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Step 19: Breakdown of Will

George Ainslie maps out how Will Power works, not by giving examples of success, but by analyzing the more confusing issue of self-defeating behavior. If we can learn how and why we self-sabotage, then perhaps we can manifest will power instead of being ruled by instinct and pleasure.

introduction by Mistah Lisa [link]
music courtesy of Feslyian Studios [link]

Part I

We are in the era of “treat yo’ self” and “you deserve it,” which is at odds with the attitudes and behaviors of many successful people.

What is will power? Ryder maps out three types of will found in psychoanalysis and how they relate to time. Freudian can be considered the “will to pleasure” based on your past, Adlerian is the “will to power (or superiority)” based around the present, and Frankl’s logotherapy can be seen as the “will to meaning” based in part upon your future self.

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Will itself can be seen as motivations transformed into incentives, these incentives turn our choice into actions, and that in turn become our behaviors. These actions/behaviors show our values to the world, and thus it becomes who we are.

Part II

So, why do we do what we don’t want to do… instead of doing what we say we want to do?

Ainslie discusses the Utilitarian and Cognitive camps to talk about ‘satisfaction models’. A key point is to think of your internal desires as an internal marketplace, with different factions jockeying to win their reward. This follows the same principles of an army or corporation, or any large group where commands can be issued, but top-down commands don’t work, so it is always up to the managers to motivate the underlings and an underground economy is formed that actually determines what gets done. (Max Weber)

Utilitarians tend to think logically: we do what rewards us. Period. Yet, there are several instances where we hurt ourselves, or do not follow logical principles that would reward us. It is as if the current temptation is stronger than our ability to delay gratification.

This brings up the “survival function” where we discount the future for the present, complicating rewards by altering their value over time. Humans, and animals, tend to pick the more immediate (and poorer) reward rather than wait for the long-term reward that would allow us to achieve our stated goals.

This invokes the “pleasure principle” that is built into humans, and we must consider the role of reason vs. pleasure. If reason only exists to fulfill our desires, then we can’t rely on it to thwart our desires… unless we weaponize our desire. We must have a bigger, better, stronger desire that allows us to displace the short-term weak rewards we crave.

As well, we can, with forethought, plan around our future failures. If we know we will be tempted, we can, like Odysseus, plan around our temptations, but this does not work when temptation or instinct is sprung upon you.

Part III

Taking a closer look at why we function the way we do, Ainslie points out “exponential discounts” versus “hyperbolic discounts.” Humans tend towards hyperbolic, but someone like a banker looks long-term and realizes that if rates stay steady the long-term game wins. The banker can then take advantage of the hyperbolic person who values something strongly in the immediate moment without planning ahead.

The banker is an example of a long-term rewards thinker, and the hyperbolic is the rest of us reacting to our immediate need. Ainslie brings up that rewards and pleasures are not the same thing. Rewards are behaviors that you repeat, and they may be painful, while pleasures tend to be desire fulfillment.

Consider the instinct of a mother bear to protect her cubs: this is behavior does not produce pleasure for individual, but it does reward the species. Similarly, humans have a list of behaviors that can be hacked and are not good for individual welfare, but play a role in gene propagation. Nature tends to make these species rewards “pleasureable” so that we undertake hoarding food or having sex. So, why has nature not figured out the hyperbolic behavior can be taken advantage of by the banker on an exponential, logical curve?

We end on two analogies for how to consider long-term v. short-term rewards. One is perspective where we understand that the building at the end of the block is larger than the one we are standing next to, even though the one we are next to looms larger, taking up more attention. Rewards function this was as well: the nearer reward demands attention, blocking out the ability to stay focused on the long-term reward in the distance. The other is a “chain of predation” where small fish are eaten by progressively larger fish… but with rewards it functions in reverse where the small reward (the current itch) eats the larger rewards (mid-range goals) until we never get to the big long-term reward.

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George Ainslie, Breakdown of Will [link] (2001)

Hyperbolic Discounting [link]

Viktor E. Frankl “Man’s Search for Meaning” [link ]
breakdown of 3 forms of psychoanalysis

Marshmallow experiment: Delayed gratification [link]

Arthur Schopenhauer [link]

Nietzche [link]


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