Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Wishing Makes It Less So

If you’re looking for a break from politics you’ve come to the right place. Today’s psycho homily concerns the power of wishing and wanting. Or better, the recent discovery that wishing and wanting are not very helpful, if they are helpful at all. The more you wish for something the less likely you are to get it. Put that one in your Freudian pipe and smoke it.

From the time that Freud declared, on no real evidence, that dreams fulfilled wishes, therapists, Freudian and otherwise, have  believed, on no real evidence, that their job was to get you in touch with your heart’s desire.

They have said, explicitly and implicitly, that you should live your dreams, act on your desires and make your wishes come true. In so doing they have detached more than a few people from objective facts and the real world. If you want to discover what you really, really want you cannot look to the world of empirical facts or even data. If you want something, by definition, you do not have it. You might well imagine that you have it, but imagination is not reality.

Your desire is never and can never be a fact. I mention this for the therapists who have recently replaced their mooning over feelings and desires with a newfound love for facts. From its inception in Freud psychoanalysis and its attendant therapies have rejected the notion that facts matter.

Recall that Freud first believed that his hysterics had in fact been sexually molested. He discovered psychoanalysis when he chose to believe that it didn’t matter what had happened. He posited that they had all wanted to be molested and had mistaken the wish for the reality. It was a brilliant intellectual coup. It is roughly equivalent to saying that it does not matter whether Col. Mustard really committed the crime. What matters is that he wanted to do so. How do we know? We know because we can construct a persuasive narrative suggesting that he had reason to kill Mr. Boddy.

From there therapists have proposed that what matters is how badly you want it-- whether your neighbor’s wife or a new job.  Excepting the cognitive/behavioral crowd, therapists are happy to delay and defer any effort at character building, because they do not believe that good behavior is what you really, really want. They imagine that once you are attuned with your desire you will naturally know how to get it. At least, that’s their wish. And their wish is all they really have.

In New York Magazine, Cari Romm reports on a new study about wishing and wanting:

There are some things that, by definition, become harder to attain the more you want them. Contentment, for example. Or coolness (there’s nothing less cool than being visibly thirsty for it). Or, it seems, self-control: In a study recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, psychologists found that wishing you had more of it is enough to diminish what you do have.

How badly do you want to be cool? If you want it badly enough you are not, by definition being cool. But then, how badly do you want to be hot? If you try to be hot, the quality will probably elude you. Being hot means that others want you. It does not mean that you want to be hot. If you tell yourself that you want to be hot, you are telling yourself that you are not hot. And that you are not cool either. Also, by definition, you cannot attain contentment by wanting it really, really badly. Someone who really, really wants to be contented is discontented.

From the abstract of the study by Liad Uziel and RoyBaumeister:

Self-control is a highly adaptive human capacity. Accordingly, development of self-control is widely encouraged. Whereas the benefits of having self-control are well documented, little is known about the impact of wanting self-control. The present investigation fills this void by exploring the effect of desire for self-control on the ability to exert self-control. It was expected that in the context of demanding self-control challenges, a desire for self-control will highlight a discrepancy between one’s goals and perceived performance potential, leading to reduced efficacy beliefs and task disengagement.

This sounds a bit technical, because it is. The study shows that the more you want to have self-control, the less you will have of it.

Do you want to do better at resisting temptation? If there are ways to learn how to do so, these ways do not involve wishing you had more self-control. Strangely enough, in the world of Freudian theory, resistance is a bad thing. You should not cultivate resistance. It is a way to avoid the truth of your desire.

A good Freudian analysis ought to help you to overcome resistance. Thus it will disembarrass you of your wish to have self-control. It will induce you to believe that there is a special virtue in yielding to temptation. An amusing thought, I would say.

Imagine if Adam and Eve had happily yielded to temptation. Imagine if they had no moral compunctions about allowing themselves to be tempted to eat of the fruit of the wrong tree. They would, by definition, not have developed a moral sense. They would have been perfectly amoral. A thought for today.

Anyway, the Uziel/Baumeister study showed that people who wish they had more self-discipline end up having less self-discipline. This might merely mean that their wishing for it affirms that they do not have it. Thus, their actions accord with the reality, not the wish.

For all we know, those who wish they had more self-control are self-absorbed and introspective. They might belong to the cohort that believes in the virtue of introspection or that believes that they can only act if they want to act. This philosophical mistake, the kind that overtakes those who say that they cannot start working until they feel that they want to work, might explain why the wish is not father of the act.

People develop self-control by training. They learn self-control by allowing themselves first to be controlled by someone else—perhaps by a supervisor or even a drill sergeant. Once the habit of discipline becomes more automatic—as in, they automatically make their beds upon waking up—it will feel more natural, not so much a wish for a moral quality that they do not have but an assertion of a moral quality that becomes second or first nature the more they exercise it.


Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: If you want something, by definition, you do not have it. You might well imagine that you have it, but imagination is not reality. Your desire is never and can never be a fact.

This seems significantly muddled. If you want something you can get with a predictable effort, you effectively have it. If you don't have a predictable path to get what you want, you can try different ways of getting it and see what happens, and then try again on that new information. You may conclude after a time that what you want is not achievable, or you may decide it is more effort than it is worth to your desire.

Desire is obviously a fact to you. It is a fact in a given moment, just like feelings are facts in a given moment.

Maybe the next time someone is angry you can tell them "Your anger is never and can never be a fact." but your bloody nose that may follow will be a fact afterwards.

And that suggests a different fact - compensation. We often excel in one direction as a compensation for another direction outside our apparent reach.

trigger warning said...
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trigger warning said...

Roy Baumeister has one of the clearest voices in contemporary cognitive psychology. Very unlike gasbags of the Starhawk ilk, and well worth serious attention...

Ares Olympus said...

Interesting TW I hadn't heard of him. And coincidentally he looks at belonging as a need rather than a desire, i.e. not optional without negative consequences.
Baumeister wrote a paper on the need to belong theory with Mark Leary in 1995. This theory seeks to show that humans have a natural need to belong with others. Baumeister and Leary suggest that it is in our nature, as human beings, to push to form relationships. This push is what helps to distinguish it as a need instead of a desire.
Later, Baumeister published evidence that the way people look for belongingness differs between men and women. Women prefer a few close and intimate relationships, whereas men prefer many but shallower connections. Men realize more of their need to belong via a group of people, or a cause, rather than in close interpersonal relations.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart mentions Baumeister in about 9 blogs before today: