Akrasia and Shangri-La

Con­tinu­a­tion of: The Un­finished Mys­tery of the Shangri-La Diet

My post about the Shangri-La Diet is there to make a point about akra­sia. It’s not just an ex­cuse: peo­ple re­ally are differ­ent and what works for one per­son some­times doesn’t work for an­other.

You can never be sure in the realm of the mind… but out in ma­te­rial food­land, I know that I was, in fact, drink­ing ex­tra-light olive oil in the fash­ion pre­scribed. There is no rea­son within Roberts’s the­ory why it shouldn’t have worked.

Which just means Roberts’s the­ory is in­com­plete. In the com­pli­cated mess that is the hu­man metabolism there is some­thing else that needs to be con­sid­ered. (My guess would be “some­thing to do with in­sulin”.)

But if the ac­tions needed to im­ple­ment the Shangri-La Diet weren’t so sim­ple and ver­ifi­able… if some of them took place within the mind… if it took, not a metabolic trick, but willpower to get to that amaz­ing state where diet­ing comes effortlessly and you can lose 30 pounds...

Then when the Shangri-La Diet didn’t work, we un­for­tu­nate ex­cep­tions would get yel­led at for do­ing it wrong and not hav­ing enough willpower. Roberts already seems to think that his diet ought to work for ev­ery­one; when some­one says it’s not work­ing, Roberts tells them to drink more ex­tra-light olive oil or try a slightly differ­ent var­i­ant of the diet, rather than say­ing, “This doesn’t work for some peo­ple and I don’t know why.”

If the failure had oc­curred some­where in­side the dark re­cesses of my mind where it could be blamed on me, rather than within my metabolism...

If Roberts’s hy­poth­e­sis is cor­rect, then I’m sure that plenty of peo­ple have made some dietary change, started los­ing weight due to the dis­rupted fla­vor-calorie as­so­ci­a­tion, and con­grat­u­lated them­selves on their won­der­ful willpower for eat­ing less. When I moved out of my par­ents’ home and started eat­ing less and ex­er­cis­ing and los­ing more than a pound a week, you can bet I was con­grat­u­lat­ing my­self on my amaz­ing willpower.

Hah. No, I just stum­bled onto a metabolic pot of gold that let me lose a lot of weight us­ing a sus­tain­able ex­pen­di­ture of willpower. When that pot of gold was ex­hausted, willpower ceased to avail.

(The metabol­i­cally priv­ileged don’t be­lieve in metabolic priv­ilege, since they are able to lose weight by try­ing! harder! to diet and ex­er­cise, and the diet and ex­er­cise ac­tu­ally work the way they’re sup­posed to… I re­mem­ber the nine-month pe­riod in my life where that was true.)

When I look at the cur­rent state of the art in fight­ing akra­sia, I see the same sort of mess.

Peo­ple try all sorts of crazy things—and as in diet­ing, there’s se­cretly a gen­eral rea­son why any crazy thing might seem to work: if you ex­pect to win an in­ter­nal con­flict, you’ve already pro­grammed your­self to do the right thing be­cause you ex­pect that to be your ac­tion; it takes less willpower to win an in­ter­nal con­flict you ex­pect to win.

And peo­ple make up all sorts of fan­tas­tic sto­ries to ex­plain why their tricks worked for them.

But their tricks don’t work for ev­ery­one—some oth­ers re­port suc­cess, some don’t. The in­ven­tors do not know the deep gen­er­al­iza­tions that would tell them why and who, ex­plain the rule and the ex­cep­tion. But the sto­ries the in­ven­tors have cre­ated to ex­plain their own suc­cesses, nat­u­rally praise their own willpower and other virtues, and con­tain no el­e­ment of luck… and so they ex­hort oth­ers: Try harder! You’re do­ing it wrong!

There is a place in the mind for willpower. Don’t get me wrong, it’s use­ful stuff. But peo­ple who as­sign their suc­cesses to willpower—who con­grat­u­late them­selves on their stern char­ac­ters—may be a tad re­luc­tant to ap­pre­ci­ate just how much you can be priv­ileged or dis­priv­ileged by hav­ing a men­tal metabolism where ex­pend­ing willpower is effec­tive, where you can achieve en­courag­ing re­sults, at an ac­cept­able cost to your­self, and sus­tain the effort in the long run.

Part of the se­quence The Craft and the Community

Next post: “Col­lec­tive Apa­thy and the In­ter­net

Pre­vi­ous post: “Be­ware of Other-Op­ti­miz­ing