Akrasia is confusion about what you want

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.

Origi­nally posted on Map and Ter­ri­tory of Medium.