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The Science of Self-ControlReview - The Science of Self-Control
by Howard Rachlin
Harvard University Press, 2000
Review by Max Hocutt, Ph.D.
Jan 9th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 2)

Howard Rachlin’s The Science of Self-Control is a masterwork by a master scientist.  Written with elegant simplicity, exquisite precision and admirable economy, this brief 220-page book combines experimental detail, astute generalizations, mathematical rigor, and philosophical breadth—all the elements of first-rate science. Not a handbook for practitioners but a treatise on theory, it nevertheless includes many useful insights for persons seeking more felicitous ways to manage behavior, their own or that of others.  Such is its authority that I expect it to become a fixture in the libraries of experimental psychologists and practicing psychotherapists, but such is the grace and clarity of its writing that I also think it will be read with pleasure by many intelligent laymen.

Rachlin’s book represents a continuation of the important work of the psychiatrist George Ainslie, whose Picoeconomics (Cambridge University Press, 1992) analyzed self-control using ideas originally stated by their mentor, the celebrated (but deceased) psychologist Richard Herrnstein (cf., The Matching Law, Harvard University Press, 1997.)  B.F. Skinner’s successor at Harvard, Herrnstein saw that psychology and economics are both trying to understand how rewards influence choices.  So, he instigated a research program to analyze the behavior of pigeons and other laboratory animals using a brilliant modification of a mathematical model that had been developed by the Nobel prize winning economist Gary Becker. Rachlin, Ainslie, and their colleagues and pupils are continuing this program of research.

As Rachlin emphases, their research is conducted under the austere strictures of teleological behaviorism.  In accordance with this philosophy of science, Rachlin rejects as empty all attempts to explain self-control by positing a mysterious and unobservable “will-power.”  He prefers references to observed patterns of behavior.   In his view, the woman who can defer gratification is the one who makes a habit of doing so.  The aim of psychology is to pick out the pattern in the habit and compare it to others.  As methodology, this is equivalent to Isaac Newton’s famous rejection of “hypotheses” in favor of mathematically formulated laws.  For Newton, gravity was not an inscrutable force; it was an observable regularity.  An object manifests this regularity when it falls.

The remaining six chapters of Rachlin’s book continue in this positivist vein, by identifying the variables that observably alter the formation of habits.  The general idea, which Rachlin illustrates in chapter after chapter, is that learning a new habit of self-control is learning to fit your choices into larger and larger contexts.  In the uncertain circumstances in which human beings evolved, those who survived and passed on their genes preferred a bird in hand to two in the bush.  We (their descendants) therefore have a genetically rooted tendency to prefer the nearer and more certain but lesser reward to the greater but more distant and less certain reward.  To alter this pattern, which is a primrose path to impulsive and addictive behavior, we must learn to delay gratification; and, to do that, we must learn to think and act in more comprehensive terms.  Thus, to take an obvious example, the alcoholic who wants to break dependence on drink must not leave to each particular occasion the decision whether to enjoy the simple pleasures of a drink. Instead, he must decide in advance whether to enjoy the long-term rewards of sobriety. 

This is, of course, often easier to say than to do, but one way to do it, Rachlin notes in chapter two, is to make a previous commitment—a choice that restricts the range of future choices, or alters their values.  To stay sober, don’t go to a party; go to a church service instead. And don’t wait to make your decision about that while you are on your way to the party.  Commit yourself to the church the night before. When temptation is distant, you can view it more objectively, and if you have another commitment, you will be less likely to change your mind.

Of course, it did not require Rachlin to discover these commonplaces. They have long been known.  But it also did not take Newton to discover that apples fall.  The scientist’s contribution is to provide the formula that describes the relations between the relevant variables—mass and distance in Newton’s case; time and size of reward in Rachlin’s.  Rachlin’s homely advice serves mainly to illustrate the mathematics, here presented in some detail, of hyperbolic discount functions, Herrnstein’s improvement over Becker’s exponential functions. 

A similar spirit of theoretical inquiry formulated with an eye on practical applications infuses the remaining five chapters, but each has a different topic.  Where chapter two concerned simple choices, chapter three deals with complex decisions.  Not whether to drink or stay sober but whether to drink on these occasions while staying sober on those.  Here Rachlin observes that finding the most rewarding pattern and sticking to it is more difficult.   Although limiting yourself to social drinking might be more desirable than total abstinence, it is harder for many alcoholics to learn, as Alcoholics Anonymous warns.

In order to bring out the reasons why this is so, Rachlin introduces an interesting new style of analysis that facilitates comparisons of the utilities of various decisions but is too complicated to summarize here. The advice that results from its use is to learn self-control stepwise.  First fit a momentary decision into a larger context, then fit that one into a still larger context; and so on.  Don’t decide on each offer whether to take a drink.  Decide in advance the maximum of drinks to have in an hour, in an evening, in a week, and so on.  Extending the same methods of analysis, chapter four confirms the importance of social support for the cure of addictions; chapter five shows how and explains why “soft” (i.e., conditional) commitments work; chapter six discusses the relationship between the probability of an outcome and curves of discounting.  I shall make no effort to summarize these. 

I do want to say just a little, however, about chapter seven, which advances the very interesting thesis that there is a formal equivalence between the kind of self-control that is involved in delaying gratification for the sake of future rewards and the kind that is involved in foregoing selfish pleasures in order to promote greater happiness for others.  Rachlin manages to compare the self-control exercised in these two cases by thinking of an enduring self as a temporally extended community of selves, one that includes today’s self, tomorrow’s self, and so on.  Delaying gratification for the sake of a future self is like making a contract with another person, and Rachlin believes that sticking to your bargain enhances happiness in both cases, because it means giving up a small and momentary reward for a larger and more gratifying one. 

Introducing the game theory puzzle known as prisoner’s dilemma, Rachlin shows that, although there may be times when it seems smart to sacrifice the welfare of your fellows for your own welfare, as it seems smart to take the pleasure of the moment, doing so can be as costly in the long run   Again, Rachlin takes no credit for the homely wisdom, which he finds in Plato.  As throughout, his contribution is to show how the homilies are a logical consequence of powerful and precisely formulated theories for which there is substantial experimental confirmation.

Rachlin has written a fruitcake of a book, one that contains nutty bits of advice and fruity bits of mathematics held together by experimental data and flavored with a dollop of sound philosophy.  Despite its richness, however, this book does not have anything to say about an issue that has nagged moral philosophers since St. Augustine bequeathed it to us over fifteen hundred years ago—viz., whether human beings are responsible (i.e., deserve credit or blame) for exercising or failing to exercise self-control.  This endlessly debated conundrum can gain no purchase in Rachlin’s philosophy.  For behaviorists, the question of interest is what can be done—either by the agent himself or by others—to reinforce behavior that is desired and discourage behavior that is not. 



© 2002 Max Hocutt



Max Hocutt, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, The University of Alabama.  He has served as editor of the journal Behavior and Philosophy and recently published Grounded Ethics: The Empirical Bases of Normative Judgments.


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