The Want-Can-Will Test for Akrasia

Sunday, October 23, 2011
By dreeves

Woman on scale with gun

Failing to live a healthy lifestyle is or would be, for most of us, a classic failure of rationality — not acting in our own overall best interests. There certainly are people (including the terminally ill, but others as well) who are exceptions, for whom an unhealthy lifestyle is rational. For example, if you derive enough pleasure from smoking cigarettes that it’s worth the probable lost years of life, then that’s totally fine. We’re quite serious. It’s up to the individual to decide these trade-offs. We’re just talking about those people who explicitly say (and mean) that some of their behavior is not in their own best interest yet continue to engage in that behavior.

“Suppose that behavioral economists are wrong and orthodox economists are right: actions reveal preferences.”

Not everyone suffers this common failure of rationality. Those lucky people often suspect that the rest of us are actually just deluding ourselves. What we really want is revealed by our actions. A perfectly logically coherent stance! But there’s a mountain of evidence (particularly in the behavioral economics literature) that it’s not true. Suppose, though, that the behavioral economists are wrong and the orthodox economists are right: actions reveal preferences and protestations otherwise are self-delusion. Then tools like Beeminder or StickK are letting you force yourself to do what you only think you want to. Such tools will only serve to disabuse us rational-all-along-and-never-knew-it types of our delusions.

Or we might cling to our delusions, making ourselves miserable indefinitely, you might argue. Ha! Nice try. By the doctrine of revealed preferences, if we persist in using Beeminder to force ourselves to do something then we must genuinely prefer to do so. Since February of 2008, when Beeminder started (under the name “Kibotzer”) as a side project to help friends and family (and ourselves), people have persisted in using Beeminder. So we can conclude that this failure of rationality, called akrasia, is real. It may just be a failure of self-perception in many cases, but for some us, for at least some aspects of our lives, it’s a genuine failure of rationality.

So how can we tell the self-delusion from the failure to do what we genuinely want to do?

The Want-Can-Will Test

Consider some goal you have, such as losing a certain amount of weight or spending a certain minimum amount of time playing music. Now consider three questions about it.

  1. How certain are you that you want to do this?
  2. How certain are you that you can do this?
  3. How certain are you that you will do this?

If your answers are “absolutely”, “definitely”, and “given historical evidence, not entirely” then you have your answer. You’re an akratic. And you should beemind it (or stickk to it, if it’s not the kind of goal that can be tracked daily).

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