Falling Prey to Temptation: Self Control in an Age of Excess

For every man there exists a bait which he cannot resist swallowing.

~Friedrich Nietzsche

The best day of your life is the one on which you decide your life is your own. No apologies or excuses. No one to lean on, rely on, or blame. The gift is yours – it is an amazing journey – and you alone are responsible for the quality of it. This is the day your life really begins.

~Bob Moawad

It is a man’s own mind, not his enemy or foe, that lures him to evil ways.


Why do so many New Year’s resolutions fail after only a few weeks? Why do so many of us need to commit to get into shape, pay down debt, or quit smoking… not once, but again, again, and again?

Perhaps it’s a lack of self-control. What is self-control? It is that elusive quality which restrains us and keeps us out of trouble. It keeps us from falling prey to temptations that feel pleasing now, but bring disaster down the road. Yet… self-control is so difficult to attain for so many of us that entire books can be written about the subject.

We have met the enemy…

We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess” is a book by Daniel Akst which looks at the growing problems caused by a lack of self-control. Instant gratification is becoming the norm. First, we are punishing ourselves with poor health. In the U.S. and in many other wealthy countries around the world, waistlines have been expanding at an alarming rate. Nearly 1 out of 3 Americans is now obese, and nearly 2 thirds are overweight. Cooking healthy food used to be the norm, but nowadays it’s so easy to go out and buy junk food, or to stick some frozen food in the microwave and heat it up.

We are doing ourselves in mentally as well. Self-discipline, determination, and strength of character are seen as desirable traits to have, but traits that are becoming replaced by a “Me, myself, and I” mentality. Many of us never really fully develop into adults, but remain dependent children, and the technology and services available today make this easier than ever before.

Don’t feel like exercising, but just want to watch TV all day? Well, you don’t even have to wait for your show to come on anymore: Just download everything from the Internet. Want to take an expensive trip, but don’t have the money for it? Well, that’s what your credit card is for! Got yourself in over your head, and don’t know what to do now? Don’t worry: Uncle Sam probably has some sort of bailout to help you wash your hands of the mess that you created.

With so many temptations at every corner, and free candy for the taking… is it any wonder that so many of us develop a stomache ache?

The nature of the enemy

On one hand, one has to marvel at the benefits that have come with technological progress, with a cornucopia of food, media, and information available for our consumption. Not too long ago, the problem was finding enough food to eat and survive. Is it really such a bad thing that we have such an abundance of wealth in today’s world?

Well, it can be, when we don’t control our consumption of this wealth. Part of the problem is due to excusitis — the rationalization and the excusing of our failure to exercise control over ourselves. Have you failed to pay your taxes on time? Perhaps you suffer from “non-filer’s syndrome”, as some in government apparently do. However, some people really do have medical or biological reasons why they are unable to exercise adequate self-control — is it really someone’s fault if they have a brain tumour?

Unlike other animals, we can exercise an incredible degree of control over our bodies with our minds, but we are still very much a product of nature, our genetic makeup, and evolution. We know that teens have more problems with judgment and clear, rational thinking, which is why we have an age of majority and different legal rules for those under it; it’s kind of hard to blame teens for the way they are when science has shown clear biological underpinnings for these differences in behavior.

Perhaps all life has evolved to discount the future in a certain way: Other animals have been observed to have the same short-sighted time preference that we do. Perhaps the fact that we evolved in a world of widespread scarcity explains in part why we have such trouble coping with the abundance of today’s world.

We can also blame ourselves for the decisions we make at the voting booth. An ideal government is one that enforces sanctions to prevent people from hurting each other, whether through fraud, deception, or outright force, and does no more than that. A society with such a structure would have a small government or quasi-government, but today’s governments are far more powerful than the ideal outlined here. They tax, spend, and redistribute with impunity, and often at the voter’s bequest.

This relationship between the voter and the government creates incentives against self-control; after all, why should you be responsible when you can just get bailed out? Why should you save when everything will be taken care of for you? By exercising the vote, each voter can steal a little bit from every other voter. The voter receives many benefits, such as social security, free tuition, and medicare. Yet, no voter wants to pay the true cost of these services, so the government must issue debt and inflate the currency.

In the process of entrusting the government with so much responsibility, much wealth is siphoned away and lost. Eventually, the promises must be broken or the system will collapse, but which politician would get elected by giving people the cold, hard, and ugly truth? People don’t want to give up the easy life and they will fight to keep it, even at the cost of more pain down the road.

Is there any hope?

If part of our behavior is determined by our environment, genes, and evolution, then how can we possibly manage to overcome such hard constraints?

I personally believe that even if nature sets the boundaries, it’s still up to us where we end up within those boundaries. We can make a lot of progress simply by acknowledging the problem, and our own weaknesses and limitations. The author makes a good case for reducing temptations by simplifying your life and structuring your environment to be more conducive to reaching your goals. Social pressure can help — want to add pressure toward reaching your resolutions? Tell everyone about them. There is hope for us, but we need to be actively involved in the solution.

From the inside fold: “Using self-control as a lens rather than a cudgel, We Have Met the Enemy draws a vivid picture of the many-sided problem of desire – and delivers a blueprint for how we can steer shrewdly toward the wants we most want for ourselves. At stake is not just our health but our humanity, for what could make us more fully human than the ability to set aside impulse when we choose to do so? We Have Met the Enemy explains not just why you can’t, but how you can.”

As a bonus to my readers, I am giving away one free copy, courtesy of the publisher! To enter, just tell me your thoughts and stories regarding personal self-control. I will pick a winner in two weeks’ time… good luck!

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  1. says

    Great post and thanks for the link!

    It is really tough to avoid temptation, but once we identify the enemy, we give ourselves a little better chance to beat it! I’m not sure it ever gets easier, but man, it sure feels good to be victorious once in a while! :)

    • says

      Looking at it another way: If we never had temptations, we’d have no drives. Without the temptation of sugar and fat, we wouldn’t have chased after those animals on the plains nor reached for the high-hanging fruit. Without the temptation of sex we wouldn’t procreate. It’s all about keeping those temptations in check to maximize our life EV. :)

    • says

      Yeah, you wrote the post about the kids connecting resistance to temptation to later results, right? I think I would have grabbed the candy but I really don’t know. The good news is that we can train ourselves.

  2. Kevin M says

    Procrastination and perfectionism are my big issues, I’ve found using small steps to reach a big goal are helpful. Example, we have savings goals for the year, but rather than end up at November trying to scurry and reach them, we’ve planned out our weekly spending to maximize our cash flow. It’s a lot easier to keep track of it week-to-week than remember where we are for 52 weeks.

    • says

      Small steps can be very helpful, I think. Measurable results that give a feeling of progress. Something I learned from my girlfriend is to use todo lists — so long as you actually use them as intended, they can really help with procrastination!

  3. says

    I think the hardest part about personal finance control is the constant bombarding from other people! You see someone has this or the TV is telling you to get that. The temptation of what you want is so strong sometimes it trumps what you know you need to do for your money situation to better itself.

    • says

      This is why I have turned off the TV, because that bombardment annoys me. We’ll still get a new TV in the condo, I think, but definitely not cable, never.

  4. says

    Great post and excellent review! You made so many good points. I think so many of the problems you listed go hand in hand. For instance, eating clean means less weight and more energy. Plus, if you know you have to get UP to MAKE your food, you’re more likely to get up and do other things (since you have to be up anyway). Temptation is strong enough without providing enablers… toss out the bad food, only keep the good stuff around; throw out the remote, or put it in a drawer (if you have to get up to operate it, it may no longer encourage a near-comatose life); and, good heavens, you know what makes you tick, so push your own motivation buttons. 😛

    • says

      Small temptations can be used as rewards for large goals. After all, in moderation even sugar isn’t so bad. I can’t believe how much crap I used to eat as a kid, but now I actually enjoy fruits…

  5. says

    Kevin, Superb article, review, and topic. In fact, I’m going to promote it in my next round up. As a teen I was a procrastinator extraordinaire and quite lazy. As an adult, I turned it completely around. Plain truth, being disciplined and in charge is better!

    • says

      Thanks, Barb! I still suffer from the procrastination at times, but I feel more pleased with myself when I make progress on my goals. Iteration really helps, here.

  6. says

    My wife would probably say I am the most self disciplined person she knows. I normally say to my students that I am the most determined person I know. This has helped me be successful more than any other skills.

  7. says

    Loved the quotes at the top Kevin. It got me wondering what my ‘bait’ is. My greatest temptation is probably travel. (Can that possibly be bait.) I am not a shopper, but I will spend money on life experiences. I want to do and see as much as I can, especially before the kids all go on to college. However, I don’t go in to debt for trips and I never use my credit card for something I can’t pay off that month.

    I think excusitis is hitting epidemic proportions and someone better come up with a vaccine for it stat. People don’t even excuse themselves, but they excuse their kids too. Discipline? ha! That would mean people can’t buy want they want, eat what they want, etc. Look at the obesity rate in North America. It is ridiculous. There is always a reason to go off a diet, or people ‘deserve’ a treat or whatever. Have a bad day? Then go shopping! You deserve that pair of new boots (that will sit next to the other 20 pairs in the walk-in closet which is in the giant house that you strategically defaulted on).

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to go on a rant. Great post though!

    • says

      Travel is a perfectly good temptation to have! :)

      When it comes to excusitis, we all make too many excuses for ourselves, but not only that, we blame others for our excuses. Although I am a pretty libertarian kind of guy, I have some of the bleeding heart of a liberal. I feel for people in real poverty, but I think that most of us are deluding ourselves into feeling poor when we are truly not.

      Look at all the people in Canada and the US on welfare with multiple TVs, internet connection, and plenty of access to food. Do they really have it all that bad? The homeless have a hard-time, that is for sure, and I don’t wish mental illness on anyone, but most of the time, that is what it is: mental illness or choice. I don’t see any reason why a perfectly healthy young adult should be homeless except out of choice!

      When my grandmother came here, she was much poorer than the “poor” consider themselves, today, and she had much less help than they do, yet she survived. When my girlfriend’s parents came here they had to raise their kids on minimum wage and they didn’t even speak the language. They were also deceived out of what money they had by a family member at one point, making things worse. Nonetheless, they pushed on and now they are doing very well! They worked hard for it and they didn’t take anything for granted.

      I’m starting to go off on a rant, myself, but I can’t help but think that many of our economic problems today stem from this refusal to take responsibility for oneself: everything is always someone else’s fault. Through government, we ensure that it’s someone else’s fault by making someone else pay for our mess! I do feel for those that are in dire straits through no fault of their own — things like mental illness and genetic deficiencies do exist, but most people grossly underestimate the effect to which they can change their own lives and improve themselves as people, as we do have more control over our lives and our destiny than most people think.

      • says

        As an aside, the modern welfare state has modern immigration laws that would probably keep hard workers like her parents and my grandmother out for various reasons such as not speaking the language. If a welfare state purports to care so much for people, then why does it exercise restraint of trade and keep people out? The best thing you can do for the welfare of people is to grant them opportunity, both for people from without and for people from within.

  8. says

    Kevin, I really enjoy your book reviews, and this one is no different. We do try to teach our boys self-restraint, but sometimes it seems like an uphill slog against the contrary messages they’re bombarded with, especially at school.

    • says

      I think that in the end, kids are still influenced by their parents the most, so hopefully you can counteract some of those negative influences!

  9. says

    Kris beat me to the punch, for I love the quotes at the beginning too! I absolutely believe that self-control is not as common as it used to be. It goes against nature anyway, and once we remove certain society constraints that deem certain behaviors as bad or inappropriate, there is little stopping many people from gratifying some of their most darkest ambitions and depraved pursuits. It’s quite sad.

    • says

      I believe that people ultimately need to be responsible for their own actions. Some people can get metaphysical and assert that humans are nothing more than discrete state machines or physical simulations and that free will doesn’t exist, but whatever the case may be, we humans do respond to incentives and rewards. If a guy has a tumour in his brain and does something wacko then I don’t think it’s really fair to blame the guy, but even in that case, you wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) just let that guy walk free after putting someone in the hospital, either.

      Self-responsibility and the internalization of incentives, punishment, and reward is what leads most people toward good behavior. Put people in a bad situation with bad incentives and rewards and most people become torturers. This is why even good people can become corrupt politicians, and even killers. Have good incentives that reward good moral behavior and most people will be good. Therefore I think we all need to face the consequences of our own actions — it can be a bitter pill to swallow, sometimes, but I really do think that it makes us better as humans and leads to a better society as well!

  10. says

    I like this part: “want to add pressure toward reaching your resolutions? Tell everyone about them”. It seems that accountability to people surrounding us carries more weight than accountability to ourselves. No matter, if it helps, do it!

  11. says

    Loved the quotes at the beginning of the article.

    Instant gratification is marketed over the air waves everyday to kids and adults that suck it up like a dry sponge. I was raised differently, and taught by my parents that humbleness, self-sacrifice, and deferred-gratification are desirable qualities. Self-control is the key to mastering your own destiny.

    • says

      I personally had conflicting examples as a child, but I was able to observe the outcome of the poorer examples so I still learned from them.

      I think some of the economic problems of today stem from the degradation of the values that have sustained society; I guess we’ll see in the end if the government and Fed are smart enough to create a prosperous economy based on instant gratification, a lack of restraint, and a lack of regard for the consequences, or if the age-old values of due diligence, hard work, and self-responsibility will assert themselves in the end. I don’t necessarily believe in karma, but I do believe that some values are self-defining by the laws of the universe and of human action, so we’ll see!

  12. says

    I read once somewhere that self-control is like a muscle, it can get tired after a while. As your article describes, we live in a world where our self-control muscle is always being put into atrophy. That’s why we end up breaking down and blowing our savings or eating that extra piece of cake. Personally, I have never found (other than exercise) a healthy way to get rid of the stress/blow off steam. Great site!

    • says

      Exercise is always good! I do agree that it takes some practice. We all evolve over time, and nobody is perfect. That does mean that we always have something that we can strive toward. :)

  13. Kari says

    My husband and I had the good fortune early in our marriage to meet with a financial adviser who informed us rather bluntly that we were being idiots with our money and we should start saving ASAP. After we got over being offended, we started saving, small amounts at first and larger amounts over time. Now it’s just a habit that we save first, then spend the rest. But when money comes up in discussion, it’s the rare person who also claims to have any savings. Most claim they just can’t, for one reason or another. Now I’ll be able to fight back with the term ‘excusitis’.

    By the way, the blunt financial adviser is now a software programmer. Apparently the rest of his clients didn’t care for his honesty.

    • says

      The red pill can be a bitter pill to swallow. Most people don’t like to hear what they don’t like to hear, myself included! So, there is a barrier of resistance to be overcome.

      I do agree that it becomes easier as you get used to a new way of doing things. Saving 10% might not be enough today, but it’s a great start for someone who’s been used to saving 5% or nothing!

  14. victoria says

    We turned off the tv to aid in self control. No ads to see, no Jones’ to keep up with.
    We stay out of stores for recreational shopping.
    We choose our friends wisely.
    We raised our child to make rational decisions.

  15. carmen says

    This is something I’m trying to become more aware of: self-control. I catch myself worrying about materialism more than I like, so I’d be really interested in reading/winning this title. Thanks so much!

  16. Hana says

    i find the term “self control’ very unhelpful. It is paternalistic- as if when one follows feelings rather than thoughts that person is weak and childish.
    It is more helpful to look at our behavior as choices where a certain need is dominant. Then the question becomes how to weaken that need. When that is done “self control” becomes automatic.
    It looks like that this book will help me continue with this method for improving my life.

  17. says

    This is a great topic, and something I’ve read about in the past…. I agree that the abundance in this world makes our brains fall to temptation since they were evolved during a time of scarcity. It’s why we desire wealth, eat more than we need, and fall to sexual temptations and commit adultery… the first step is to acknowledge this and understand this, but I for one see no hope in overcoming it…. We must try, but nature always win. I have no hope!


  1. […] Once you set a goal, of course, the trick is in actually sticking with it.  If it's a financial goal, sometimes the hardest part is not succumbing to outside temptations.  Lucikly, this week Invest it Wisely helped shed some light on how to prevent just that in "Falling Prey to Tempation." […]

  2. […] Invest It Wisely discusses Falling Prey to Temptation: Self Control in an Age of Excess […]