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Breakdown of WillReview - Breakdown of Will
by George Ainslie
Cambridge University Press, 2001
Review by Rachel Cooper
Aug 7th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 32)

Time and again we fail to act in our own best interest. At New Year we resolve to exercise, but when the time comes to go jogging we prefer to watch TV. We believe that it's best to perform tasks well before deadlines, but end up starting them the night before they're due to be completed. We drink and eat more than we think is good for us, go to bed too late, and fail to return phone-calls. In Breakdown of Will Ainslie seeks to explain why it is that we are prone to such failures. In this exceptionally rich book he also manages, almost in passing, to sketch accounts of the self, of addictions, of pain, of will-power, of the unconscious and of free-will.

Ainslie's central idea is that humans have an innate tendency to prefer immediate to delayed rewards. Furthermore, we favor the now to such an extent that if given a choice between a small immediate reward and a large one later we're quite likely to opt for the smaller reward. We'll take a slice of pizza now, rather than wait for a whole one tomorrow.

Obviously, such choices are not in our interest. We'd be better off waiting for the whole pizza. Ainslie posits that our tendency to sharply "discount" the future is part of our evolutionary inheritance. Although it doesn't help us in modern society we find it difficult to shake off. With civilization we have developed techniques that help us to overcome this animal greed: We can physically commit ourselves to waiting for the bigger prize, for example cutting up credit cards stops us squandering money. We can seek social support to help us resist our impulses, for example by joining weight-watchers. We can make resolutions.

Our animal greed, however, is deep-seated, and fights against such techniques. Thus we find ourselves locked in battles with ourselves. Alcoholics cycle between giving up the booze and going on binges. We resolve to diet but then decide that a cake won't hurt "just this once". Rather than being unitary selves with consistent interests, Ainslie paints a picture whereby our long and short-term interests are locked in conflict. This picture, he thinks, can explain a whole range of phenomena from addictions, to bulimia, to the difficulty of ignoring pain.

Breakdown of Will is an exceptionally rich and thought-provoking book. Although some sections go rather fast, and it is not an easy read, all those who are interested in the workings of human motivation will gain something from reading it. My only criticism is that if anything Ainslie attempts to cover too much ground too thinly. He offers us a collection of explanation-sketches of a whole range of phenomena, but although all his accounts are enticing, none is developed enough to be completely convincing. One is left wondering whether Ainslie himself has fallen into the temptation of publishing a good book now, rather than an excellent book later.

© 2001 Rachel Cooper

Rachel Cooper a lecturer in philosophy in the Department of Interdisciplinary Human Studies, Bradford University, U.K.


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