: Cheap food, easy credit, overwhelming consumer choice, lax social mores, and all the other virtues that bedevil us here in the land of the alarmingly unrestrained may stack the deck against us, but if, like Odysseus, we’re willing to bind ourselves to the mast whenever our own personal Sirens start trilling their irresistible melodies, we may yet escape complete ruin.

In Akst’s estimation, saying “no” to modern life’s immersive temptations is our culture’s “biggest and most enduring challenge,” and he’s got some compelling statistics to bolster this contention. According to a Harvard study he cites, extending medical coverage to all Americans would save approximately 45,000 lives a year. Meanwhile, nearly half of the 2.5 million Americans who expire each year could postpone their demises if they could only summon the strength to forsake punitively taxed cigarettes and Jersey Shore marathons.

Hear that, tubby patriots? Universal jumping jacks could save far more lives than universal healthcare, a prospect that should gladden the sclerotic hearts of both Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore, and yet we mostly fail to take action. Or at least score few victories in our battles with temptation. “Why is self-control so difficult?” Akst asks. “We might as well start by looking at our own devices, which have made everything cheaper, faster, and easier. Someday somebody will invent devices that can help us exercise more self control,” but until that day, he concludes, “technology is the problem.”

Akst dismisses TV as a “cheap, immediate pleasure” that turns us away from “longer term satisfactions requiring patience and diligence.” He calls the Internet a “diabolical means of distraction.” Everywhere he turns, in fact, he sees “weapons of mass consumption” designed to undermine our good intentions by playing to our more impulsive urges.

When Akst covers how our brains work and the many experiments social scientists have devised to show us how easy we are to manipulate, the bad news continues. Have you heard, for example, about the Yale psychologist who was able to influence how subjects assessed an individual’s personality simply by giving them hot or cold drinks to hold for a while? (Those given hot drinks judged the individual warmer.) Or inspired subjects to interrupt more frequently by exposing them to words associated with rudeness? “We have much less volition and autonomy than we think,” the psychologist tells Akst.

Still, Akst stands firm in his conviction that we do, as individuals, have agency over our choices and must take responsibility for them. The trick is to know we’re sailing through dangerous waters and to constrain our will against foreseeable desires we’d like to withstand. Psychologists call this practice pre-commitment. Akst describes one woman who freezes her credit card in a block of ice as a way to discourage spending. Another pours salt on half her dessert as a means of portion control.

To regulate their Internet usage, problem Web surfers use Covenant Eyes, which keeps track of the sites you visit and mails them to an “accountability partner” you designate. Freedom is a productivity app procrastinators use to keep themselves off the Internet long enough to get some work done. At stickK.com, you can pledge to give $1000 to a charity you support—or oppose—if you light up a cigarette. “Anti-charities are apparently highly motivating,” Akst reports. “stickK says they have an 85 percent success rate.”

And thus technology marches forward. Indeed, when Akst exclaimed that technology has made everything cheaper, faster, and easier, he was right—it’s just that everything includes organic bananas as well as Big Macs, portion control plates along with bottomless pasta bowls at Olive Garden. And even the invidious forces of TV and the Internet have incredible upsides. Shows like Trading Spaces and Biggest Loser have transformed the boob tube from electronic pacifier to America’s life coach, inspiring millions to remodel their kitchens and renovate their asses. The Internet may distract us, but it can also inspire preternatural focus in those who use it. Before the Web came along, how many tweens were writing 10,000-word fanfics about their favorite characters from the 2,500-page serials they spent their days and nights chain-reading? How many adults devoted their leisure to crafting encyclopedia entries on Spanish heraldry or leaf-cutter ants? Even in the Internet age, patience and diligence persist.

If it’s easy to overindulge these days, it’s also easy to make good choices. And it’s getting easier all the time. Thus, it comes as something of surprise when, after making a case for self-control, Akst is so quick to suggest that the government might manage, somewhat oxymoronically, our self-control for us. “If self-mastery is such a problem, should we demand that government do more to 
protect us from ourselves?” he asks. “And is it really capable of doing so? The answers are yes and maybe.”

In their 2008 book Nudge, University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler and White House advisor Cass Sunstein promoted what they call libertarian paternalism—the idea that the government or other “choice architects” can make it easier for people to make decisions that benefit themselves and society in general by the way they arrange potential choices or options, without actually compelling anyone to engage in specific actions. An employer might make its 401(k) plan opt-out rather than opt-in to encourage more employees to participate in it. A health insurance plan might offer some kind of reward points to members who exercise on a regular basis.

Akst echoes such sentiments. “[The government] needs to step in where informational asymmetries or dangerous appetites make people easy marks for amoral profit seekers,” he writes. “It needs to shape the public realm in ways that promote healthy choices. And most of all, it needs to provide strong weapons of pre-commitment to those who would use them.”

One idea Akst proposes is allowing people to affix “No Tobacco” or “No Alcohol” stickers on their IDs, banning themselves from purchasing these products. Another is giving a tax break to couples who reach “some marital milestone.” In these instances, the pre-commitments affect people  on an individual basis, but it’s easy to see how pre-commitment for one might easily shift to pre-commitment for all once the government got involved. Who, for example, gets to decide which appetites are dangerous enough to warrant government intervention? How can the public realm be shaped without imposing features that some individuals will consider coercive rather than elective?

Then of course there’s the fact that the government tends to suffer self-control problems of its own. The best way we can help it from compulsively fine-tuning our lives is to refrain from granting it such powers in the first place.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @GregBeato. This column first appeared at Reason.com.





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