Wanting While Not Wanting

Why do people who hate that they overeat keep overeating? Why do people who know that their girlfriends or boyfriends are bad for them keep taking these girlfriends and boyfriends back? Why do so many people who want to go to the gym never actually bother to do it?

These circumstances can be explained, at least partially, in terms of desires changing and conflicting with each other. What we want when we consciously reflect on a situation sometimes differs from what we want when we are actually in that situation. And our desires can oppose each other, either simultaneously, or at different times. Desires push our actions in one direction for a while, only to push them in the opposite direction later on.

Tourette Syndrome can provide a particularly striking example of simultaneously wanting and not wanting. A small fraction of people with this syndrome have an extremely strong urge to yell obscenities (which apparently can feel almost like the desire to scratch an itch). In some cases they are able to learn to hold off the impulse (for instance when the social context makes it particularly inappropriate), but the desire to curse may still win out a few seconds later. The conscious desire not to offend people by cursing is at war with another, very powerful desire.

Let’s consider the case of a woman who eats excessively and hates this about herself. When she’s full, but good tasting food is sitting in front of her, does she actually want to keep eating? When she thinks about it consciously she probably experiences a strong feeling of “not wanting” associated with the idea of eating large quantities. At the same time, when she looks at the food, there is likely an intense desire to keep consuming it. She also may have habits which promote overeating: going to restaurants that serve large portions, selecting foods with high calorie density, eating quickly, eating the entire amount on her plate, eating while distracted by other activities, and so forth.

If we consider the fact that desires change from moment to moment and can come into conflict with each other, it is not hard to see why people get stuck in loops of oscillating desires. You don’t want to do X when you reflect on it, then end up doing X anyway because a new desire arises at the moment of action, then you regret it afterwards when you reflect further. This cycle can repeat for months or years.

Let’s again consider the case of the woman who overeats. Her experience might be as follows. When reflecting consciously, she doesn’t want to overeat, but when food is in front of her, a new desire springs to life. The desire to eat more is now suddenly greater than the reflective desire to not overeat, so she eats too much. In fact, if she is not actively thinking about her desire to not be someone who overeats, that desire to eat less may not be engaged at all. And if she is consciously reflecting at the time, she may start to make excuses for herself, such as “I’ll eat whatever I want now, and just eat less tomorrow to make up for it.” Afterwards, the desire to eat has diminished or disappeared, so when she consciously reflects again she regrets the fact that she eat too much and vows not to do it again. Then the entire pattern repeats because the vow is not enough to make her reflective desire win out over those momentary urges to eat.

Why is it that at times your conscious, reflective desires beat out your momentary desires, and other times they get trumped? A variety of factors likely affect the outcome, including:

  • The relative “strengths” of the two desires
  • Your present mental state (including level of hunger, fatigue, discomfort, emotional arousal, and so forth)
  • The frequency with which you engages in conscious reflection, and whether you happen to apply it during the current situation
  • Your propensity towards delaying gratification
  • The number of times (and how recently) you let this momentary desire trump your reflective desire (i.e. the strength of the habits you’ve formed)
  • Your overall ability to override impulses with conscious thought

Why do our actions conflict with our conscious desires in the first place? It’s a necessary consequence of the fact that many different forces compel us to act. These forces include:

  • Primal drives. We yearn for food, sex, social status, etc.
  • Emotional responses. We want to avoid situations that makes us anxious, and attack people that make us angry.
  • Instinctual and automatic responses. We pull our hand away from a hot stove, turn to look when a loud noise occurs, and scratch our skin when it itches.
  • Habit. When we’ve taken the same route to work twenty times in a row, we continue taking that route without even thinking about it.
  • Conscious reflection. We may long for a world where people don’t starve, and so volunteer at a non-profit organization, or want to be a person who exercises more often, and so buy a gym membership.

Our conscious reflections about what we want can conflict with each of these forces, and with each other. For instance:

  • You want to think of yourself as a good person who doesn’t steal but also want to download music files without paying for them.
  • You don’t want to cheat on your girlfriend, but you feel strongly attracted to a particular woman.
  • You want to make more friends, but it stresses you out being in social situations with new people.
  • You want to be a great boxer, but you flinch whenever your opponent feints a punch.
  • You want to walk with better posture, but you keep falling into your habit of slouching.

What can we do when we find ourselves stuck in a loop where we don’t want to do X, then do X anyway due to momentary desires, then regret it? In other words, how do we get our actions to more closely align with what our conscious, reflective mind wants? Here are some techniques that can be useful:

  • Social reinforcement. Tell someone else how you want to act, and get them to check on you regularly to make sure that you act that way. This can be especially effective if you have a strong desire not to let this person down. This creates a secondary desire (pleasing another person) that works in the same direction as your conscious, reflective desire.
  • Avoid acting while in fragile mental states. When you’re feeling tired, uncomfortable, hungry, stressed, or emotional try to avoid those situations where your conscious mind will need to override strong conflicting desires. In these delicate states it may be harder to get your thinking to control your actions.
  • Activate your conscious mind more often. The more frequently you can get yourself to engage your conscious mind during an action and reflect on what you value and why you value it, the better chance you’ll have of overriding momentary desires that come up. One strategy is as follows: If there are times when you expect to experience strong momentary desires, you can setup phone alerts/reminders to snap you into a conscious state. For instance, if you’re going to a business meeting at a restaurant where the wine will be flowing, and you’re worried you might drink too much, set your phone to vibrate with a message ten minutes into the dinner to remind your conscious mind that you shouldn’t have more than a glass or two. You might even include in the phone reminder the reasons why drinking more would be a bad idea (to increase your motivation).
  • Positive reinforcement. Reward yourself for acting in ways that are in closer alignment to what your conscious mind values. To boost effectiveness, try to make these rewards come as quickly as possible after you do your good behavior. For instance, if you know that you should get to work right away every morning, but have trouble doing so, take that first sip of delicious morning coffee right when you sit down to begin you’re work (and don’t let yourself drink any before then).
  • Break old habits. During times when your conscious mind happens to be in particularly strong control, start to break bad habits by putting yourself in the situation where your momentary desires typically take over, and purposely override them. So, if you’re feeling powerful, go to the store that sells those amazing cupcakes you usually can’t resist. Look at one closely, take a whiff of its delicious smell, and feel yourself salivating. Now walk out without buying one!
  • Build new habits. Sometimes undesirable habits can be subverted without fighting them directly by simply forming new habits to replace them. If you’re accustomed to spending two hours watching TV every night starting at 8pm, and this is something you don’t like about yourself, try to create a habit of sitting down to read a useful book at 7:45pm. After you’ve done this for enough nights in a row you will have replaced your watching habit with a reading one, and it will no longer be difficult to avoid watching two hours of TV a night .

Our actions can substantially deviate from what our conscious, reflective desires imply we should do. But our conscious mind doesn’t have to take this lying down. By planning ahead, and applying techniques like those mentioned, you can give your conscious desires an improved chance of trumping competing forces that compel you to act. While your conscious mind is in control, you can make arrangements to handle situations where it most likely won’t be.




4 thoughts on “Wanting While Not Wanting

  1. Hendy says:

    My mind was shouting “Timeless Decision Theory” the whole time I read this. Have you run across it at LessWrong? Here’s the LW wiki summary on TDT. Relating to your overeating example, you just may love this!

    1. Spencer Spencer says:

      Thanks for posting this. I’m a fan of Timeless Decision Theory as applied to self help, and have recommended people use it before, mainly as a means of increasing motivation to change abruptly and permanently. Zvi’s article does a nice job of explaining how to apply it in one’s own life!

      1. Hendy says:

        Glad you liked. TDT is something I’m familiar with but really need to settle in on and read when I have nothing else going on. It’s a hard one to read on the run, and though I’ve skimmed some articles on LW, I don’t think it’s the kind of subject one can get by skimming… even still, I wanted to put it forward just to mention it 🙂

  2. src says:

    I don’t think I want anything besides gratifying momentary desires.

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