It’s 2 pm. You’ve had a report to write since yesterday morning but you just don’t feel like doing it. You’ve tried to start on it several times, but each time your mind simply refuses to engage with the task. You stare at the screen for a while, hands perched over keys, but nothing comes. Eventually you do something else for a while hoping inspiration will strike while you’re away, but instead you spend hours on other tasks while the report languishes. Eventually it’s 6 pm, the report was due at 5, so you work late and force yourself to get it done, only finally making progress because you feel the threat of consequences for not delivering. You push through and finish around 11, crash, and then wake up the next day to find it a struggle to do even the things you love: it feels like you’ve burned all your willpower and you’ve become a husk of a real person.
Fast-forward to the weekend. You’ve finally recovered from writing The Report and you have two whole days for things you love. “This,” you say to yourself, “is the weekend I finally make some real progress on learning to play the bouzouki.” You get our your Bouzouki for Beginners book, tune your bouzouki, and play for about 10 minutes before you remember you had to do that other thing. That other thing is very important, so you put down the bouzouki to go knock out the other thing so you can get back to Bouzouki Weekend 2018. But while doing the other thing you remember you haven’t checked Facebook in a while, and you don’t want your friends to think you forgot about them, so you do that for a bit. Then you start cleaning, notice the bouzouki is there, and clean around it so you can come back to it when you’re done. By now you’ve worked up an appetite, so you make lunch. You would get right back to the bouzouki after eating but it would be so nice to take a nap, so you do that. You’re awoken from the nap by a call from your mother, so you talk to her for a while because you like catching up with family. After you get off the phone you realize it’s getting late so you better get to some bouzouki playing, but you have to get ready to go out tonight with your friends because that’s going to be fun! Oh well, Bouzouki Weekend 2018 is only half-over, there’s still tomorrow. “I’ll learn to play the bouzouki one day,” you say to yourself.
In the first part of the vignette we might say our protagonist procrastinated because they put off writing the report now to write it later, but they don’t seem to be suffering from the sort of laziness we typically associate with procrastination. After all, they tried to do the work, they just weren’t able to make themselves do it. In the second part they got distracted a lot, but all the distractions were things they honestly also wanted to do, so that’s not exactly procrastination or laziness either. Yet in both cases there was an activity they clearly wanted to do that didn’t get done, or only got done by burning through willpower and feeling exhausted afterwords, unable to do much else. What’s going on?
Many people I know might describe this as a case of akrasia, an ancient Greek word literally meaning “no strength/power” but used to mean a lack of willpower or having a weakness of will (c.f. aboulia for a related but more general phenomenon that lacks the cognitive dissonance associated with akrasia). A more straight-forward explanation of akrasia is that it’s the thing that going on when you do something other than what you want to do. Akrasia is the thing that’s going on when you want to write a report, play bouzouki, or do some other particular activity and instead find yourself unable to make yourself do it while you do something else instead.
To get more formal we might describe this as a conflict in your values, wants, desires, motivations, and preferences (a cluster of concepts I unify under the term “axias”) due to them being in irrational relationships, “irrational” here meaning specifically not rational in a formal sense. We could formally describe akrasia then in terms of how it fails to satisfy the rationality criteria, in particular how it fails to satisfy the criterion of asymmetry, where asymmetry means that given any axias A and B, if you prefer A to B, then you do not prefer B to A. Akrasia then seems to be what happens when asymmetry goes unsatisfied.
Consider what was happening when our protagonist wasn’t playing bouzouki. They wanted to play bouzouki, yet after a very brief attempt they didn’t play bouzouki. So they claim they want to play bouzouki more than not play it, yet we observe them not playing bouzouki instead of playing it, thus we have conflicting lines of evidence about the relationship between these two preferences. On the one hand this might be revealing a conflict between stated and revealed preferences, i.e. a difference between what they say they want and what they do, but on the other this might reflect an actual failure of asymmetry. Deciding which isn’t important though, because although conflicting preferences are part of the story of akrasia, they aren’t the whole story, and the trick to understanding and ultimately dissolving akrasia is seeing how it arises in a context that looks beyond conflicting preferences, because as I’ll shortly explain, akrasia is a problem of how we relate to our preferences, not our preferences themselves.
Whence preference conflict
If we’re going to dissolve akrasia, it’ll help to have a firmer grasp on it’s etiology so we understand just where it’s coming from. Knowing that it arises with an apparent failure of preference asymmetry isn’t enough to really see what’s going on. For that we have to delve into some fake models.
I don’t of course mean here that these models aren’t useful or don’t reveal something about reality, merely that they are “fake” the same way all models are “fake”: they compress reality in a way that helps us understand it, but do so at the cost of accurately describing reality just as it is. As this blog’s title reminds us, the map is not the territory. This will turn out to be important, though, because akrasia is, in my estimation, entirely the result of models causing us to be confused about what is.
Most people I know who have expressed feeling akrasia also primarily use one or more dual-process models to help them understand the psyche/mind. Dual-process models suggest the psyche is made up of two parts, those partsroughly being the S1-elephant-id-unconscious-near part and the S2-rider-superego-conscious-far part. For book-length explorations of dual-process theory see Kahnemann’s Thinking Fast and Slow and Hanson & Simler’sElephant and the Brain.
Within dual-process theory, we should expect preference conflicts, especially failures of asymmetry, to arise when the S1 part of the mind wants something different than the S2 part. Since S1 is much more powerful than S2, even if S2 is “smarter”, S1 will usually win unless S2 expends a lot of energy to rein in S1 and make it do what it wants. On this model it then seems that akrasia is just preference asymmetry, albeit asymmetry caused by conflict between parts, and fighting it should consist mainly of finding ways to get S1 aligned with S2 (since obviously S2, being smarter, knows what is best for S1). Our best bet for defeating akrasia then should be something like Beeminder or Complice, and we probably can’t hope to do much better.
I hope that previous paragraph threw out some red flags for you, but in case it didn’t here’s where I see cracks beginning to form in dual-process theory’s explanation of akrasia. People with akrasia tend to identify with S2 as the real, true self. Maybe not identify with it as strongly as one might identify with the virtual homunculus in the Cartesian theater if you’re a mind-body dualist, but identify with it enough to privilege it over S1 such that in a conflict between the two they would prefer, all else equal, that S2 win. And this seems reasonable, even from S1’s perspective, because we get lots of signals from other people telling us that what’s best for us is that which is associated with S2, far construal level, and the superego.
But this identification with or privileging of S2 is suspect because there’s nothing about S2 to suggest it’s the “real” self. If there is anything worthy of calling one’s self*, it’s made up of both S1 and S2 (and maybe more things besides!). S2 is special, but S1 is equally special, and each brings its own powers to the table. If it were otherwise, you wouldn’t have evolved to have a brain so complex and capable that you’d usefully be able to use dual-process theory to make sense of it. To put my thumb on it, S1 is not a spandrel getting in your way; it’s a useful part of you helping you be you and live your life!
So if that’s the case, what the heck is going on that a person would interpret through a dual-process model as akrasia? Well, it’s just what we’ve already seen: your mind is complicated, you may have different parts of it producing different desires, and then the whole thing puts those together and makes a choice about what to do. In the end, you only “want” one thing (your revealed preference) even if you had to weight many things to come to it (your stated preferences) and your confidence in your synthesis of your desires is low.
Akrasia, then, is a kind of suffering that arises from identifying with particular desires in spite of having already given them their fair weighting in coming to a choice of action. It can exist with or without a belief in the usefulness of dual-process theory; that was just a way to draw the way we identify with desires into relief. The key thing is that we experience akrasia because of identifying with our desires, and this also suggests it’s “easy” to stamp it out: just stop doing that!
*N.B. I’m a Buddhist and a phenomenologist, so my relationship with self is complicated. So just to lay all my cards on the table, although I consider them not entirely relevant here, I think there is no-self, and also that there is some small thing we might give the name “self” that refers to the irreducible subject of experience.
Grappling with identity
Okay, great, so akrasia isn’t really real — it’s an artifact of the way we understand ourselves and identify with that understanding, and it will evaporate if we can stop doing that and get back to reality itself. That’s not exactly advice about what to do, even if the first step of the journey is often just knowing you could go somewhere else, and it feels a bit unfair of me to dissolve akrasia in theory but not help you dissolve it in practice, so let me give you an exercise that might help set you on your way if you’d like to have not just episteme of the true nature of akrasia, but gnosis.
Content Warning: The rest of this section asks you to work through a process that might best be described as self-applied psychotherapy. If you are or are at risk of being suicidal, psychotic, or otherwise in need of mental healthcare, I ADVISE YOU TO SKIP THE REMAINDER OF THIS SECTION. Self-help techniques can be powerful and transformative, thus they are never 100% safe, and so should be used only under supervision if you are not sufficiently mentally healthy and resilient to handle whatever shadows these questions might bring up. That said, this line of questioning might help you get a better handle on existing akrasia: it did for me.
Identify a recent event where you experienced akrasia. Maybe you were writing a report or playing the bouzouki as in the story that I opened with, maybe it was something more nebulous like wishing you had lived up to some virtue through your actions. If you come up with something more nebulous, try to make it more concrete first by identifying a particular action through which you expressed akrasia. Same goes if you initially identified something more goal-oriented. Have in mind something less like “I wanted to play the bouzouki but didn’t” and more like “I wanted to play the bouzouki on Tuesday night but watched reruns of I Love Lucy instead”.
Now ask yourself what your akratic actions imply to you about who you are? How do you feel when you think about your akrasia experience? Where in your body do you feel it? In your gut? In your chest? In your head? Behind your eyes? What is the story you tell yourself when we see that you wanted to do one thing and did another?
Why does that worry you? Rest on this question for a moment and see what comes up. You are thinking about this and suffering via akrasia, so try to put a name to that worry. Are you grasping, clinging to, or trying to achieve something and worried you’re not doing it? Are you worried about what you are doing? Try to give it a name.
Now try to imagine what would happen if the things you are worried about happened. What would happen to you? How would that change who you are? Would you be a different person?
Finally, take your answers to those questions and ask, what makes you so sure? Why do you think that would happen, you would change in that way, or you would be different (or not)? How can you test those beliefs? If you can, find a way to safely carry out one or more of those tests and see what you learn. You might be surprised what your learn about your relationship to your own identity.
Repeat going through this process as often as you like. The point of it is to help you to deconstruct your hidden assumptions about the relationship between your actions and your identity. Without prejudicing your insights too much, I suspect you will find there is less you than you thought, the you that is there is less permanent than you thought, and the suffering of akrasia is being created by trying to hold on to some idea of yourself that was at best only a dream.
What if I still don’t do what I ought?
Even after completely dissolving akrasia we might still find we want things that are in conflict. This is normal, because humans are irrational both in the formal and folk senses of that word. We might still fail to have asymmetric preferences and find ourselves doing things we’d in some sense prefer not to do. So be it. That doesn’t have to be akrasia, though, so long as we don’t start identifying with our contradictory desires. To return to the opening story again, wanting to play the bouzouki and never doing it doesn’t have to mean you experience akrasia. So long as you both accept that you both want to play the bouzouki and don’t want to play the bouzouki enough to do it instead of something else, you won’t suffer from akrasia because you are sure you are doing just what you want.
Further, I’m not the first to suppose akrasia isn’t real. In fact, it goes right back to the first known appearance of the term with Plato’s Socrates saying as much. And some experiences of akrasia may be misunderstandings of desires that have more to do with appropriate lack of motivation to do somethingthan conflicting desires or identifying with them or may be misconstrued procrastination. So if after reading all I’ve said above you find you still have some lingering sense that akrasia is real, check what others have had to say.
Finally, what I’ve described above may feel like “nothing more” than a subtle shift in perspective, but it’s an important one if you want to learn to accept yourself as you are, something I view as foundational to better making progress on whatever it is you care about. So long as you are deluded, thinking you want to do one thing when in fact you want to do another, you’ll always struggle to change your behavior (if that’s what you want to do!) because you’re acting based on a confusion. Akrasia is just one way this confusion powerfully manifest itself, and learning to sublimate it is an import step along whatever path you take.