In my recent article  where I shared beliefs I’ve changed (or started to doubt) since starting writing this blog, I included one hypothesis about why we so often fail to do the things we should:
Are a lot of “good” habits just signalling attempts? Maybe I’ve just been reading too much Robin Hanson , but he does provide a convincing explanation of why we often don’t things we think we should. The reason being, that we don’t actually want to do those things, but want to seem like we do, so we make striving to do those things part of our conscious self-presentation but subconsciously sabotage ourselves in actually doing them. Some possible examples: reading more books, not watching television, giving to charity.
The deep, dark idea here is that human beings evolved not only with desires to do things which were helpful in our survival, but also desires to express desires to other people which helped our survival. So a person might have a built-in desire for food to keep from being hungry, but also a built-in desire to appear generous, to attract friends and allies.
The dark part of the idea is that sometimes the desire to project a certain self-image runs counter to our more direct desires. For example, appearing generous is beneficial because it wins you friends, but being generous is costly because you have to actually put up money.
Charity is a rather obvious example of something we all want to create the impression of (that we’re charitable people) but that we may not necessarily feel like doing (actually giving away our time and money).
One, even darker, idea is that since lying is hard to do, our natures may have evolved to protect us from the dangers inherent in this self-contradiction. Instead of self-consciously feeling like we want to appear charitable but actually be stingy, we sincerely believe in the values of charity but subconsciously sabotage ourselves in actually donating anything. Instead, we claim failures of discipline, busyness of literally anything possible when confronted with the contradiction that we believe we should give to charity but don’t actually give very much.
As a solution to the evolutionary problems (wanting to appear generous, be stingy, but lying is hard), this one actually works rather well. Nobody can truly call you a liar, because you sincerely believe in the values you want to project, but such sincerity doesn’t cost you anything because you’ll invent excuses to prevent you from actually following through with it.
I’m not convinced that this model of human behavior explains every gap in our idealized self-image and actual behavior, but it does seem to explain a lot of the seeming irrationality in people’s actions.
Hypocrites, By Design
“Learning Spanish and learning to play guitar are the two things on the perpetual back-burner of every American.”
Vat, who I did my year-long language learning project with (and also a guitar player), joked this to me while we were preparing our TEDx Talk . I laughed and said I completely agreed. Tons of people we’ve met claim a deep desire to learn Spanish, but haven’t even put in the most modest of efforts to move closer to that goal.
Language learning is a high-status activity. Being able to speak more than one language shows you’re cultured, intelligent and interesting (at least, in theory). Therefore, many people want to self-consciously express a desire to learn a language.
However language learning is hard work. Not to mention that the economic returns to learning a language other than English in the United States are considerably lower than the benefit of learning English in most other countries. Therefore, for a lot of people, learning a language is a goal they want to appear to have, but they don’t actually have sufficient interest for actually pursuing it.
I used language learning as an example of such an activity, but I think there are many potential other candidates of hypocrisy-by-design:
- Reading more books. Books are hard to read (compared to blogs or magazines) and signal intelligence, knowledge and sophistication. So we want to give people the impression we strive to read books, but not actually do this.
- Cutting back on vices like television, junk food, drinking or smoking. It’s not socially acceptable to simply state that you value eating junk food more than being thin or healthy. So instead you use excuses like you don’t have time to eat well, or you lack willpower.
- Making improvements in your career. We want to appear ambitious and productive, so we might come up with idealized dream jobs, but not actually take any concrete actions to make them a reality.
How Important is Hypocrisy-By-Design?
Obviously this cynical explanation for the numerous failures of self-improvement efforts, competes with the more typical story. The typical story is that we fail to improve ourselves because of failures of discipline, motivation or strategy. If we could augment or change those elements, the correct changes would happen for us.
I don’t believe that it is the case that all failures of self-improvement are because of this, or that the typical story is wrong. Instead, I think it’s probably a mixture of both, depending on the case. Sometimes we fail earnestly because the goal is hard. Sometimes we fail because we never really wanted the goal in the first place.
However, I believe that in order to live better, it’s important to know not only why we succeed when we do, but also why we fail. Therefore, when you constantly struggle against a self-improvement goal, it’s worth examining the possibility that your failure is not because of the typical story of low willpower and poor strategy, but possibly because you’re sabotaging yourself from reaching it.