Stamatakis: Like New Year, start of school brings resolutions

By Nick Stamatakis

I will read the chapter before lecture. I will go to every lecture this year. I will not… I will read the chapter before lecture. I will go to every lecture this year. I will not procrastinate with my assignments.

Oh, the foolishness of it all.

Every year since the beginning of middle school, these promises circulate in my head as I attempt a new era of preparedness and responsibility. But like New Year’s resolutions and opening day promises of the Pirates, after two weeks these declarations become mere suggestions, the suggestions become idealizations and, finally, the idealizations become broken promises.

But why do we do this? Clearly, based on our promises, we realize that working will make us happier, either through better grades or self-satisfaction. We wouldn’t make these commitments if we felt otherwise. So by not following through, we’re actively deciding to decrease our personal happiness. It doesn’t make sense. Why would we choose to make ourselves less happy?

The reason is that we don’t have stable preferences or stable beliefs that guide our happiness. Sometimes we are clear thinkers who can weigh risks and benefits to achieve our highest personal happiness, and sometimes we’re controlled by our “other self,” an impulsive schmuck whose preferences are not for long-term happiness but short-term elation.

We’re all well acquainted with this other self: When faced with a big bowl of ice cream, for instance, he’s the guy forcing us to continue gorging, despite what the more rational self says. Continued eating makes us less happy in the long run — feeling bloated and stuffed — but we do it anyway.

While the other self is probably responsible for most of our epic, frenzied college nights, allowing it to control our lives can lead to poor long-term decisions. Be it bad grades, overeating or national prosperity, it must be controlled for our future’s sake.

I say national prosperity because policy decisions are even subject to the wrath of the other self. More often than not, leaders fight more for tax cuts or entitlement programs instead of longer term, less-exciting infrastructure and education programs. There are myriad influences behind political decisions, but the other self unfailingly creeps into political figures’ plans, leaving them satisfied with a picture in the paper and votes in the next election — but too often with the long-term health of the country suffering.

So what can we do about this? First, we should acknowledge this personal discrepancy, this human flaw, and make a conscious effort to tame the other self, both in our personal lives and our government. There’s no magic fix, but it can be done. Dwight Eisenhower invested in highways instead of handouts and tax cuts, and students everywhere work on papers instead of watching “America’s Next Top Model” marathons. Long-term happiness can be achieved.

Dan Ariely, an MIT behavioral economist, demonstrated another approach published in the journal, Psychological Science. Using his undergraduate classes as experiments, he found that allowing students to self-impose binding deadlines for papers at the beginning of the semester was effective at reducing procrastination. By actively involving the rational self at the first stage, the other self wasn’t as strong. Giving the rational self as many opportunities to shine will make the effects of the other self smaller, Ariely found.

Yet because of human nature, this will always be difficult to manage. Oxford professor Krister Bykvist has studied this phenomenon his whole career, and according to a paper in the journal Economics and Philosophy, he ultimately says just making a decision with one preference and not looking back is the best way to satisfy both preference sets. Really, this advice seems as useful as telling football players not to lose before a game, but it underscores how difficult it is to accomplish.

It’ll take effort, but it’s possible to deter that pesky other self. I fail all the time — writing this took way too long — but at least, through some self-realization, I haven’t gorged on ice cream in a while — or watched “America’s Next Top Model.”

E-mail Nick at [email protected]