Contra Ainslie: Multi-variable Measures of Akrasia

Throughout his explanation of akrasia as hyperbolic discounting, Ainslie focuses on the temporal dimensions of the discounting process, noting that when the possibility of experiencing satisfaction from a particular reward is less delayed, then the agent is more likely to engage in akratic actions or be swayed by akratic behavioral dispositions.

Ainslie uses the term “imminent” to describe how strongly an agent may feel an internal pull towards a particular reward and its accompanying satisfaction (Ainslie 30). “Imminent,” when properly understood within hyperbolic discounting, includes but should not be limited to temporal considerations. Akratic actions involve internal calculations guided by desire or emotion with an emphasis on, or at least a preference for, the likelihood of certainty in obtaining satisfaction from a reward. This aspect of certainty is what some psychological experiments mentioned by Ainslie fail to properly take into account.

The first aspect we direct our attention towards is the proximity of the possible reward in terms of physical distance. The further the distance an agent has to travel to obtain satisfaction in the form of a reward, the less likely he/she is to choose that particular course of action. Intuitively, it seems as though the farther away a reward is, the more likely it will cost the agent in acquiring it and enjoying the subsequent satisfaction from acquiring it. This will be covered more in the third consideration of modified hyperbolic discounting.

Next, there is the previous mentioned aspect of temporal delays. The longer a delay in obtaining satisfaction from a reward, the less likely an agent is to choose that particular course of action. This relates back to the certainty involved with acquiring the reward and enjoying the subsequent satisfaction.

Finally, there is the dimension of what the author will broadly call “effort.” Effort calculations take into consideration the intensity of the satisfaction experienced by acquiring the reward and how much energy consumption was required to do so. Energy consumption consists of a physiological interaction between mental activity and physical movement. For example, mental activity includes but is not limited to calculation, pattern recognition, consequence prediction, and the like. Physical movement is a similarly robust concept that involves type, pace, and duration of movement towards the actualization of reward experience and satisfaction. Thus, if the reward in question generates a negligible intensity in terms of overall satisfaction, it may be further discounted by the agent. Let us investigate some hypothetical examples to see whether these criteria hold true.

Two Extended Examples

Emily and Sherman have been close friends for several years now, sharing numerous life events together and creating positive memories along the way. Neither one has ever had a significant other but both are interested in finding one. Time passes and neither one has any truly memorable interactions. They begin jokingly tossing around the idea of dating. Soon enough, the joking tone underlying the comments disappears and they begin to sincerely consider it. Both Emily and Sherman find certain traits about the other appealing and they communicate well, but something still seems off. The romantic spark seems absent. As a result, both have certain internal reservations and know they should speak out about them, but neither does so on the grounds that continuing their search for a significant other could take an unpredictable amount of time and effort. They understand that the possible consequences of this relationship turning into something more than platonic include a ruined friendship, emotional trauma, and various other complications regarding mutual friendships. Lo and behold, they decide to date and everything falls apart, more or less, as their reservations implied. Later, as Emily and Sherman reflect back on their actions, they feel a sense of remorse.

From the above description, this situation fits the additional criteria by which we assess hyperbolic discounting. Emily and Sherman are clearly within close physical distance to one another; they spend time together frequently. They also realize that if they begin dating, the reward they are seeking will be obtained that much faster. Finally, the threshold of excessive effort has not been crossed.

Francesca has had some transportation difficulties recently. She normally rides her bike to work but recent weather has been horrible; flood rains have overtaken many of the common roads she takes and damaged the bike’s chain. The damage is not irreparable but she knows it is only a short time until the bike will be entirely inutile. In addition, she was nearly run off the road a few days prior by a motorist who was texting while driving. As a result, she has begun the search for a car.

Having asked family and friends alike for advice, she is still conflicted as to whether she should buy a new or used car. On her day off, she decides to visit a car dealership in town. Seeing one used car in particular that she likes, she can’t help but think about some of the stories her friends told wherein used cars were purchased only to break down a short time later. But the alternative, a new car, will require a higher down payment and likely higher monthly payments as well which she could manage financially. But that would require saving money for longer which is in conflict with her search for a car at this moment.

All things considered, few would disagree that she should save up money and find an alternative mode of transportation to work until she has sufficient funds. Yet she does not choose this. She puts a down payment on the used car that captured her attention. Lo and behold, within a short period of owning and operating it, it breaks down and she is worse off, both financially and in terms of transportation, than she was originally. Later, as Francesca reflects back on her actions, she feels a sense of remorse.

In Francesca’s case we can see that she is physically closer to the used car which will help her solve, at least temporarily, her transportation issues. In addition, she is able to purchase the used car closer to that instant rather than an indefinite amount of time in the future. Finally, the effort required to save money, putting her at a considerable inconvenience until she has sufficient funds, crosses the threshold of what she calculates as excessive effort.

In brief, Ainslie’s depiction of hyperbolic discounting emphasizes one variable: time. Yet this single variable view does not exhaust the possibilities for explaining akratic actions or behavioral dispositions. Instead, the author asserts that a multi-variable view of hyperbolic discounting is more comprehensive and correct.

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