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Breakdown of Will

by George Ainslie


George Ainslie’s big, big idea: We often intuitively move toward or away from actions in a hyperbolic pattern. We are motivated to eat a nearby candy bar far more than we are motivated to pursue events in the distant future, much more than exponential theories acknowledge.


Ainslie argues short spikes in motivation give temporary preferences enormous power. If it were not for temporary, hyperbolic spikes, individuals would make better long-term choices.


Studies suggest many individuals will take $10 now rather than $20 a year from now, yet they choose $20 six years from now over $10 five years from now, though the choice is similar--only in the future. Individuals choose shorter relief from annoying noises over longer relief if the shorter relief occurs soon. (To be fair, exponential theories say we have more motivation for nearer events, but exponential theories do not go far enough.) These hyperbolic tendencies help explain addictions and bad habits, why short-term impulses often succeed.


We wreck our plans and live boring lives beyond what we should want, yet social science has difficulty accounting for these errors, little to say about weakness of will. Cognitive psychology sees personal failures arising from reasoning errors. Economic theories see failure resulting from lack of information, exponential discounting of the future and inability to weigh wants. When we provide individuals with good information and better reasoning skills, they often improve, yet many still fail to execute plans for better long-term interests. Civilizations become more complex and better at providing what citizens intuitively want, yet individuals are less satisfied than some hunter-gatherers. Individuals are adept at destructive actions when unaware of costs and when aware of costs. Self-destructive motives are very, very difficult to reduce.


Animals with electrodes implanted in their pleasure centers work for repeated stimulation, even to the point of collapse. Users of drugs stimulate the same brain sites to exhaustion, yet have stopping abilities. Staying stopped is the problem. Economic utility theories do not require binding pre-commitments (taking drugs that sicken us when consuming alcohol, for example). Ainslie claims economic utility theory is not everything. He does not claim utility theory is nothing. Hyperbolic discounting applies some of the time. Ainslie does not say how often in general or how often among individuals.


Intriguingly, many non-motivational experiences are hyperbolic, yet do not require will power to overcome. A distant tree appears hyperbolically smaller than a nearby tree. Yet no effort is required to believe they are similar in height. Once we reach a certain age we figure it out.


Ainslie argues pursuing distant goals requires great effort. Other motivations interupt. No automatic adjustment solves matters. Individuals pursuing alternatives while having fewer and weaker hyperbolic tendencies achieve goals. Those having easily exploited temporary motivations face peril. Those able to determine the temporary motivations of others, from astrologers to advertisers, stand to gain.


Ainslie sees the individual as a group of agents—Jekyll, Hyde and friends, a succession of estimators. “Ulysses planning for the Sirens must treat Ulysses hearing them as a separate person.” The self wanting to stay up late conflicts with the self waking up in the morning. Binges result from spikes in motivation by interests. Ainslie compares this situation to an epileptic having the connections between the cerebral hemispheres cut. The two hemispheres sometimes fight to the point of one hand restraining the other. We must act strategically to prevent internal marketplaces from becoming wild scrambles. “[T]he success of her currently dominant interests in bargaining with interests that will be dominant in the future may be what determines the kind of unity her self will have.” But different selves stretches matters. Different selves do not have a similar consciousness.


How can creatures poor at pursuing future interests evolve and become the best adapted? The answer: They are not the best adapted. Evolution applies to genes, not individuals. Our genes do not care about us. Hyperbolic discounting is less troublesome in hunter-gatherer societies because working now for 20 years in the future is rarely an option. The activities hunter gatherers pursue to asssist their selves are less mindnumbing and stultifying than many modern tasks.


Personal rules and will power (the ability to consciously override beliefs or actions with other beliefs or actions) are powerful methods of directing behavior. Rules and will power often excel at aiding decisions—and at defeating many short-term hyperbolic interests.


Yet mistakes arise when we are rule bound or have overly strong wills or both. We develop pre-occupations with performing petty tasks. We develop compulsive disorders. We govern ourselves with thousands of trivial rules. We become fussy. Passion, creativity and spontaneity wither. The sense of autonomy decreases. We become isolated from new experiences, new information and the experience of living in general. We become locked in repetitive authoritarian-miscreant battles with others or ourselves. We choose the wrong rules. We apply usually beneficial rules to situations where the rules are harmful. Petty rules become habits, and we ignore more important rules. “Plans become prisons.” We assume our motives are noble, that we do not need to examine our motives and actions because we are obeying our rules. We become less responsive to situations. We fool ourselves into believing we have more self-control than we do--with a resulting minimization of important breakdowns. Lapses reduce willingness to follow rules. Following rules reduces willingness to choose alternatives other than the rules. “Compulsions erode surprises so compulsive people get just as little long-range pleasure as impulsive ones.”

Overblown rules create rigid characters, opportunity losses, losses of psychological immediacy and an important trait easy to ignore: Obliviousness to complex costs such as anomie. But the bad actions resulting from rules do not lesson the need for some good rules. “Personal rules operate most effectively on distinct, countable goals.”


Ainslie's inner bargaining model describes eight properties of will:

·        Will is a distinct force.

·        Will usually operates to promote longer-range interests.

·        Will organizes actions into groups where rules can be applied.

·        Repetition strengthens will.

·        A single disobedience of a rule can undo the influence of several rule following repetitions.

·        Will consciously operates on alternatives without employing repression or diversion of attention.

·        When stakes are high and clear, future resolve depends heavily on each choice. When stakes are low and unclear, each choice has less influence on future resolve.

·        Failure tendencies vary from one part of our lives to another. We can have a giant domino effect with will failing over much of our lives. Or we can be consistently weak willed in some areas and strong willed in others (often employing self-deception to ignore weak will in some areas).


Pain and pleasure share important similarities. Both are vivid, both attract large amounts of attention and memory.


The atrociousness of pain often depends on inner choices and resources. Some individuals, for example, have surgery while practicing hypnotic suggestion and thinking only of being warmed on a beach. Pain and pleasure both compete for attention. Ainslie argues that pain resembles a “rapidly cycling itch,” a repeating contestant in the contest to attract attention (except, of course, that an itch does not hurt much). In battle, we can ignore pain, but the longer pain persists, the harder it becomes to ignore. Individuals in pain management programs learn to focus on other matters despite the itch of pain.


“Where there is a lot of ambiguity [uncertainty], cooperation with your future selves will be both rigid and unstable.” Overeaters must continually make judgment calls, which makes dieting difficult. Drug addicts at least benefit from the clear line between abstention and indulgence, though are undermined by the intense high that food comes nowhere near. Lapses encourage the following, which encourages further lapses:

·        Attributing behaviors primarily to events beyond our control, believing urges cannot be resisted.

·        Drawing or redrawing lines so rules are easy to follow regardless of the losses.

·        Being oblivious to the fact that lapses occurred. Societies do this by endorsing official myths.


Breakdown has some flaws such as the claim that no country ever used gas during World War II.


Life beyond hyperbolic discounting receives short shrift within Ainslie's work. Sometimes individuals think like bankers. Sometimes we are moral beings where thoughts are not hedonic.


Bad definitions and missing definitions abound herein. Breakdown lacks a distinction between value and motivation. It defines value as “motivational impact.” It too broadly defines addiction as a strongly rewarding activity regretted afterward and avoided if seen in the distance. Some of this work is postmodern baloney: Beliefs are called text choosing habits. It claims information equals facts equals realism equals vividness; arbitrary equals not socially agreed upon. Prescriptions, he falsely asserts, are mere assertions while descriptions are facts.


Some other claims seem plausible, yet dubious: Society, he claims, has more incentives to create rules and is more rule bound than in the past. He writes, for example, that for over a century we have had a social race of keeping stiff upper lips. He also throws in the moral stages garbage popular with educational psychologists, and overstates the benefits of social controls.


But fascinating points also abound: The relationships between appetites and satisfactions are an important subject in Breakdown. Will is limited by the “seductiveness of premature satiation.” This is a property similar to the seductiveness of pain. Ben Franklin noted, “The poor man must walk to get meat for his stomach, the rich man stomach for his meat.”


Emotions and appetites are often reflexes to stimuli. Yet they can also be cultivated, as actors do. Note that actors do not go home and reenact emotions for their own entertainment. There is no barrier “opposing free access to emotions,” yet they “behave like economic goods in limited supply.” We wait for them or work for them or both.


We value and remember rich emotional experiences, for example, events that move us to tears. Experience can be generated in daydreams, he writes, yet the emotions produced during daydreams lack something special. External experiences are more psychologically worthwhile. Other individuals are excellent causes of moving experiences, even fictional characters on pieces of paper.


“Some ways permit you to get a lot more reward than others from a given amount of appetite.” Examples of wasting appetite include eating too fast, arriving at premature orgasm, and reading the last chapter of a mystery beforehand. Finishing off appetites close to the satiation point is flawed, yet hard to avoid. Some individuals, apparently, use tricks to slow consumption: Spacing meals over several courses, eating crabs out of a shell, preventing orgasms with anesthetic creams or bondage techniques. Earlier peak reward reduces total reward. Access to rewards more intense the faster we consume leads to excessively fast consumption (though many individuals have more important missions in their lives than spacing out consumption).


Individuals could try to generate just enough appetite, then satisfy it. But those who do this by controlling reward and avoiding risk produce disasters: Individuals with schizoid flaws, for example, suffer extreme anxiety from social exchanges. They minimize social give-and-take by living in isolation, yet isolated activities become boring. Fears, worries, and rituals consume them. Folks with narcissism choose friends and behaviors so success is almost guaranteed; yet, unsurprisingly, are unsatisfied.


Tasks that lack surprises or ambiguity bore us. Most emotionally rewarding experiences are uncertain or “too complex or subtle to be fully anticipated.” To get emotional reward, gamble (not destructively) or find more mysterious high probability routes to goals. Venture into what we do not know.


Behaviors should reward and maintain appetite, yet direct techniques of reward become less productive. The more efficient behaviors are, the more they undermine readiness for reward. Ainslie argues that a lasting reward is:

1.      Sufficiently novel. When there are plenty of surprises, there is no urge to jump ahead.

2.      Intricate, subtle, lacking in total comprehension--including lasting art and relationships.

(Ainslie has little to say about internal generation of reward, other than in fantasies.)


Uncertain individuals cannot banish anxiety. They can use anxiety as a spring for new growth. Nothing fails psychologically like constant success. Ease should not be confused with a good life. Harshness of life does not limit the potential for psychological reward.


“To repeat satisfactions that were once intense,” we can structure them partly as fantasies, but if we reenact the same fantasies over and over, we merely jump to the main events. “In the absence of new challenges, punishing scripts start to get selected because they don’t habituate as much; the psychic life of people who live in fantasy degenerates into a recurring state of emergency or paranoid delusion.” Robust emotions dwell in the fantasy prone, but psychopaths “can imagine little, even with effort.”


Exploring and pursuing love replenishes appetite. Studies indicate hungry animals prefer exploration tasks even to tasks that obtain food. As we become efficient at getting the same rewards, the psychological value of the rewards decrease, which motivates us to find or do different activities. If we kept getting the same rewards, from similar stimuli, we rest on laurels or on whatever we were doing that provided the reward.


Initially, increasing skill increases reward, but reward then decreases as appetite decreases. This pattern is less helpful in wealthy societies. The pattern of hunger, strenuous pursuit and consummation is missing in cultures of boredom. Fun effort and painful toil can both be beneficial but lack of toil reeks.


Negative, positive and mixed emotions can be compelling. “Many emotions—anger, awe, pity, nostalgia, are mixed—compelling without being pleasurable or aversive.”


The more near certain rewards are pursued, the lower the reward. Predictability creates anticipation, which undermines appetite and encourages premature satiation. Unpredictable information creates suspense—a puzzle, a new argument or “a gamble on someone else’s behavior.” Continuous interaction resists habituation. The more we control experiences, the less rewarding they seem. Rigged, predictable interactions seem more like daydreams. Examples include individuals we boss around and “relationships you are poised to leave if they turn disappointing.”  Stories and memories become stale. “Just as a drug addict after years of sobriety knows that pleasure is only a short trip away—dependency, promiscuity, timidity, exploitiveness, and so on” beckon when under pressure. Many bad deeds are punished in ways that individuals fail to realize. Narcissism and ignoring others’ responses or interests causes a loss of suspense.


We should know what others want, what benefits them and what surprises they would love, even if they do not want them currently. We should know how to provide benefits. The subjective experiences of others become a commodity we work for. Put yourself in another's shoes to help predict actions. Those tolerating more doubt and ambiguity gamble on the complex textures of social activities.


Individuals often reward themselves with “aesthetic appreciation of other’s pain.” Examples include sadism, shadenfraude, scapegoats, and sweet revenge. Intriguingly, an emotion we do not want is often attractive when enemies have them. We sometimes enjoy it when the villain cries. All classes of emotions are sometimes rewarding. Individuals with paranoia often ignore the idea that they arrange to believe they are persecuted. Those cultivating grudges search for ways to nurture grudges.


Ways of increasing appetite include:

·        Staying away—food and drugs, for example.

·        Having openness to social interaction.

·        Pursuing activities with higher uncertainty and more surprises—building indirection into an activity, for example.


We build indirection into many activities. Romance undertaken merely for sex or to be loved, for example, is thought crass and is less rewarding.


Professions done primarily for money and art done for admiration are less rewarding. Too much attention placed on sex, money, affection or applause spoils the effort—and deceives others. Beliefs about the intrinsic value of romance, work, love or art provide needed indirection as well as motivation. The pacing of romance increases rewards and appetites.


Indirect methods often involve self-deception—deceptions that seem ludicrous to those not using the indirection strategy. Attacking various pretentious indirections (such as piety and snobbery) is a major part of wit, but hackneyed, shocking attacks on indirections are considered cynical. Numerous socially “correct” beliefs serve as indirections. For example, being caught “having a motive” is thought bad, though almost all schools of psychology think most behavior has some motive.


Some goals cannot be approached directly:

·        “Trying to sleep inhibits sleep.”

·        “Trying to be dignified makes you ridiculous.”

·        “Trying to laugh inhibits laughter.”


Satisfaction comes from pursuing goals against odds. Thinking that “it’s only a game” encourages us to give up during difficulties. Believing in the instrumental value of an activity maximizes psychological benefits. Yet belief in instrumental value blinds many to “the need for a corresponding appetite.”


“[S]taying nearly satiated” is like “driving a cart with a permanently tired horse.” Individuals should notice that their appetites are wrong, but they do not, perhaps because increasing appetite might shift focus from instrumental value to getting the reward. “We’ve always had trouble conceiving of a pressure to have that is at the same time a resource. A bottle of wine that ‘demands to be drunk’ or money that ‘burns a hole in your pocket’ are intuitive enough. Both love and desire can be a blessing.”


In advanced civilizations, indirect processes are replaced by more “efficient” practices, yet the more direct they become, the lower the reward. Bushmen and bushwomen are less happy in modern societies, yet believe they are trapped.


In sum, “premature satiation” often limits reward because:

·        Free rewards are less rewarding when appetite is lower or does not last.

·        Hyperbolic discounting creates impatience for peak rewards, which then satiates.

·        Familiarity decreases appetite. Surprise and incomprehension increase appetite.

·        Premature satiation decreases emotions not related to novel and uncontrolled events.


Breakdown of Will is not easy to read. The language is everyday, but because of mediocre organization, flaws with definitions, and shortages of examples, I was on occasion bemused. A shortage of qualifications and quantifications exists herein, especially when distinctions among the following individuals would be fruitful:

·        Impulsive individuals.

·        Less impulsive individuals.

·        Those ambivalent about their principles.

·        Those loving their principles.

Yet Breakdown of Will is packed with important ideas, ideas that receive almost no mention in mass media, perhaps because few in the mass media admit they sell hyperbolic crap. Highly recommended.


Book review article by JT Fournier, last updated October 17, 2014.


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