Short term focus and self control

The focus on self control often plays out as a conflict between short and long term interests: Are you going to go for the quick fix or are you determined to sustain efforts towards a long term goal? But why is there almost always this difference in time perspective in the controlled behavior vs. the uncontrolled? Is self control by default about long term goals? Why can we not use self control to take advantage of here-and-now opportunities?

Why do we observe excessive delay discounting in people will addictions?
How does time enter into the way that we control our behavior?
Why does it seem like long term interests are harder to maintain that short term interests?

The most likely explanation is that it has little to do with self control, but a lot to do with what happens when instinct takes over. The reason instinct takes over are often that some survival circuit has been activated by the perception of a danger or an opportunity in the environment. This can happen if you visualize a danger or an opportunity too, but it affect the brain much stronger when driven by perception. Which means that mostly your instinctual reaction is informed by what is around you in the present here-and-now situation.

This is the scope of instinctual behavior: It is a way of dealing with the present situation as it affords danger or opportunity by changing your brain state, hormonal activation, the cascade of physiological adjustments that go into fight-or-flight reactions which all make survival or procreation a more likely outcome. For those to have any affect they must be activated in the relevant situations. The criteria for when a situation is relevant is the perception of either learned or inborn patterns that signal danger or opportunity. It is not the time and date where you are supposed to do certain things according to a note in your calendar or some other form of planning. That would not work in nature and not affect survival of your genes.

But surely survival is about the future? What good is it to survive if you are compromised by your short term behavior? There are two parts to the answer to this:
1. No benefit from non-survival adherence to long term plans.
2. No natural downsides to short term behavior as we know it from civilized life.

The first point is fairly obvious: If you don’t survive the day, you will not reap the benefits of your adherence to a non-violent personal philosophy. We take survival for granted, and an average life expectancy of 35 years would come as a chock for most of us. The harsh reality of life in nature would be utterly foreign to most of us. And thus is might be very surprising how we or other people react when there is actual danger and a real question of survival. The less obvious point here is that in a natural environment there is a lot less stability, a lot less predictability and a lot less reason for acting in a long term interest, that is probably not going to pan out.

The second point is that in our civilization we have actually added a lot of bad consequences for short termed behavior, consequences that can be seen as both artificial and arbitrary. There is a new set of laws that makes it possible to prosecute you for murder if you assisted someone who died from a drug overdose. Other laws will strike you less as arbitrary only because you have had longer time to get used to them. They are often driven by political motives and have a very weak rationale in terms of effects or results. The mandatory harsh sentencing for repeated crimes is perhaps an example of that.


On a lesser scale but no less arbitrary you have the lending practices of credit card companies and pay-day loan companies. While they are perhaps perfectly legal, you will have a hard time finding “penalties” in nature that mirror the harsh long time consequences that we have established as part of the human experience in our modern culture. We just have much more opportunity to step on some “landmine” that will affect our situation negatively many years down the road. And there is often very little in the way of forgiveness and renewed opportunity if you are just an ordinary person. If you belong to a minority group, if you grow up in a underprivileged community, or if you are challenged in some way or another, there is even less forgiveness and opportunity.

The effect of this is twofold:

If you don’t have a constant level of self control at some minimum you will likely earn yourself some bad long time consequences. This reather constant demand and unforgiving nature of modern life will swallow a big chunk of your self control budget.

If you fail, you have very limited opportunity to regain what was lost. Once on a downward path, it is harder and harder to reverse the trend.

For those who are lucky or otherwise privileged it might seem strange that some people don’t think more about the long term consequences of their actions. But viewed from a safe distance this experience can be extremely misleading. Things change fast and profoundly when you are put under enough pressure and the convenient talk about “taking a long term view” on things are mostly meaningless in such a situation.


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