Thursday, 7 August 2014

Self-control and the Person: Interview with Natalie Gold

Natalie Gold
This week we publish an interview with Natalie Gold, Senior Research Fellow at King's College London, and Principal Investigator of a five-year project on self-control and the person funded by the European Research Council (TeamControl). Project team members include: Jurgis Karpus (PhD student), Marcela Herdova (postdoc), and James Thom (postdoc).

Natalie held post-doctoral fellowships in the Probability, Philosophy and Modeling group based at the University of Konstanz, and in the Philosophy Department at Duke University. Before joining King’s College London, she was a Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. Her interests are in rationality, decision theory, moral psychology, experimental philosophy and collective intentions.

LB: The aim of your project is to explain self-control, defined as the capacity to resist a temptation in order to pursue a long-term goal. How did you become interested in self-control? What problems do you think a philosophical account of self-control should attempt to solve?

NG: "I've always been interested in the challenges posed by self-control for accounts of rational decision-making. As a graduate student I read a lot by both Jon Elster, for whom self-control is a recurring theme, and Walter Mischel, including but not limited to his famous experiments on self-control, where he observed children trying to exert self-control in the face of a tempting marshmallow. (It’s good to see that Mischel is finally publishing a popular book -- 'The Marshmallow Test', which I am reviewing for the Times Educational Supplement and thoroughly enjoying -- so hopefully his name will become as familiar outside of academia as his research.)

The Marshmallow Test
by Walter Mischel

I started working on self-control myself as a natural progression from two topics that I was working on: framing and levels of agency. In decision theory, it is usual to start with a problem that has already been “framed”, with the relevant features of outcomes picked out and evaluated. But there are all manner of ways of framing a problem, including different framings of the agent. Another thing I had been working on is team reasoning, or the idea that there are different modes of reasoning depending on whether an agent frames herself as an individual or as a part of a group. From there, it was a short step to conceiving of problems of self-control as a conflict between framing a problem from the perspective of me-now and framing it from the perspective of the self over time, with the self as a ‘team’ of timeslices.

I don’t claim anything about the main questions for philosophical accounts in general, but some of the main questions of the project TeamControl are:
  • Can we formulate 'naturalised' notions of will and willpower that are consistent with scientific evidence?
  • What is the conceptual distinction between willpower and external influences or commitment mechanisms?
  • What is the rational status of intentions? When is it rational to form them, to act on them, and to revise them?
  • What is the relation between accounts of weakness of will as inappropriately revising intentions and the traditional notion of akrasia, or failing to acting on a best judgment?
  • Why exercise self-control? Is it a rational or a moral requirement?"

LB: Your approach to self-control is interdisciplinary. In particular, you aim to combine philosophical analysis with research on decision theory within economics. What do you see as the main benefits of combining two different traditions of thought, and possibly different methodologies?

NG: "Each tradition can bring something to the other. Economic models of self-control conceive of the self as a series of timeslices with competing interests, who can each take action to constrain later selves but would be naive to believe in the power of intentions. I extend the traditional framework and introduce a more intuitive notion of the self over time, which incorporates willpower and intentions. This way of thinking about self-control also has benefits for the philosophical tradition. Incorporating the instrumental rationality of timeslices can inform philosophical debates about the rationality of forming, acting on, and revising intentions."

LB: In our blog we are interested in failures of rationality in human agents. Does the notion of rationality play a role in your project, and what can we learn from the project about human rationality? Is exercising self-control always the rational thing to do?

NG: "I show the sense in which both exercises and lapses of self-control can be viewed as instrumentally rational. But before we can judge instrumental rationality, or means-end reasoning, we have to know the agent’s ends. This, in turn, depends on the level of agency. If we want to argue that the perspective of the self over time is somehow privileged, and that self-control is preferred to giving into temptation, then we need to appeal to a thicker version of rationality (based on more than just the ends of the agent) or to an ethical theory."

LB: In my current project I explore potential benefits of paradigmatic instances of irrationality in human cognition. I am wondering whether you think there are any psychological, biological or epistemic advantages in lacking self-control or being akratic…

NG: "I take problems of self-control to be those where a person has to resist a current temptation in order to achieve a long-term goal. To the extent that the long-term goal does not represent the agent’s psychological or biological welfare, then there could be psychological or biological advantages to lapses of self-control. And, of course, the optimal life plan will allow for some present enjoyment, it won’t involve deferring all gratification to some indefinite future date."

1 comment:

  1. Hi Natalie,

    I just want to pick up on your answer to Lisa's final question regarding whether you think that a lack of self-control might ever be psychologically, biologically, or epistemically advantageous.

    You say that cases in which it would be are cases in which the long-term goal which the subject has which—the achievement of which suffers as a result of lack of self-control—is a goal which does not represent the subject's psychological or biological welfare. Is the idea then that a lack of self-control is a good thing if and only if it is instrumental in preventing the attaining of a subject's goals which are detrimental to that subject’s welfare? And so a lack of self-control could never be psychologically, biologically, or epistemically advantageous with respect to a goal the achievement of which is good for the subject?


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