Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Commitment and Desire

When we commit to something, we make a claim about our future actions in the relatively long term.  Unless the decision is in real time and dynamic, we don't really have to make a choice about our actions, only our perspectives about what we want our actions to be.  So it is easy to commit lip service to long term comitments and harder to do so in real time.  When we act in the present, we do so with urges and temptations, and are primarily pleasure seeking in some way.  We eat the fast food because it is immediate and available, we agree to an argument to appease someone in authority, we disagree with an argument to show something precise to the available audience.  A lot of what we do in the short term may be driven by emotions that suck up our rationalization the second after the emotion decides for us, but a lot of what happens in the long term has to do with weighing supposed costs and benefits without real commitment.  That is, you don't really know what someone will do until they're faced with a decision, and when they are, it is bound to be sloppy if their long term and short term selves are in conflict.

As was made clear by recent comments, both the long term and short term self can be rational for their own respective goals (or responses to the environment).  Thomas Schelling talks specifically about this dynamic as related to cigarette smoking in a few of his chapters in his book about commitment.

Enter, for instance, relationships.  Marriage is a key long term commitment, though we may not signal our long term commitment in all of our actions.  For instance, a male might call an attractive waitress "darling" in front of his girlfriend, and the response is one of outrage because his wife thinks that he wants to break their long term vows to one another.  The husband might respond honestly that he doesn't have any interest in committing to the waitress.  And then a fight ensues.  Why?  Because each party is talking about different levels of commitment.  Both parties are logical and rational (although pissed by now) and increasingly justify their belief (relative innocence or indignation) and the other party finds opposing claims more and more specious. 

So, enter rules, says Schelling.  I have this rule: when certain conditions portray themselves, I will not endeavor to think about my decision--I will not weigh the costs and benefits of a decision like I typically do in the long term because it is too easy to over estimate the benefits--and instead I'll pre-decide to act in a certain way.  I won't drink.  I won't look at the waitress.  I won't eat the fast food.  I won't smoke a cigarette.  Short term rules to live by guided by long term interests.

The problem is that we can't live such a rigid life!  Good grief.  Don't do anything! 

Our notion of freedom is bound up with the ideal of short term options.  We want to be able to do whatever we want to do.  So, yeah, there's some tension here.  The short answer is that we've must be able to replicate our pleasurable rewards in a system that provides some long term benefits.  It doesn't have to match up perfectly (we can't predict the future, only see past patterns), but it can get close(r).

Okay, that's enough for now.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The problem is that we can't live such a rigid life!

What do you mean we can't? Obviously we can, because we already do. You, me, my aunt, your girlfriend, the Queen of England, everyone already lives such a rigid life.

The key is to realize that an overwhelming majority of our commitment strategies are not conscious. We use Schelling's commitment strategies without even knowing that that is what we're doing. Much of what we think are our own, personal, independently discovered beliefs, are really ways in which we signal commitment to other people. We can't know that that is what we're doing; it would defeat the purpose, since what we're trying to show commitment to is that we are a certain way and do certain things regardless of cost-benefit analysis. So we deceive ourselves into thinking that the horribly rigid rules we are forced to live by are really our own deeply held personal convictions and values.