By Howard Rachlin
‘I know these will kill me, I’m just not convinced that this particular one will kill me.’
–Jonathan Miller to Dick Cavett on his lit cigarette, backstage at the 92nd Street Y in New York
Jonathan Miller’s problem is actually a practical form of the central problem of ancient Greek philosophy (a problem that continues to haunt philosophy up to the present day): the essential relationship between the abstract and the particular. Miller is right. No particular cigarette can harm a person, either now or later. Only what is essentially an abstraction (the relationship between rate of smoking and health) will harm him. Can it be that Miller is just not a very smart person incapable of understanding abstractions? No way. He is a “public intellectual,” a British theater and opera director, actor, author, humorist, and sculptor. And on top of that a medical doctor.
No matter how smart we are, we all tend to focus on the particular when it comes to our own behavior. Only when we observe someone else’s behavior or when circumstances compel us to experience the long-term consequences of our own behavior, are we able to feel their force.
How then can we use our brains to bring our behavior under the control of its wider consequences? First, and most obviously, to control our behavior we have to know what exactly that behavior is. That is, we must make ourselves experts on our own behavior. It is this step – self-monitoring – that is by far the most difficult part of self-control. Modern technology can make self-monitoring easier, but I myself prefer to just write things down. At points in my life where I need to control my weight I keep a calorie diary in which I write down everything I eat, its caloric content, and the sum of the calories I eat each day. Then I make summaries each week. If I were trying to control my smoking I would record each cigarette and the time of day I smoked it – or, each glass of scotch, each heroin injection, each cocaine snort, each hour spent watching television or doing crossword puzzles when I should be writing, etc. Every instance goes down in the book. There is no denying it – this is hard to do. For one thing, it is socially difficult. You don’t want to interrupt a dinner party by running into the bathroom every five minutes to write down that you’ve bitten your nails again. This is one reason it’s good to be married (I’m serious). Your spouse (whose objective view is necessarily better than your own subjective view) will remember until you get home. Or you can (and should) train yourself to remember over short periods.
You may say that by recording your behavior you are constricting your freedom, but in this regard it is good to remember the poet Valéry’s advice: “Be light like a bird and not like a feather.”
This first step – self-monitoring – is so important, and so difficult, that it should not be mixed up with actual efforts at habit change. First make yourself an expert on yourself. Make charts; make graphs, if that comes naturally. But at least write everything down and make weekly and monthly summaries. Sometimes this step alone, without further effort, will effect habit change. But do not at this point try in any way to change whatever habit you are trying to control. Once you become an expert on yourself, you will be 90% there. The rest is all downhill.
After you have gained self-observational skill, you are ready to proceed to the second step. For example, Jonathan Miller’s problem is that, so to speak, each particular cigarette weighs too little. How could he have given it more weight? Let us say that Miller has already completed Step 1 and is recording each cigarette smoked and the time it was smoked. (Note that this already gives the cigarette weight. It doesn’t just go up in smoke but is preserved in his log.) Let us say further that the day of his encounter with Cavett was a Monday. On that day Miller smokes as much as he wants to. He makes no effort to restrict his smoking in any way. (He is still recording each instance.) However, on Tuesday he must force himself to smoke exactly the same number of cigarettes as he did on Monday. If necessary he must sit up an extra hour on Tuesday to smoke those 2 or 3 cigarettes to make up the total. Then on Wednesday he is free again, and on Thursday he has to mimic Wednesday’s total. Now, when he lights a cigarette on Monday he is in effect lighting up two cigarettes – one for Monday, and one for Tuesday. As he keeps to this schedule, and organizes his behavior into 2-day patterns, it should be coming under control of the wider contingencies. Once this pattern is firmly established, he can extend the pattern to three days, duplicating his Monday smoking on Tuesday and Wednesday, then Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, etc., always continuing to record his behavior. Eventually, each cigarette he lights up on Monday will effectively be 7 cigarettes – one for each day of the week. The weight of each cigarette will thus increase to the point where he no longer can say, “I’m not convinced that this particular cigarette will kill me.”
At no point is he trying to reduce his smoking or exerting his willpower. Willpower is not a muscle inside the head that can be exerted. It is bringing behavior under the control of wider (and more abstract) contingencies. This is a power that anyone can do who has the intelligence and is willing to invest the effort and time. And the exercise of this power can make a smart person happy.
Note: There is yet a third step – or rather a flight of steps. I have not mentioned social support. I have not mentioned exercise. Both of these are economic substitutes for addictions of various kinds. If either is lacking in an addict’s life, programs need to be established for its institution. I am assuming that we’re talking about the happiness of someone who already has an active social life, who already is as physically active as conditions allow. Addiction is not an isolated thing. It has to be regarded in the context of a complete life.
Howard Rachlin was trained as an engineer at Cooper Union and as a psychologist at The New School University and Harvard University. He has taught at Harvard University and at Stony Brook University. His current research, supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, lies in the development of methods for fostering human self-control and social cooperation. He is the author of The Escape of the Mind.