the typically human practice of acting against our better judgement

What is the difference between theory and practice?
In theory, there is no difference, in practice there is.
- Yogi Berra

Ulysses lashed to the mast, sculpture by Robin Bell
Ulysses lashed to the mast by Robin Bell

Louise Hay and some other New Age people state that all of us are always doing the best we can, that if we knew how to do better we would. This is false.

We often do things that we know are unwise, not because we don't know any better, but because of a failure of will, lack of motivation, lack of caring (including for ourselves), the desire for immediate gratification, impulsiveness, or some other psychological factor. People commit crimes knowing that they are doing the wrong thing. So how can we say that such people are doing the best they know how?

Akrasia is an Ancient Greek word which means weakness of will. This is illustrated by Ulysses, who had himself lashed to the mast so that he would not succumb to the temptation of the sirens. However, I prefer a more general definition, as in the article title. In akrasia we know what we should do in theory, but what we actually do is something else.

Akrasia has two principal causes: emotions over-riding good sense, and lack of wisdom in the sense of not knowing what matters in life. Thus there is an emotional cause and an intellectual one.

Disclaimer. I think it would be hard to write about akrasia in an objective fashion, ie without bringing in one's own ideas of how life should be lived. After all, there is no recognised user manual. So my article is not objective. Someone could say that the purpose of life is to be stoned as much as possible, and it is hard to see how one could persuade such a person that they have it wrong.

Episodic akrasia

Akrasia often results when our emotions over-turn the dictates of rationality and common sense. We know something to be harmful intellectually, yet we feel emotionally compelled to do it anyway. Or else we know that we need to do something, but fail to do it for emotional reasons. I call this type of akrasia episodic, where our feelings over-ride common sense in a particular instance.

Procrastination is a familiar example of acting against our better judgement. We procrastinate when we know we should do something but the action is stressful, tedious, hard, painful or even repellent, so we tell ourselves we will do it later. Yet we hope the "later" can be put off for as long as possible, preferably indefinitely. Self-deception is often involved, as we pretend we will do the activity we are avoiding, fully knowing that we really don't want to, and that we will avoid doing it, if possible.

Unwillingness to delay gratification is an important cause of procrastination. Procrastination is the victory of short-term goals over long-term planning and decision making. We discount the importance of future tasks and future rewards. The benefits of something that pays off in a few weeks seem intangible compared to an immediate pleasure. We're also adept at overestimating the time left to complete a task. Many of us are unrealistic about how much we can fit into our list of things to do in a day. Then there are New Year's resolutions, which we almost routinely fail to carry out.

Health is an important area of life where nearly every one of us has, at some time, knowingly acted unwisely. Although health is one of the most precious things in life, we tend to lose sight of this until something goes wrong with our bodies. "Health is the crown on a well man's head that only the sick man can see."

All of us have occasionally eaten too much, drunk too much, failed to put on block-out, neglected exercise, or eaten junk food. We know we should watch our diet and engage in regular exercise, but this is an area where many people do not follow the dictates of good judgement. People who are on diets often break out, making a mockery of their good intentions. The same applies to the resolve to exercise or to quit smoking.

More serious missteps are failing to take important measures, such as regularly having ourselves checked for skin cancer, breast cancer, prostate, bowel cancer, eyes and teeth. Some men do not take care of themselves, hence the joke, Doctor: "Why did you come to see me?" Patient: "I don't know, my wife said to see you."

It is tempting to downplay or ignore warning signs, such breathlessness or a suspicious lump. We may be in denial regarding ageing and its attendant restrictions and health problems, perhaps to the point of living in illusion. Young people especially, live in the illusion that they are immortal and that they will not get old. A potentially lethal syndrome that seems to have a psychological cause is anorexia, where the sufferer goes against not just common sense, but a fundamental survival instinct.

Playing sport on an injury is a common pitfall. For Novak Djokovic, the messages were impossible to ignore as the pain worsened during the Wimbledon tournament in 2017. He had no option but to withdraw in the quarter-finals. "I was carrying this injury for quite some time," Djokovic says of his chronic elbow complaint that eventually required surgery. "Wimbledon was just the peak of gradually increasing pain that I've carried for a year and a half. I know that I've made decisions that were not in harmony with my body, and this is something that most athletes do and it's very difficult for an athlete to understand when is the moment to stop, when it is really necessary to take a different stand and recover. So I was kind of pushing it forward to the point where I really could not hold the racquet any more."

Addictions, such as alcoholism, to nicotine, sugar, junk food, risk-taking or illicit drugs, are behaviours that actively damage our health. Few people are unaware of the dangers, yet they persist in their addictions. This is due to weakness of will, engaging in denial, or simply because emotions over-ride sense.

There are other addictions that cause us psychological or financial harm, such as to TV, video games, sex, shopping and especially gambling. A major side-effect of addiction is that we neglect important areas of life, especially family, sleep and work.

I saw an anti-smoking poster that showed a woman with a blackened face, with the caption: "If smoking did this to your outside you wouldn't smoke." This potent message captures an important truth, a variant of, 'What you don't see doesn't hurt you'. I think we are all guilty of the fallacy of discounting invisible or hidden problems.

A related syndrome is the "boiling frog effect", whereby people fail to notice and act upon changes that come on slowly and gradually. An obvious example is obesity, where the person gradually adapts their self image in line with their growing bulk. If they added 30 kilos in the space of one day then they would find that unacceptable.

Another area where human beings act against the dictates of sound judgement is risk-taking. Some people engage in high-risk sports, such as paragliding, skydiving, white-water rafting, mountaineering, base jumping, motorcycle racing, deep sea scuba diving, and extreme skiing.

Even people who rarely visit wilderness areas may take unwarranted risks, such as getting lost, ignoring the symptoms of altitude sickness, fording a dangerous river, being caught in an avalanche, getting hypothermia, being caught in a bushfire, or climbing a slippery cliff.

The road accident statistics are largely due to people taking risks while driving, including not getting enough rest, speeding, risky over-taking, drinking and showing off.

Relationships are an important area where many people make unwise choices, ignoring their intuitions and common sense. The negative consequences of emotional compulsions are obvious in women who return to abusive relationships.

There was a newspaper report about a woman who worked at a prison. She had read about women forming romantic relationships with prisoners, and that such relationships were almost always disasters. Yet she fell in love with a prisoner and the relationship soon ended badly. She was asked, "When did your realise the relationship was doomed?" "The moment I met him. Ain't love grand!"

Another example are people who are in a mad rush to get married, despite the advice of parents and friends. Their experience often illustrates the dictum, "Marry in haste, repent at leisure."

Many men are willing to put their marriages at risk by having a fling. A moment of passion can sabotage the future of their family.

Although the risks of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are well known, studies indicate that most young people have unprotected sex. Awareness of AIDS is an illustrative example. John Lankiewicz observed, "It seems to me that a lot of young people, heterosexuals, know about HIV, know what they 'ought to be doing' and then don't do it. Like everyone knows about smoking, or drinking, or seatbelts in cars. The relationship between knowing and taking these things into account in practice is a loose one."

Clare Campbell commented on youth awareness of AIDS, "It's still: It won't happen to me. Which is why it's increasing so dramatically... My daughters get biology lessons, and I noticed some stuff about AIDS, how it's transmitted. But I don't think they're taking it in. They'll reproduce it for an exam, but I don't think it affects their behaviour... What they see on adverts has nothing to do with them, nothing do with the guy they're meeting tonight."

One eighteen-year-old man, Stuart, stated he wasn't worried about AIDS: "In the end it's as simple as this: I don't care, I literally don't care. If I am supposed to die of AIDS then I will. That's the way I think. Whichever way my fate lies, then that's it. AIDS or whatever." Kim West: "In theory, every single person I meet, I'll be using a condom. If it turns into a relationship, I'll say let's have an AIDS test, then go for it, don't use a condom. But I know in my heart that's not going to happen. Every time I'll take the risk."

Most relationships, even very successful ones, tend to develop repeated negative interactions. It can be as mundane as annoyance at not taking out the garbage, not putting things correctly into the fridge, or taking too long to get ready. We tell ourselves not to get annoyed at these minor and unavoidable consequences of living with another person, yet somehow we cannot help ourselves.

Few of us have money in perspective. Money is asymmetrical in that the possibilities for spending it are almost limitless, whereas our earning capacity is always limited. It is very difficult to be consistent in one's attitude to money because it is ubiquitous and a central feature of life. Our attitude to money is laden with emotion and hence it is an area where we easily fall into akrasia.

Many people are prone to using money unwisely, such as spending more than they earn and getting into debt. Impulse buying, bidding too high at auction and over-paying for a piece of real estate are behaviours we later regret. We pay a price when emotions over-power rationality. Keeping to a budget can be similar to dieting - sound intentions frustrated by break-outs.

Other examples
There are myriad other examples of akrasia, such as behaving in a way we regret due to an outburst of irritation or anger. Such an outburst can even lead to criminal behaviour, such as wife-beating. Faulty impulse control is a common characteristic among criminals. So-called crimes of passion are due to the perpetrator being seized by jealousy. Milder examples include not seeing our parents, being stingy, being rude, being inconsiderate or sarcastic. Then there are reaction-driven or rebellion-driven behaviours, which we later realise were immature.

Some people attach an exaggerated importance to the small details of life, such as minor inconveniences, discomforts and slights. They truly "sweat the small stuff", causing themselves major distress at minor setbacks. Beethoven caught this well when wrote a piano piece called "Rage over a lost penny".

A general attitude that can make us unreasonable is preferring to be right rather than happy. Stubbornness can also play a major role, as it can cause us to persist in a behaviour that no longer serves us. Then there are the instances of self-sabotage, such as doing things the hard way, complicating life unnecessarily or indulging in needless worry. A common one for men is not asking for directions when lost. A common one for females is fussing about details that do not matter.

Hoarding is a fairly harmless instance of akrasia. We know we will never use the item in question, but something prevents us from discarding it. In chess, we sometimes make moves that we know to be bad. Another chess trap that even professional players fall into, is simply being too eager to move quickly.

Another factor, especially among teenagers, is succumbing to peer pressure. Wanting to be "with it" or cool can lead people into moronic behaviours. Taking up smoking is a familiar example.

How we handle our akrasia
Acting contrary to good sense causes us distress. We want to see ourselves as reasonable and sensible adults. When our actions give proof of irrationality this causes us frustration and loss of self-esteem. We may feel childish or stupid. It may lead to guilt, self-recrimination and the resolve never to lapse like this again.

Alternatively, we may cope with our akrasia by means of denial, rationalisation or self-deception. The latter measures may allay our distress at acting irrationally, but they only serve to mask the underlying problem and so perpetuate it. We may harbour illusions regarding our ability or skill in various areas, believing ourselves to be better than our past performance indicates. We tend to diminish or deprecate evidence that we have behaved foolishly or irresponsibly. This makes it more likely that we will repeat our bad behaviours.

Many of us live in denial of certain unpleasant realities and employ wishful thinking, at least in some contexts. We tend to avoid looking at the dark side of life, whether it is corruption, climate change or abattoirs. We avert our gaze from what is unpleasant, painful or dangerous. Thus we can be blase about the risks of walking on glaciers, overtaking on the highway, a chest pain, or of investing in financial schemes that promise high returns.

Why do we engage in all the above self-defeating behaviours? The short answer is emotions. In particular, faulty impulse control is a major factor. Failure of will-power causes us to take an easy way out, or to avoid doing what is necessary but unpleasant. The unconscious also plays a role in undermining our conscious intentions. The id can be like a needy child who wants candy immediately. Our complexes, blind spots and character flaws also play a role.

Difficulty with delaying gratification causes us to opt for a reward in the present at the expense of a more important benefit in the future, eg lying in a warm bed, rather than getting up to do the things that are needed. Another factor is that we often forget our good resolutions in the heat of the moment. This can be seen in sport. Although I have played squash for over 40 years, I still tell myself to go back to the centre of the court, and continue to fail to do so. Another example I am still guilty of is taking short-cuts when trekking. This is nearly always a bad idea, yet I get tempted...

At a deeper level, all of us possess intellectual knowledge that does not guide our behaviour because it remains in the realm of theory. An example is the wise statement that the one freedom which cannot be taken away from us is our choice of response to the situation we are in. I am able to see the correctness of this statement and I appreciate its fundamental nature. Yet I find it really difficult to apply in my life. Instead of it becoming a part of my store of wisdom, it remains at the level of intellectual insight.

Systematic akrasia

The other principal cause of akrasia is a lack of guiding insight. This highlights the difference between conventional intelligence (IQ) and emotional intelligence. The difference is that IQ is like raw processing power, which may be harnessed to worthless or even harmful ends. A high IQ by itself lacks the wisdom needed to guide us to do what is valuable. By contrast, emotional intelligence means knowing what is important and what isn't.

It is far more important to know what we should do, than to be able to do it quickly or well. Thus "better judgement" corresponds to emotional intelligence, whereas IQ may be used against the dictates of wise judgement, eg to concoct a clever criminal plot.

This explains the existence of "clever-stupids", extremely intelligent people who go off the rails or make a mess of their lives, eg Bobby Fischer, Howard Hughes and Charles Manson. Living wisely means especially avoiding this second kind of akrasia. It means having sensible priorities and being able to see the overall picture of our life, as in Confucius' dictum, "If you don't change course then you are likely to end up where you are heading."

I call this type of akrasia systematic, in that it is an overall wrong pattern that distorts our life. In systematic akrasia it is not so much that we act against our better judgement; rather we simply fail to apply it to our life path.

A widespread example of systematic akrasia is the busyness syndrome, as expressed in, "I'm too busy to do anything important". The chronically busy person moves fast in order to keep things going and to achieve pressing short-term goals. This is at the expense of living a more meaningful and fulfilling life. If we are always attending to pressing but relatively minor matters this makes it difficult to reflect on why we are doing what we are doing, as well as whether it advances our life goals. Busyness can be a strategy of distraction away from long-term important goals towards what is immediately before us. Paradoxically, it can become a form of procrastination.

The urge to achieve and to juggle many tasks gives rise to a major factor in the lives of people in the contemporary world: a high level of chronic stress. Stress is physically and psychologically harmful in the long run.

Closely related is workoholism, where the afflicted person focuses on just one area of life, ie work, at the expense of family, friendships, learning, reflection plus cultural and other interests. Excessive ambition in climbing the greasy pole deflects people from forming life-affirming priorities. The same is true of excessive materialism and keeping up with the Joneses.

A common example of systematic akrasia is seen in the lives of people who unthinkingly follow a conventional life-path, rather than working out what they want out of life. This is especially true for those who lack clarity about goals and values. Conforming and meeting others' expectations can be a powerful driver for many people, one that can lead to deep regret later in life.

The journey into self-knowledge is another major neglect of the person who is too busy or who follows the conventional path.

The role of false values is illustrated by the five regrets of the dying, as reported by Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse. The most common regrets were: I neglected friends, I worked too much, I didn't allow myself to be happy, I didn't fulfil my own dreams, and I lived a life according to others' expectations.

Other examples
More severe kinds of akrasia are seen in monomania, obsession, neuroticism, fanaticism and even terrorism. Some people fall into a life of crime, including domestic violence or pedophilia.

There are people who spend their lives pursuing unrealistic dreams, such as to be a rock star, film star, world #1 in a sport, or a multi-millionaire. The shallow pursuit of pleasure, glamour, fame, prestige or fashion are variants of faulty prioritising.

Causes of systematic akrasia
Various factors contribute to systematic akrasia. Rationalisation is an important one, eg the person may say they have to work a 60-hour week in order to provide for their future. A related factor is denial - we simply choose not to see what our one-sided approach to life is doing to us.

Perhaps the central factor is forgetting we will die. When life appears to stretch ahead indefinitely we feel no pressure to do what really matters, to find a creative outlet, to achieve something of value, or to clean up our main relationship. All of us know that we will die. Yet how many of us unwittingly hold ourselves to be immortal in our hearts? This accounts for the prevalence of behaviours like unsafe sex, dangerous driving and drug abuse. Not to mention the soldier who goes off to war believing that not he, but the man next to him will be killed.

Ultimately, systematic akrasia consists of not knowing what we should be doing with our life. It arises from a failure to reflect. Instead of following a path of love and seeking meaning, we are distracted by career, money, ambition, fame, shallow pleasures, conventional life, peer pressure or fashion.

It makes no sense to say, "He is a wise man but he does stupid things." A wise person lives wisely, that is the proof of wisdom. Wisdom is living intelligently, which means more than being effective in daily life. It means that our basic priorities are well chosen and that we live by them.

There is an essential difference between knowing and being wise. Knowing something (eg that smoking is harmful) at the level of knowledge may or may not make a difference to our behaviour. Knowing something on the level of wisdom, ie when it is integrated to the level of living the knowledge, is another matter. Thus a person who truly feels that taking a puff would damage their lungs simply will not do so.

Summing up the two kinds of akrasia
Perhaps the distinction between episodic and systematic akrasia is an artificial one, as there is considerable overlap. We see this in addictions, where a strong emotional compulsion causes us to go astray, as well as being the result of our inability to see the bigger picture of how much harm the addiction is causing us.

However, university provides an analogy for the two varieties of akrasia. Emotions, such as boredom, excitement, laziness or a love affair, can undermine our resolve to work hard and cause us to fail an exam. At a deeper level, we may be doing the wrong course altogether, either because it lacks employment prospects, or because it does not suit our personality or life goals.

Systematic akrasia does not cause us discomfort in the same way as the episodic variety. We may feel that something is missing or not right, but we do not receive feedback that we are doing something wrong.

Of course, there is no simple remedy for akrasia. Since we are not rational beings, akrasia is an inescapable feature of the human condition. The best we can do is to engage in reflection about our actions, values and priorities, plus to keep watch over the way that our emotions over-ride good sense.

Head vs Heart

It is often said that the heart, ie the emotions, oppose the dictates of the head, ie rationality. This is the principal cause of episodic akrasia. Yet there is another side to the story, in that emotions play a positive role in our lives. In fact, we live in our emotions. They are more important than the objective facts of our lives. Following the deeper dictates of our heart is very often the most rational path.

Antonio Damasio's research in neuroscience has shown that emotions play a central role in social cognition and in decision-making. Emotion also plays an important role in learning. Because mistakes hurt, we try to avoid them in future. If we didn't care about getting things wrong then we would have little motivation to improve. Laughter is a great aid in a learning context because it involves us in the moment and makes it memorable. Likewise, ridiculous associations make it easy to remember lists of things we want to recall.

People who don't experience emotions due to a brain injury agonise over every decision, as it is hard for them to choose one thing over another. This is because everything is grey, ie has no emotional colouring for them.

Chess and emotions
It may seem strange to use chess as an example, but it turns out that emotions are essential to playing chess well. Jonathan Rowson is a Grand Master and a three-time British champion. He makes two radical claims about objectivity in chess: (1) that it is impossible to be objective during a game, and (2) that it is not even desirable.

Rowson, "When we make decisions from a 'subjective' viewpoint we tend to think that we are making some sort of mistake, and should strive instead to be 'objective'." Being 'objective' in chess means seeing the position as it actually is, uncontaminated by our own wishes and plans. Rowson believes this is largely a mirage: "...seeing things as they 'actually are' would be an enormous achievement which goes against the grain of human perception... humans by their very nature are enormously self-deceptive, will only see that which experience has shown them to be there, cannot help but want the position to be a certain way and will always see the position from a background of emotional memories and pre-established patterns... you cannot escape your subjective perspective during the game." Please note the word in bold - Rowson says it may be possible to annotate a game objectively after it has been finished.

If we play a game of chess with no emotional engagement that means we don't care whether we win or lose. So we are not going to make much of an effort and hence we will not play our best. To play well we need to harness our emotions so that they provide the drive to play carefully and well. This is a balancing act in every sport: too much emotion causes us to freeze up or make errors, too little causes us not to try hard. The ideal is to play "in the zone", when the activity becomes intrinsically rewarding, so that action is effortless.

Whereas purely mechanical tasks are probably best performed in a robot-like, unemotional way, this does not apply to activities that require creativity, imagination and full involvement. In other words, we need to engage all our intellectual and emotional faculties.

The need to balance emotion with rationality applies generally in life. Skilful living means balancing these two competing drives. Unlike Ulysses, we cannot hope to find a recipe for how to perform this precarious act. However, it clearly requires emotional intelligence.

Large-scale akrasia

Climate change is a perfect example of akrasia on a societal level. The scientific evidence that we are brewing a disaster together is overwhelming, yet for decades we have decided to not take any really effective action, essentially passing on the burden to future generations and to those who are not rich enough to shield themselves from the effects.

War, ethnic cleansing, the arms race, terrorism, pollution and over-population are large-scale examples of akrasia. The turbulent history of our species suggests that our brains contain a basic flaw, one that could even cause our extinction.

I still feel as though Trump's election was a bad dream from which I should be able to wake. How some one hundred million people over-rode basic sense to vote for a man with the mental development of a six-year-old is something that baffles my rational mind.


Human beings are subject to the twin dictates of rationality and emotion. The interplay of these two factors determines our behaviour as individuals, and in the aggregate, as a society. When the two factors are happily integrated we function well. When they are in conflict, our behaviour can harm ourselves, others and even the planet.

Tad Boniecki
January 2018

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