Navigating conflicting preferences, our own and those of others

We sometimes behave as if we had two selves, one who wants healthy lungs and another who enjoys smoking; one who desires to improve himself by studying hard and another would rather watch TV or socialize. These two selves are in continual contest for control: indulgence for the immediate self, and prudence for the future one (Ainslie, 2001).

The classic movie Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an excellent demonstration of the narrow-minded “doer” who cares about immediate satisfaction and the farsighted “planner” who is concerned with long-term goals. Dr. Jekyll is a repressed, orderly and compliant, Mr. Hyde, on the other hand, is indulgent and aggressive.

Understanding the divided self can help explain inconsistent behavior and improve our chances of achieving our goals. Because–as many of us have found–merely having a plan or goal is not enough. No matter how strong our intentions, there is no guarantee that the goal will be achieved.

Different disciplines, different ways of conceptualizing the divided self

Many psychologists find it useful to think of the mind as consisting of multiple-states that may to varying degree be in conflict with one another. In this view, there is no central executive control in the form of decider, no CEO. Rather, decisions are made in cooperation of a coalition of different self-states (Haidt, 2006).

Neuroscientists point to the various “selves” encompassed by the brain itself.  The brain is formed of centers dedicated to certain kinds of processing, such as vision, the body, memory, language, and emotion. They argue that the mind consists of many different parts (mental processes), each operating by its own logic (Kurzban, 2011). Because these parts are designed to do different things, they don’t always work in perfect harmony. The key word is modularity, which is the equivalent of our “division of labor” in society.

Akin to the “coalition of self-states” conceptualized by psychologists, the brain itself is a democracy comprised of competing parts. There, too, there is no dominant decision maker (Tononi, 2012).

Evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban explains our modular brains and why there is no “I,” but each of us is a contentious “we”

The ultimate determinant of a our choice is not our simple preference

And so, we are conflicted and inconsistent.  As divided selves, the ultimate determinant of a our choice is not our simple preference. Rather, people may have a variety of contradictory preferences that become dominant at different points because of their timing.

For example, if a person is vulnerable (e.g., has a sweet tooth) and close to a box of chocolates, she will value these options differently than when she is far away from them. The intensity of the preference of each self may determine the option chosen. The contexts or circumstances of ordinary life influence individuals’ choices. One can be pulled in several directions and judging oneself after the decision as is made is a bit like judging another person.

Offering help to the divided self

How do we help individuals with multiple contradictory selves to act toward a singular goal? First, by building awareness of the tension between our selves and how circumstances can affect our values.  Second, by encouraging the use of precautions.  Since actions are taken by the Doer self, the Planner self can use commitment devices to constrain the Doer’s desire to satisfy immediate gratification at the expense of long-run well-being.

If vulnerable individuals can anticipate changes in desire, they can take precautions of the kinds chosen by the Greek hero Odysseus, who had his men tie him to his ship’s mast as they approached the island of the Sirens (Elster, 1999). Because he foresaw a temporary change in his preferences (to steer his boat toward the alluring siren song and likely shipwreck against the cliffs), he came up with an effective commitment device to foreclose his options. His ability to successfully limit his choices in advance against foreseeable temptations helped him (eventually) make it home to Ithaca to reunite with his wife.

Naturally, we can apply these devices on different scales. At the policy level, we can engineer our environment in such a way that enhances our capacity for self-control. For example, the Illinois “self-exclusion program” allows problem gamblers to voluntarily enroll in the program to ban themselves from receiving prizes over $600. The program allows vulnerable individuals to take precautions in advance and perhaps strengthen their self-control over time.

Of course, precautions aren’t foolproof and choices remain available: in this case, you can always go out of the state and gamble all you want.

shahramShahram Heshmat has a PhD in Managerial Economics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). He is a retired professor from the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and currently teaches as adjunct at UIS. He specializes in Health Economics of Addiction & Obesity. His recent book is titled (2011): Eating Behavior and Obesity: Behavioral Economics Strategies for Health Professionals. New York, NY: Springer.



Recommended Resources

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Ainslie, G. (2001). “Breakdown of Will.” Cambridge University Press.

Elster J (1999). “Strong Feelings: Emotion, Addiction, and Human Behavior.” The MIT Press.

Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic Books.

Kurzban Robert (2011). Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind. Princeton University Press.

Tononi, Giulio (2012). Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul. Pantheon.