It’s a lot easier getting into a cultural morass than getting out of one. Getting in feels effortless; getting out feels like work. Getting in feels like fun; getting out feels like a slog.
We got into our current cultural morass when we allowed the 1960s counterculture to transform traditional American values into a more therapeutically-correct alternative.
In the name of mental health we made virtue into vice and vice into virtue.
More and more people are recognizing this for the folly that it was. Yet, we are still suffering its effects.
Since old-style therapy bears a considerable responsibility for the problem, it is fitting that new therapists, armed with cognitive psychology, have been leading us out of it.
Any system of classical ethics will grant considerable importance to self-control. The therapy culture rejected this precept and persuaded far too many people that self-control was the royal road to mental illness and general uptightness.
Reviewing Roy Baumeister and John Tierney’s new book on self-control Harvard Professor Steven Pinker makes the salient point: “ … the very idea of self-control has acquired a musty Victorian odor. The Google Books Ngram Viewer shows that the phrase rose in popularity through the 19th century but began to free fall around 1920 and cratered in the 1960s, the era of doing your own thing, letting it all hang out and taking a walk on the wild side. Your problem was no longer that you were profligate or dissolute, but that you were uptight, repressed, neurotic, obsessive-compulsive or fixated at the anal stage of psychosexual development.”
In other terms, when you meet someone who is highly disciplined and organized, our culture will tell you to label him a control freak.
Baumeister and Tierney entitle their book: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. As Pinker explains, they base their title’s value judgment on experiments that have shown self-control to be one of the best predictors of success in life.
You may know of the famous marshmallow experiment: “In experiments beginning in the late 1960s, the psychologist Walter Mischel tormented preschoolers with the agonizing choice of one marshmallow now or two marshmallows 15 minutes from now. When he followed up decades later, he found that the 4-year-olds who waited for two marshmallows turned into adults who were better adjusted, were less likely to abuse drugs, had higher self-esteem, had better relationships, were better at handling stress, obtained higher degrees and earned more money.”
One might call it deferred gratification, but it is really a question of calculating risk versus reward, making a rational decision, and following that decision.
Therapists have made it more difficult to acquire self-control because of the way they have defined the problem. They have persuaded us that the mind in engaged in a permanent struggle between unruly impulses and mental willpower.
Pinker describes how we have learned to think the problem: “When we fight an urge, it feels like a strenuous effort, as if there were a homunculus in the head that physically impinged on a persistent antagonist. We speak of exerting will power, of forcing ourselves to go to work, of restraining ourselves and of controlling our temper, as if it were an unruly dog.”
I will not contest that some people feel what they feel. I will note that this description of a mental conflict between impulse and willpower comes down to us from Freud, among others. For most of us it feels like the right way to analyze the problem.
Beyond its being a theory, it is also a narrative. And it is designed to undermine your self-control and your good character.
Ostensibly, therapy pretends to allow you to gain control of your impulses by understanding where they come from and what they mean. This is a ruse, a sop to bourgeois sensibilities.
In truth, once therapy became a culture its emphasis shifted markedly.
If you convince people, as Freud and the therapy culture did, that we are engaged in a futile struggle against powerful impulses, then it is not too difficult to convince them to give in to their impulses.
Then, you can explain that those who give their impulses freer reign will be healthier than those who keep their impulses and emotions bottled up. From talk shows to the movie of the week, this message is pervasive in our culture.
It helps if you add that our impulses have only taken on a negative value because we are trying to control them. Then you will have set people on a permanent path to self-indulgence.
From there the therapy culture declares that people with powerful feelings are superior to those whose feelings are so weak that they are easy to control.
Then, it is not only morally defensible to launch into intemperate rants; it becomes a sign of superiority.
When you lose control you will see it as a sign that you feel very strongly that you are right. You will reject the old way of thinking where it was a sign of weak willpower, an inability to control yourself.
Building self-control is like building character. You do it one step at a time. It requires work and effort, not least because important forces in the culture are militating against it.
But it is important to emphasize that once you develop the habits of self-discipline and self-control, they will not feel like a constant struggle against an impulse to self-indulgence, but they will feel natural and normal.
Experimenters have tried this out by using college students as subjects. They have taught the students to exercise self-control in small tasks, the better to allow them to develop the “muscle” or the habit that will give them greater self-control in larger tasks. They want to make self-control feel familiar and comfortable.
Pinker summarizes: “Immediately after students engage in a task that requires them to control their impulses — resisting cookies while hungry, tracking a boring display while ignoring a comedy video, writing down their thoughts without thinking about a polar bear or suppressing their emotions while watching the scene in "Terms of Endearment" in which a dying Debra Winger says goodbye to her children — they show lapses in a subsequent task that also requires an exercise of willpower, like solving difficult puzzles, squeezing a handgrip, stifling sexual or violent thoughts and keeping their payment for participating in the study rather than immediately blowing it on Doritos.”
He continues: “ … self-control, though almost certainly heritable in part, can be toned up by exercising it. He enrolled students in regimens that required them to keep track of their eating, exercise regularly, use a mouse with their weaker hand or (one that really gave them a workout) speak in complete sentences and without swearing. After several weeks, the students were more resistant to ego depletion in the lab and showed greater self-control in their lives. They smoked, drank and snacked less, watched less television, studied more and washed more dishes.”
And also: “Build up its strength, the authors suggest, with small but regular exercises, like tidiness and good posture. Don’t try to tame every bad habit at once. Watch for symptoms of ego fatigue, because in that recovery period you are especially likely to blow your stack, [and] your budget ….”