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in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: October 20, 2022

Podcast #842: What Happened to the Idea of Self-Control?

As long as humans have existed, we’ve had to choose between our lower and higher desires — between what we want in the moment, and what we want in the long-term. As long as humans have existed, we’ve had to exercise self-control.

While exercising self-control has always been part of the human condition, our ideas about it have changed through the ages, as have the number of obstacles to doing so.

My guest charted the course of these changes in his book Temptation: Finding Self-Control in an Age of Excess, and he takes us on a tour of them today. His name is Daniel Akst, and we begin our conversation with a definition of what self-control is. We then discuss how Freudian psychology and the scientific study of self-control took it from being something the ancient Greeks and Romans considered an essential virtue of character, to something you shouldn’t or even couldn’t exercise. We also talk about what it is about the modern age that makes self-control uniquely difficult to put into practice. We end our conversation with how, despite the addition of complexities and hindrances, self-control remains a fundamental resource in a flourishing life, and Daniel shares practical tips for preserving yours by changing your environment, so you actually don’t have to exercise self-control as much.

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Read the Transcript

Brett Mckay: Brett McKay here and welcome to know edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. As long as humans have existed, we’ve had to choose between our lower and higher desires between what we want in the moment and what we want in the long-term. As long as humans have existed, we’ve had to exercise self-control. While exercising self-control has always been part of the human condition, our ideas about it have changed through the ages as have the number of obstacles to doing so. My guest charted the course of these changes in his book, Temptation: Finding Self-Control in an Age of Excess, and he takes us on a tour of them today. His name is Daniel Akst, and we begin our conversation with the definition of what self-control is. We then discuss our Freudian psychology and the scientific study of self-controll, took it from being something the Ancient Greeks and Romans considered an essential virtue of character, something you shouldn’t or even couldn’t exercise.

We also talk about what it is about the modern age that makes self-control uniquely difficult to put into practice. We end our conversation with how despite the addition of complexities and hindrances, self-control remains a fundamental resource in a flourishing life. And Daniel shares practical tips for preserving yours by changing your environment, so you actually don’t have to exercise self-control as much. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.ios/self-control.

Alright, Dan Akst, welcome to the show.

Daniel Akst: Thanks so much for having me, Brett.

Brett Mckay: So 11 years ago, you wrote a book called Temptation: Finding Self-Control in an Age of Excess, is also sold under the title, We Have Met the Enemy as well. I’m curious, what was going on in your life back in 2011, where you’re thinking, I really need to take a deep dive into the history and the science of self-control?

Daniel Akst: That’s a great question. I need to go back a ways, if you don’t mind, and mention that I had a gentleman, was an uncle by marriage who was quite overweight and extremely so, and at that time it was really quite rare. He was an outlier, and he had a very early stomach reduction surgery and gastric bypass type of thing. They used a different technology in those days, but in any case, I ended up writing a novel about a man who goes through that and is transformed physically and is unrecognizably so. And the novel got some good attention, and so people started coming to me to write about these matters and think about these matters, and I realized that there was a great deal going on that posed challenges to our ability to regulate our appetites in a society that valued freedom and individuality and all of those good things which I happen to value. And so I ended up delving into it on a number of fronts and writing a book about it.

Brett Mckay: Yeah. And so you start off the book, I thought it was really interesting. You talk about all the problems we have in our current society that you can attribute to a lack of self-control, so one is obesity, is one. What are some other things you were seeing at the time that you’re like, Well, this is just a lack of self-control?

Daniel Akst: Yeah, I mean really, when people are free, I mean they can get in trouble in all kinds of ways. You can get in trouble with alcohol, you can get in trouble with drugs, you can get in trouble with food. There are a whole bunch of behaviors, cigarettes, obviously, are a very dangerous habit to have, tobacco generally. After I wrote the book, we had the opioid crisis, and gambling has been increasing, the availability of gambling has been growing before I wrote… Some years ago when I was young, there was gambling in Nevada and then New Jersey came along, and that was mostly it other than your neighborhood bookie, but by the time I wrote the book there was some form of gambling in a large number of states, not to mention lotteries. And now, all these years later, we have professional sports gambling spreading and available on your phone in everybody’s pocket, so we went from the difficulty of having maybe to go all the way to Vegas or something to being able to just take out the phone in your pocket and place a bet. And so there are a lot of opportunities. In some ways, there’s a lot of opportunities for fulfillment, for pleasure in our society, which is marvelous, but there are along with that, a lot of opportunities to go very far wrong.

Brett Mckay: The gambling thing is interesting. So here in Oklahoma, we have… There’s… The tribes have casinos. But also we have a state-sponsored lottery, like a lot of other states do, and I thought that it was funny, I noticed the other day when I was in a quick trip, you’re at the check out, you see all the lottery tickets then I also saw an advertisement about, there’s a state agency now where there’s a phone number you can call if you have a gambling problem. I just thought that was ironic that, okay, we created this agency to create the lottery, but then we had to create another agency to help people with their gambling problem at the same time.

Daniel Akst: That’s very common. We have it in New York State as well, that sort of thing. But what’s very interesting, there are so many aspects of this that are interesting, but with respect to gambling, what I like is that in quite a number of places there are no gambling registries. For example, in some states in Canadian provinces you can sign yourself up for an irrevocable period of time to be barred from casinos. And in fact, there was a fascinating legal case in… I can’t recall if it was British Columbia, or one of the other western Canadian provinces where some gamblers had lost very large sums of money after registering themselves to be barred from these casinos. And they then snuck into the casinos and lost all of this money and then sued the casinos claiming that the casinos had been negligent in not barring them. So it’s a very difficult problem, it’s sensible to try to use a technique of this kind, and yet so many of them can be circumvented. It’s very hard to bar yourself from doing something like this, and it’s just a back and forth that we’re always going to have to cope with in a free society. And the more things that we permit the more we’re going to have to control ourselves.

Brett Mckay: Well, another issue, you’re writing this book right after the great recession, and you attributed… You could partly blame a lack of self-control on the recession, ’cause you had banks making loans that they probably shouldn’t have made, people taking on leverage they probably shouldn’t have and it’s ’cause they just wanted more even though they probably shouldn’t.

Daniel Akst: Yeah, there’s just no denying it. So many of our excesses could be prevented by some prudence and some self-control.

Brett Mckay: Well, I’d like to… Maybe for this discussion we can talk about how the ideology of, “Okay, you need to constrain yourself in order to live a flourishing life. How did that go from a good thing to where kinda giving into your wants is preferred?” But before we do, let’s talk about just kind of definition like, How do you define self-control? Because I think a lot of people when they hear they think, “Okay, I know what self-control is. It means there’s something I wanna do, but I don’t wanna do it. I’m not gonna do it.” When you were writing this, book what kind of definition did you settle on?

Daniel Akst: That’s a great question, and I would say… Conversationally, I would say that it is the ability to… Or the willingness to, or both to honour one’s more considered desires, let’s put it that way. In the book I talk about two levels or two kinds of desire that you might have. You know, I just… If my wife brings home a delicious pie or something, I just wanna sit down and eat the whole thing, and that might be a first order desire that I have, but a second order desire, a more considered desire I have would be to be healthy and stay trim and not hog all the pie, so that there’s some for her or if our boys come over or something. And so if I can adhere to that, self-control would be the ability or the effort to adhere to that more considered desire. So maybe I’ll have a piece of pie and a cup of coffee. And that’s the end of it for now, and there were those like the philosopher Harry Frankfurt who has said that, really, this is what makes us human. Harry Frankfurt said that if you don’t have those considered desires, or you don’t honor them in any way, or very much, then you’re what he called a wanton. And a human is someone who honors those desires, because after all if my neighbor has…

I don’t know, some great patio chairs and I… Boy, I covet those. I mean, I don’t go over and swipe those, you know, even if nobody’s looking and I can put them on the other side of the house. That’s just a bad thing to do. I don’t do it. So Harry called them wantons and the Greeks and others throughout history have had a similar disdain for people for this kind of thing. People regard it as a lack of character, you know, that it almost meant you couldn’t be trusted if you couldn’t honor these more reasonable or these considered desires, if you didn’t have them, even. So that’s I guess the longer answer than you may want, but how I look at self-control.

Brett Mckay: No. Yeah, I’ve heard that first order wants or first order desire, second order desire distinction before, and the way… One way I’ve heard it put is, Okay, the first order desire is like the thing you want. It could be like, okay, the pie. And then the second order desires, you want the thing you want. You actually do that considered desire. You actually want to eat the pie. The example of first and second order desires being out of a line and an extreme example is addiction where you have… Okay, someone wants the drug. They viscerally want the drug, whether it’s cocaine, opioids, alcohol, nicotine, whatever, but then there could be… They take a step back and actually, I don’t want it. It makes me feel bad. I don’t wanna… So addiction is a perfect example of those things being out of alignment.

Daniel Akst: Right, that’s right. And in fact, there’s much to be said about addiction, but one point I would make along the lines that we’ve been discussing is that you can also see this not just in terms of having conflicting desires in the present, but you can see it in a kind of temporal way that is, in terms of my absolute immediate desire, it’s absolutely to have pleasure now, but there’s some later self that will have to pay the price for that, and to what extent do I honor the interests or desires of that later self that would prefer to be thin or not hungover or not impoverished because I gambled away all my money on NFL football or wherever I’ve done it. So you’re absolutely right.

Brett Mckay: Well, let’s talk about how our ideas about self-control have changed over time, and what I love about your book is that you take readers through this sort of, a cultural tour of the idea of self-control, and you have an entire chapter devoted to the ancient Greeks. And I love this because first, I love the ancient Greeks. But one of the things I love about the Greeks is that they thought about these complex nuanced psychological ideas, and they just come up with a single word that would encapsulate it, and the Greeks had this word for self-control, and it was, akrasia. So tell us about akrasia.

Daniel Akst: Right. Weakness of the will, and that is something they were very aware of. The wonderful thing about the Greeks, as you imply, is that when you turn to them you find all of our dilemmas, all of our issues and concerns; They wrestled with all of it. And they did so with great clarity and even poetry, so it’s interesting to look at how they coped with these issues, and it’s interesting to bear in mind how they lived. They lived in smaller communities, people knew each other, you were seen by servants and you were seen by neighbors and spouses and so forth. It was a small world, and so they paid a lot of attention to this, Plato and Aristotle in particular, paid attention to it. Plato had the idea that what we did when… If I said, I’m not gonna eat that whole pie, but then I went ahead and did it, he said, Well, I just changed my mind, because he didn’t think anybody could knowingly do something that they felt was a bad thing to do. So I just changed my mind and for a while I thought it was a good idea, and then I finished eating and maybe I realized that it wasn’t.

And Aristotle, I think, had a more sophisticated or cynical view, and cynical is the wrong word, but he had a more sophisticated view in which… And he said that, as someone put it, reason is dragged about by desire. And so you have the simultaneous, these conflicting desires. And he really expected us to be disciplined and to both Plato and Aristotle felt it was important, but Aristotle expected us to be disciplined and to be accountable for ourselves and to find the mean, and he didn’t mean just divide everything right down the middle. He said, “Use judgment, use some kind of practical wisdom to determine which pole you should be near, or how much… Should you eat no pie? Should you eat the whole pie? Where do you belong in there? And I might add on a practical level, which I guess we’ll talk about in a while, practical matters, but you know it’s always easier, Abstinence is always easier than temperance, so it’s… In some respects it’s easier to have no pie than just one small piece, but in any case the Greeks were on this. They had a whole bunch of different distinctions.

Aristotle, for example, talked about the continent man who restrained his desires versus the temperate man who he didn’t have desires that were all that powerful, say for gambling or for whatever, infidelity or any of that sort of thing. And so they made a whole bunch of these distinctions, Aristotle in particular, but the main thing is they understood that this was a human affliction, a part of the human condition. And they understood that it can be an expression of character, so they had, I thought, a sophisticated awareness of these issues.

Brett Mckay: Yeah. And you talk about the reason they were likely so focused on self-control is that their democratic form of government, this idea they believed if you wanted to have a democracy that’s led by free people you needed to have people who were in control of their base desires.

Daniel Akst: Yeah, I think that then as now, if you want to have a thriving democracy and you want a free people, those people need to be able to regulate themselves in some way, and that in turn requires some kind of education, some kind of conditioning toward values, some kind of social structures that make it possible. It’s almost impossible to do this kind of thing successfully all alone. I’m not sure that can happen, so I think that democracy is absolutely dependent, civil society is absolutely dependent on the ability of individuals to regulate their desires.

Brett Mckay: So the Greeks, self-control is important. You move into the Romans, and an important philosophy for a lot of Romans was the philosophy of stoicism, and they seemed to take this idea of self-control and just put it on steroids.

Daniel Akst: Absolutely, that was central, I think, to the stoic conception of virtuous life, and each of us bore the weight in a sense of his own well-being, his own outlook. The only thing you could control was your response to things, and this was pretty much the highest value to them. And that carry forward, I mean, all the way across the centuries. I mean through the Puritans, the Victorians and so forth, all of whom have a bad name now. There were a bunch of party poopers and so forth, but they did understand certain things about human nature. The way that we can go off the rails, the way that society can become disorganized and violent and inhospitable to its members and to the future. All those things can happen if we don’t regulate ourselves and subordinate our desires to some extent to tomorrow and to the needs of others.

Brett Mckay: Well, yes. Okay, the stoics had emphasis on self-control as you said. This got carried over into Christianity, where a lack of self-control became a sin. A lot of, if you look at the seven deadly sins a lot, it’s all about people who lacked self-control, they gave into their gluttony, their lust, their vanity, etcetera.

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And now back to the show. Okay, so for most of Western History, self-control has really been important. You can see this in other cultures as well. If you look at in Chinese culture, Asian cultures. Confucianism was all about controlling yourself and making sure you’re doing the right thing in the certain social context. You can see the similar things in Hinduism as well, but in the 20th century you had this guy named Freud, who he’s put into motion a radical change of how we think about self-control. What was Freud’s ideas and how do they influence what we think about self-control?

Daniel Akst: Well, I guess you could say that Freud’s real emphasis, I guess, aside from Freud was… And his lust for renown, Freud’s real emphasis was autonomy, we might say. And he wanted to liberate us from taboos and constraints that we had perhaps internalized that we didn’t believe in or that were oppressive to us, or that were contrary to our deepest needs, needs that were not illegitimate for love or whatever. And that was valuable, that was a valuable contribution by Freud, but autonomy can eventually become license and that was a problem. Another important aspect of Freud’s work was the rise of faith in the importance of the unconscious, and you go down that road and it’s very easy to come to the idea that maybe we don’t have any conscious control over our behavior, maybe it’s all mysterious, it’s all pre-determined, maybe there’s not even any free will. And so you could see that he was a kind of a portal to a different outlook, a different way of living and ideas that were both at once beneficial and dangerous. That’s true of so many things, I suppose, of money and alcohol and so many things that are both good and bad. And so people took these ideas and ran with them or kept the parts that were most convenient, and here we are.

Brett Mckay: Yeah, so one idea I think people have taken from Freud and I think Freud would say, “Well, yeah, you just misinterpreted this idea that I had,” was neurosis is caused by repression, right?

Daniel Akst: Yes.

Brett Mckay: And so the whole point of therapy is like, okay, you’re supposed to maybe figure out what’s causing the repression, you can release it. Well, then any people have taken this idea that, well, if neurosis is caused by repression and just don’t repress anything and just give into your base desires and just do whatever you want. If it feels good, do it. And that’s led to this shift from self-control is good to, well, self-control is actually bad, you actually needed to not be controlled.

Daniel Akst: Very well put, I couldn’t have put it better. An example in that arena that I recall in the book is anger. There was this hydraulic theory of anger and many other things that goes back to Freud, that if we didn’t vent the anger, it would turn inward and we would have ulcers, or we would be repressed or we would eat our liver out or whatever phrase you want, a fanciful phrase you want to use, but that’s not really how anger seems to work. In fact, anger seems to feed on itself and great displays of anger only seem to lead to even greater anger, and in fact, controlling our expressions even seems to reduce anger. There is, it works in the mind and the body, it work in both directions, but any case, that idea did take hold…

Daniel Akst: That you had to let these things out and you probably could. You lay that at Freud and other things. Even talk therapy, Freud was if not the inventor then an early… People always sought to speak to other people about their problems, but Freud created a kind of structure for this that implied that torrid desires had to do with disease and that helped the whole disease model to spread, I think. So he played the important roles in a number of respects in helping to change attitudes about the here and now, and I might add, it’s possible for a long time, we undervalued the present. But it’s hard for us to recall how hard life was in the past and how important it was for people to be pretty tough with themselves. Things have changed quite a bit.

Brett Mckay: So not only, okay. With Freud we had the introduction of this idea that, okay, maybe you have desires in yourself on the unconscious that you don’t have any control over, maybe you should give in to them so you don’t develop neurosis. Another thing that happened that caused a shift of how we think about self-control in the 20th century and 21st century is the, well, we got really, really scientific with self-control. Before self-control is mainly a thing that philosophers and theologians thought about, now you had scientists, we had neuroscientists, cognitive behavioral scientists, geneticists looking at self-control, and then some of the stuff, it chips away about what we think about self-control. So for example, some research has shown that executive control or self-control is hereditary. Correct.

Daniel Akst: Yes, that’s quite correct. It’s associated with conscientiousness. Most things are at least partially hereditary and self-regulation seems to be one of those things. In addition, there are episodes through history that have helped us to see that certain parts of the brain are more implicated than others. It’s obviously a very complex arena, but there’s one particular episode that I talk about in the book, which is the famous case of Phineas Gage, who I think he was a railroad guy, was trying to blast through rock and an explosion drove a huge, a big steel rod right through his head, and it came in underneath the cheek bone and went out through the front of his head, and amazingly, he survived this. But there was damage to the front of his brain, an area we now know is highly important in terms of what’s called executive function and Gage survived this. He had a wonderful doctor who helped him overcome the infection at a time before antibiotics, but Gage was a changed man. He was completely different. Before the accident, he had been known for his reliability and patience, and his employer thought he was great. He was a supervisor, and I think his men thought he was terrific as well. Afterwards, he became a guy who was consumed only with his own desires, he became short tempered, he became unreliable.

He wandered, he led a completely different life and he seemed to be… People commonly use that kind of expression, he’s a changed man, and this was an early episode that helped to make it clear how important that frontal area of the brain is in these kinds of things.

Brett Mckay: Well yeah, another example you gave that’s similar to Phineas Gage, there’s a guy a decade or so ago where normal guy, just kind of laid back, nondescript, but then suddenly he just… His sexual drives went out of control, started looking at porn a lot, and it got to the point where he was molesting his daughter, I think. And his wife finally turned, it’s like, “Something’s wrong with this guy.” What ended up happening, they discovered there was a tumor in his brain that was basically pressing some part of his pre-frontal cortex, and as soon as they removed the tumor, everything went back to normal.

Daniel Akst: Yes, I recall that, yes. And in fact, if I recall correctly, at one point it grew back and he had to have it treated or removed again, and at such times he again he was just, he did things that would have been absolutely inconceivable. And it’s a very interesting and rich area. Defense attorneys in murder cases have increasingly tried to make an argument that the defendant, the accused had some kind of brain disorder or brain problem or insufficient development in the brain or something of that nature to mitigate culpability for a murder, and it hasn’t really… I don’t believe that it’s gotten a lot of traction in the courts because I’m not a lawyer, but people have all kinds of problems when they commit crimes, but you’re absolutely right. So it’s clear that there’s no mind-body distinction, it’s clear that there is an important dimension of this, that is just a physical manifestation of the way our brains are made.

Brett Mckay: And related to this idea of looking or thinking about self-control through this more biological lens, is the way our ideas around addiction and substance abuse have changed. Now we have more questions as to the extent of how much control or agency people have over those things.

Daniel Akst: It’s a very interesting area, and it raises the question of the disease model, which has been expanding over the years. So that if you have an addiction, say to alcohol, that would be considered a disease. And if you have an addiction to opioids, maybe that’s a disease, and there are difficulties with that model. That model makes sense in some ways, but in some ways it does not, but what we can say is by expanding the realm of disease, we narrow the realm of agency. After all, if somebody gets a disease, whatever it is, Crohn’s disease or something, that just happened, what can you do? But it’s a little different with these other things.

When we have a friend who has an alcohol problem and want to help that friend, we might say to that friend, it’s very important that you get help, because the drinking is out of control and you have to get some help. And implicit in that suggestion is the idea that maybe there is some agency there, because after all, if they are completely a slave of compulsion, how could they get help, how would help do any good, they are completely without agency in the face of a disease.

Now on the other hand, some of these things seem so intractable that it’s hard not to turn to that model, but that is something that’s been expanding and over the years you noticed in the media, you’ll see rhetorically all kinds of addictions. We started out maybe with alcohol as a disease and addiction to drugs were a disease, but you then come to addiction to your ex-lover or addiction to television, addiction to shopping, there was just a whole range of things that represent an expansion of this realm and that they do raise questions about how far are we going to take this or whether they’re… Is at any point some agency involved in our lives?

Brett Mckay: Okay, so given that our genes can affect how much self-control we have, can make us more conscientious are less conscientious than other people, tumors can affect us, brain damage can affect our self-control, you talk about how hormones can weaken our self-control, like when men are high in testosterone, they are more likely to take risk, etcetera. What does that say about self-control? Do we really have it?

Daniel Akst: That’s a great question. Maybe that’s the essential question. If I were to put a gun to your head and say, “Don’t blink,” you will blink no matter what, eventually. You may try not to for a few seconds, but sooner later you’re going to blink. But if I put it on to your head and say, “Don’t eat another piece of pie, or don’t place another bet, or don’t have another cocktail,” as long as I’m standing there with that thing, you won’t do it. So there is some essential difference between behaviors that are fully compulsory and those that are… Or involuntary, shall we say. And those that are to some great extent, voluntary, and it’s important not to elide that because as the economists know, people do respond to incentives, and certainly the incentive of that gun I pointed at you is going to affect your behavior. But similarly, if we impose much higher taxes on alcohol, places that have tried this have found, somewhat surprisingly, that drinking goes down, that alcohol purchases actually do have some price sensitivity. So in a number of European countries, they have much more expensive alcohol, some of these countries have greater drinking problems or have had…

Than we do. So again, and again, we do see that people respond to incentives, and so I think that there’s reason for optimism that there’s a lot that we can do in this arena, if we know how to go about it.

Brett Mckay: Yeah, and I think this goes to the question, does free will exist? People say, “Well, no, free will doesn’t exist, all determined by genes and hormones, social situation, blah, blah,” whatever. But I think it’d be hard to live in a world where we didn’t assign responsibility for people’s rude actions, they committed a crime, it was well, they didn’t really, they didn’t have any choice, they were destined to do that and that wouldn’t probably not lead to a great place.

Daniel Akst: Yeah, I don’t see how that can be anything more than a kind of academic position because there are professors who hold that view and then expect their students to study for tests and give them grades based on how they performed, and I just don’t know how life can go on on that basis. I don’t know how we can have a legal system, I don’t know how we would bother with incentives, people, I’ve talked briefly casually to some people who hold those views and they live just the same as the rest of us. They act as, they certainly act as if they have control over their actions, and in fact, they seem to have a great deal of control over their actions, they’re very often the most highly and carefully self-regulated individuals, people with advanced degrees and so on, and if they need to research school systems, they do so carefully. Buying a toaster oven, or whatever, it is they don’t just say, “Well, it’s all pre-determined. And whatever I do, I do.” So it’s hard to take that terribly seriously, but I do think it’s a somewhat corrosive idea that as it filters out into the world is very unlikely to be helpful.

Brett Mckay: Okay, so let’s summarize where we’ve been here, ’cause you’ve covered a lot of ground, so self-control in ancient times was seen as a virtue, and then a lack of self-control was seen as a character defect or even a sin. But then various factors changed our ideas of self-control. First, Freud… Freud gave people this idea that repression might be unhealthy, and then also we’ve been able to scientifically study self-control and we’ve discovered various biological factors that can make it harder for some people to exercise self-control and adding these nuances… It isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s helped us understand that self-control can be complex and we can be more pathetic, maybe, for some people because it’s just gonna be harder for them. But at the same time, we still have free will and that there’s a need for self-control, and so if you wanna live a flourishing life, like stay out of debt, stay off drugs, don’t become obese, you have to exercise self-control. But something else you highlight in the book is that, even though we still need to exercise self-control, there are aspects of our modern environment that’s made it uniquely hard to do so, so what’s different about our environment today?

Daniel Akst: Several things have changed. Number one, there is a change in our set of beliefs, of taboos and social constraints and religious practice, and the whole ideology that we should defer gratification or we should deny ourselves, that whole ideology has weakened considerably since… In the past half century, I would say. I don’t think anyone can deny that, and tradition has weakened, people are mobile, different kinds of families, more people live alone, which is disinhibiting in itself.

So a number of customs and social factors and so on have been disinhibiting this way. Another thing is technology, and this has been enormous, technology has helped to make us richer, technology has made things more available and the example… There’s an example, as I recall, that I have in my book, maybe 100 years ago, it took hours to get a roast chicken. You had to chase the chicken around the yard and ring its neck and pluck it, and all this kind of thing. And now you can just drive through, El Pollo Loco or Kentucky Fried Chicken or Popeyes or somewhere and get whatever you want. In fact, now you can have it delivered, you can take your phone out of your pocket and just tap, tap and it shows up and the cost of that chicken has absolutely plummeted. Maybe the chicken used to take you several hours work to earn, now it takes you five, 10, 15 minutes.

And that leads me to the third big factor, which has been capitalism, which is certainly a system whose virtues I recognize, I don’t see a better alternative. Bt it’s a system that is constantly trying to give us what we want, and it’s a very dangerous thing sometimes to be able to get what you want, and it’s a kind of a bifurcated system, because in our role as workers, we’re asked to show tremendous restraint and channel our appetites or set them aside, but then in our role as consumers, with Jekyll and Hyde in our role as consumers we’re encouraged in every possible way to throw over all restraints and all concern with tomorrow. And so these factors, I think, have made it much easier for us to answer to… Let’s call them instinctual needs or desires that we have rather than our more considered desires for ourselves and those are big changes, I think.

Brett Mckay: Okay, so we’ve talked about how the idea of self-control has been chipped away in the 20th and 21st century, so we have that problem. We have this problem where we live in an environment where we have a lot more freedom, we can get whatever we want at a click of a button, we can gamble from our phones, we can buy stuff from our phones, we can get porn from our phone, whatever, we have instant access to. So what do we do to steal our self-control, what does the research say, what did you discover on how we can become more self-control given that our environment is more… We have more temptations?

Daniel Akst: Well, so I’m gonna reveal my age and say that is the six… What they used to call the $64,000 question. How do we cope? And the good news, and I think it’s quite good news is really there are some very simple techniques available to anybody that can help enormously in this arena, and the main concept to accept is a kind of humility, willpower alone is rarely enough. You really shouldn’t count on it. You may be able to resist, I don’t know, a second piece of pie or something, will you be able to resist embezzling $10 million if you are absolutely sure no one will ever know about it. That’s a different question. So don’t rely on willpower, the best thing you can do, and BF Skinner and many others understood this very well, is to control your environment, you can’t affect your genes, of course, you can’t choose your parents, but you can choose your environment, which is the other half of it. The other part of it anyway, and that can be enormously beneficial if you want to lose weight or control your weight or eat a healthier diet, don’t have ice cream in the house. If you don’t wanna drink or don’t wanna drink much, you don’t have that stuff in the house, don’t go near a bar, think about your friends, don’t spend a lot of time with people who are gonna do the things that you want to avoid doing.

In fact, the social part of this, you could say, in a sense, is a part of your environment, but it’s absolutely crucial. I had a good friend who was the son of an alcoholic, and my friend managed to enjoy a beer every day, one beer every day. His wife, his friends, everyone knew that he only had one beer a day, I think sometimes he would buy one at a time at a store if he could, and everyone knew that, and if he departed from that, it would be an extraordinary… Almost a crisis, I suppose. Everybody would kind of say, “Oh my God, what are you doing? What’s happening to you?” And these were people he cared about, and this was something that helped him to have the enjoyment of that beer without going overboard. So you have to control your environment, you have to enlist friends and family, it doesn’t mean that we have to live at all times under a kind of surveillance. If you live a healthy life, these problems are not as great as they may seem, but you’ve got to set up a structure for success, so decide if you’re gonna have lunch with a friend and you both care about this stuff, you can agree…

To order for one another, because it’s likely that you’ll order healthier foods for someone else than yourself, and you can also order in advance or pledge in advance to order a salad rather than something that might be less healthy. There’s another thing I wanna mention, and if you don’t mind, I will mention it now, if I’m going on too long, let me know. But there’s a technique called pre-commitment that is invaluable, and it takes us back to the Greeks. When Odysseus was on his way home to Ithaca from the Trojan War, he and his men on their ship had to cope with the sirens who would… Their magnificent song would lure men to their destruction, so Odysseus wanted to hear the song, but he didn’t want the ship to be destroyed, so he told the men to stop up their ears, tie him to the mast, and he would hear the song and they would get through the sirens that way. And he did, and there are some famous paintings, fanciful paintings of this episode in the Odyssey, well, you can do the same. And there’s a whole variety of ways that talk a great deal about pre-commitment.

Marriage is a form of pre-commitment in a sense. Tattoos, I suppose, our pre-commitment in some sense, committing yourself in the future to your idea today about what is beautiful or worthy, but you can go further, you can… There are even websites that will let you pledge to pay a certain amount of money if you don’t get your weight to a certain level by a certain date, and that money can go to a charity of your choosing, or the money can go to what they call an anti-charity. There was a writer named John Bayer back in the ’70s, who pledged some thousands of dollars to the American Nazi Party if he did not lose a certain amount of weight by a certain date. And of course, the Nazis were anathema to…

Mr. Bayer, and he did lose the weight because he didn’t want his hard earned money to go to such an awful group of people, so there’s just a whole host of these kinds of things that you can do to prevent yourself from going too far off the rails and if you treat yourself in this way, like one of the pigeons in BF Skinner’s lab at Harvard or like, oh, I hate to say this, but almost as if you were a very sophisticated robot, you can use rewards.

I’m only gonna have a glass of wine if I write at least three pages today, otherwise no wine with dinner. There’s just a host of these things that you can do, I talk about a great many of them in the book, and finally, cultivating habits is crucially important, you must cultivate good ones, and you can solve so many difficulties and just… They dissolve as difficulties because if your habit is to do the right thing, the thing that you really want to do, such as to take a walk every day, something as simple as that, find a partner. Find a partner to whom you’re accountable, go walking together. These are simple things, these are not rocket science, anybody, anybody can do these things, and I do believe they can make a very large difference.

Brett Mckay: Okay, so to kind of recap there, summarized, control your environment, so if you have a problem with surfing the web when you don’t want to, put a web block around, there’s plenty of apps out there. The iPhone has the screen time controls now, choose your friends wisely, ’cause they’re gonna shape what you want and will help you get to where you wanna be and have more self-control. Pre-commitments and then develop habits.

Daniel Akst: Right, there’s one last thing I forgot to mention and it’s important, and that is not to try to do too much. People who study this find that, for example, if you’re trying to finish your PhD dissertation and you also want to quit smoking, finish the dissertation, then tackle the smoking. Barack Obama knew that he should quit smoking, but I don’t believe he was gonna do it while he was in the White House, it was just too difficult to be president. Be smart, be patient. One thing at a time, don’t exhaust yourself trying to do everything at once, and don’t think that a single lapse, you had a cigarette, you had to drink, whatever it is, is the end of the world. Tomorrow is another day, and you can just resume where you left off.

Brett Mckay: Well, Dan, this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Daniel Akst: Well, thank you. The book is, I think, still in stores, still online, the hard cover is called We Have Met the Enemy, and the soft cover is called Temptation. And I have a website, just, where there’s some more of my work, and I have a book coming out later this year about American pacifists during World War II.

Brett Mckay: Well, fantastic. Well, Dan Akst, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Daniel Akst: Oh, it’s pleasure has all been mine.

Brett Mckay: My guest today was Daniel Akst. He’s the author of the book, Temptation, it’s available on Also check out our shownotes at aom.ios/self-control where you’ll find links to resources, we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast, make sure check on our website at where you’ll find our podcast archives, as well as 1000s of article written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so in Stitcher Premium, head over to, sign up, use code manliness to check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher up on Android, iOS and you start enjoying ad free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing this show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to AOM podcast but put what you’ve heard into action.

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