This is a list of questions I typed out while I was taking a break today. Then I wrote statements based on the Balance Model idea I’ve been posting about, and also some implications of those statements (a lot of them address the questions directly, but all the answers can be inferred). I was going to write it all out as an essay, but I decided to just post it as I wrote it. Let me know what you think. It’s all subject to (some) revisions.


  •  Why is it so hard to maintain self-control?
  •  Why do people defy authority?
  •  Why do we want what we can’t have?
  •  Why do people lose their temper over trivial things?
  •  Why is forbidden fruit attractive?
  •  Why do people binge eat?
  •  Why do people procrastinate?
  •  Why are teens rebellious?
  • Why is reverse psychology effective?
  •  Why do freshmen gain weight?
  •  Why do college kids chug cheap beer?
  •  Why do repressive regimes have revolutions?
  •  Why do alcoholics binge drink when they go off the wagon?
  •  Why do guys have wild bachelor parties?


  1. We have a need to maintain a balance between autonomy and control
  2. Behavior is motivated in part by the dynamic process that regulates this balance
  3. A perceived limit on autonomy generates an opposite reaction to maintain equilibrium
  4. The greater the limit the stronger the reaction
  5. The reaction may be delayed, but if the perception of limits doesn’t change it’s inevitable
  6. By changing the perception of restraint, the reaction can be modified or avoided
  7. The process is bi-directional: a perceived lack of structure can lead to excessive self-restraint (e.g., anorexia?)
  8. This reaction can also be proactive in anticipation of limits
  9. Balance can be maintained at the extremes or in the middle
  10. Autonomous control is an ideal state of moderate balance between freedom and responsibility
  11. Self-control is usually  used to describe the exercise of self-restraint
  12. Self-regulation best describes the larger process of maintaining emotional equilibrium


  • Forbidden fruit is desirable because it is a response to an imposed limitation
  • Adolescents are learning to be more independent and resist control
  • College students celebrate their independence by engaging in behavior that was restricted
  • A self-control task will negatively impact performance on subsequent control tasks to offset the imbalance
  • Decision-making is a perceived limitation since by choosing one thing you reject all other options
  • Diets that feel imposed (internally or externally) will fail
  • These principles can be applied to social systems as well as behavior
  • Explosive anger is restrained irritation finally triggered by a small event

Me, My Modules, and I

October 22, 2012

Self-control is a compound term that contains two concepts, each of which seems deceptively clear. In a previous post I talked about the meaning of Control to clarify our understanding of self-control. Now let’s look at the meaning of the first word, Self, which may also seems pretty, um, self-evident. Actually, the term is loaded with assumptions. Foremost among them is the idea that we have one and only one Self that is the source of needs, wants, and desires, and it’s the Self that is being controlled when we talk about exerting self-control to resist temptation. So let’s examine that.

I’m guessing that almost everyone reading this knows how a smartphone operates. In fact, many of you may actually be reading this on one. Think of your phone as your Self. It’s a single, self-contained (there’s that word again) device. But what makes it so useful is that it has many different functions. In addition to being a cell phone, it can wake you up in the morning, show you how to make poached eggs, and can tell you the news, weather and sports while you’re eating. When you leave the house it will let you know if your train is running late, and it can provide background music while you read this on the train. You downloaded each of those apps independently to perform each function, even though you use them all to get your day started smoothly.

So what is it? Is your phone a single thing or a hundred different individual apps? Well, it’s both, depending on how you think about it. But, if you’re like me and are often looking for it, you’ll usually just say “Where’s my phone?” not, “Where are my apps?” This is a pretty fair analogy for how many psychologists and other scientists and thinkers are beginning to view the self[1]. We tend to refer to “self” in the same way that we refer to that collection of apps as a “phone” even though it’s more than that.

Some of your phone’s apps work together with other ones, such as recording a voice mail and emailing it to you, maybe transcribed with voice recognition or read aloud with a computerized voice. Those are all coordinated with the phone function. Similarly, we use apps like our language and vision, which usually work independently, to coordinate their functions so you can read this. When it comes to things that you are aware of choosing to do or experience, like reading, you tend to think of them as functions of your Self, if you think of them at all. But they’re really all modules of your mind.

Other modules, such as your circulatory or respiratory systems, work in blissful ignorance of what you want them to do. Those modules are just programmed to do their thing, running in the background whether you want them to or not. Presumably you do, but they don’t care. Like a phone’s operating system, the typical user has no awareness of the system’s functions.

According to the modular view, then, the Self is really a perception that our mind is like a chorus, and that ideally, everyone is singing from the same sheet of music. If someone is off, it’s noticeably discordant and needs to be corrected. In reality, though, your mind has many different specialized modules that have developed more or less independently to help you function in different areas. They each have needs that are essential for them to perform their jobs, and those needs often conflict with each other. When that happens you may feel a need to reconcile them or at least to restrain one of them.

For example (and to get back to the topic at hand), you may think of eating ice cream while you’re on a diet as a bad thing, and restraining that behavior as a good thing. Someone who accepts the modular view would ask Good for what? If we’re considering your desire for something sweet, creamy, fattening, and delicious, having it is a good thing. If we’re considering your diet, not having it is a good thing. But wait, can both sides of a conflict be good for the same Self? Isn’t eating ice cream when you’re on a diet a bad thing? It is for your long-term health module, but not for the one that really wants some Ben and Jerry’s!

Sorry if this messes with how you thought of a seemingly straightforward idea such as self-control, but getting clarity on this issue is really what this blog is about. Namely, is healthy behavior simply about restraining other behaviors that are inconsistent with long-term health or is it about balancing different preferences in a sensible way?

[1] If you want to learn more about this, I strongly recommend Robert Kurzban’s Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite. It’s enlightening and entertainingly clear. I also stole the smartphone analogy from him. I hope he doesn’t mind.

In the previous post, I talked about striving for total abstinence – diet perfection – and the consequences of that by rebelling against those self-imposed limits. But why the fuss? Why not simply accept the restrictions on your eating if that’s what you want to do? What determines the need to rebel against those limits and why must the reaction be so extreme? Most importantly, how can understanding how this balance works help with emotional eating?

All living things need a balanced and stable internal environment in order to live and function normally. This state of balance is called homeostasis, a term coined in 1915 by the American physiologist Walter Cannon, who explained how this process works. This mechanism, first described by the 19th century French physiologist Claude Bernard, is found in all biological systems to automatically regulate physiological processes such as body temperature, hormone secretion, and blood pressure.

At the end of his book, Cannon wrote an appendix that explained how this mechanism of biological regulation may apply to systems other than animal organisms. “Might it not be useful,” he wrote, “to examine other forms of organization – industrial, domestic, or social – in light of the organization of the body?” He then goes on to demonstrate how homeostasis operates in a wide range of organizational systems. Others have extended the principles of homeostasis to explain behavioral and emotional regulation as well.

Freud began writing about homeostasis and its role in motivation at around the same that Cannon was first publishing these ideas. He believed that when an instinctual need is unsatisfied or suppressed, it can activate behavior that will gratify it. Once that need is met, a state of balance is restored. Similar ideas were suggested by other researchers such as Clark Hull who said that behavior is motivated by the need to restore balance when biological drives arise, such as thirst and hunger.

However, the prominent social psychologist Bernard Weiner, one of the world’s preeminent authorities on human motivation and emotion rejected homeostasis as a factor in human motivation[2]. He wrote, “Both conceptions [i.e., Freud’s and Hull’s] are grounded on the notion that individuals strive to reduce internal tension; their fundamental motivational principle is that any deviation from equilibrium produces a motivational force to return to the prior state of internal balance.”

Weiner explained his objection to this view of motivation: “The major difficulty with this rule of conduct is that the greater part of human behavior cannot be subsumed within the concept of homeostasis. Humans often strive to induce states of disequilibrium: we ride roller coasters, read scary stories, [and] seek new and exciting forms of entertainment…”

In other words, in Weiner’s view, homeostasis requires the maintenance of a natural state of tension-free complacency undisturbed by any intrusive stimulation. Therefore, the fact that people often seek out experiences such as horror movies or bungee jumping proves that motivation cannot be based on homeostasis. It’s just too upsetting! He then proposed a set of principles which any theory of motivation must follow. His first rule was that “a theory of motivation must be based on a concept other than homeostasis.”

Or not.

With this declaration, Weiner sets up a straw man, boldly knocks it down, and then pronounces it dead. He takes the fact that people engage in this behavior as proof that our behavior cannot be motivated by homeostasis. Why? Because it disrupts complacency. Sure it does – but who said we’re always feeling complacent? That’s like saying that you don’t want to wear a winter coat because it makes you feel hot. Well, yeah, if it’s mid-July or you were indoors at the time it would cause a state of “disequilibrium” in your comfort, but not if you’re standing outdoors in a Chicago winter! Then you’ll wear whatever you can find that makes you as warm as possible.

Of course, we could far more logically conclude that the fact that we seek out highly stimulating experiences proves that his idea homeostasis means maintaining complacency is simply a misunderstanding. It means stability. Balance doesn’t mean you’re always feeling calm; it just means both sides of the scale have equal weight. As any kid in a playground can tell you, a see-saw is just as stable when two kids are on opposite ends as when they are both in the middle. Perhaps you also watch “A Nightmare on Elm Street” to offset interminable boredom and keep the needle on your stimulation gauge right in the middle.

In fact, as psychologist Goodwin Watson pointed out almost 20 years before Weiner’s rejection of homeostasis, the concept that we are “naturally complacent unless disturbed by intrusive stimuli has had to be modified…because of contradictory evidence showing a hunger for stimulation.” Fifty years before that, American sociologist William Thomas proposed the “desire for new experiences” as a basic motivation for human behavior This can explain why a healthy fear of the unknown, like falling off the edge of the earth, does not dissuade us from exploring the world outside of our comfort zones.

If we accept homeostasis as a motivating force to arouse certain strong emotions by engaging in extreme behavior, then the goal would be to compensate for a perceived imbalance. For example, one may have a need for excitement to counter a feeling of boredom or a desire for new experiences to escape from routine. By temporarily going to the opposite extreme, one may actually be restoring balance – not, as Weiner would have it, upsetting it.

When it comes to emotional eating, the extreme behavior may be seen as a way of restoring balance as well. If that’s the case, it would be useful to understand what emotions the behavior is trying to counterbalance. What are we experiencing on the opposite side of the see-saw that motivates us to counteract to it? Cannon wrote, “When a factor is known which can shift a homeostatic state in one direction it is reasonable to look for…factors having an opposite effect.” That means you look at the behavior and think about how you feel just prior to engaging in it. That’s the feeling that triggered it. Then figure out what that feeling is meant to fix.

The overriding feeling that people describe just after deciding to binge is a sense of relief. It occurs when you say something to the effect of “Oh, what the hell!” That relief means you’ve decided to let go after exerting a lot of self-control and restraint. If the relief comes from abandoning self-restraint, the burden must have come from feeling too restrained.

When your sense of freedom and autonomy is restricted, and you don’t feel you can challenge it by, say, standing up to your boss or saying no to a friend, then you may be tempted to look for some other rules to break. That’s when turning to your own self-imposed rules like “no snack foods shall ever pass my lips” can come in handy as an easy target for defiance, without actually affecting anyone else. When you eat the bag of chips, balance is (momentarily) restored and no one gets upset with you. Except yourself.

Understanding Self-Control

October 3, 2012

Everyone knows what “self-control” means, right? Well, there appears to be some confusion even among (or especially among) the experts, so let’s clarify what we mean when we refer to the concept of control to make sure we’re all talking about the same thing.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers the following preposition-ending sentence fragment (just saying, it is a dictionary) to define control: “To exercise restraining or directing influence over.” Although these terms – restraining and directing – are meant as alternative adjectives to clarify the word’s meaning, rather than two separate definitions of control, I think there is a very important difference between them that can help us distinguish between different types of control.

“Restraint” means resisting or overriding impulses, urges, behaviors, or desires that compete with intended behaviors. This is how self-control is typically described in the psychological literature on motivation and how most people use the term colloquially. It’s either-or: you do it or you don’t. There’s no sense of degree or dimension. When you exercise this type of self-control the result is either success or failure. As Yoda said, “Do or do not; there is no try.”

This view, as applied to eating, is very common among people I have seen with eating disorders. I once asked a patient of mine to describe what her experience of dieting is like. She thought for a moment and said simply, “It’s like walking on a tightrope.” She described her feeling of having to watch every step to avoid failing. “You can never relax and just eat what you want because once you do you’re off the diet and have to start all over.” I thought that summed up the experience perfectly: with a diet, as with a tightrope, you’re either on it or you’re off it. There is nothing in between. A small slip is the same as a swan dive into the net below. Show’s over.

This is a concept that the psychologist and addiction researcher Alan Marlatt called the Abstinence Violation Effect. It refers to the helpless feeling of resignation that follows a minor lapse after resolving to totally abstain from a behavior. Failure to uphold a sincere commitment to abstain can make a person feel like such a failure that there’s no point in even trying. The reaction tends to be, Oh, what’s the point? Screw it! The result is that a minor lapse often becomes a major bender.  The reason for this is that there is only one way to succeed and a million opportunities to fail, so failure is pretty much guaranteed!

In contrast to the all or nothing sense of behavioral control as self-restraint, the alternative sense of the word, as “direction,” is dimensional: it denotes behavior that can move along different points on a continuum as called for by a given situation. It is an ongoing process of self-regulation in which behavior is guided, not restrained. Viewed from this perspective, control of eating patterns can best be compared to controlling your car on the highway.

As you drive, you use the steering wheel to control the car, and you constantly make small corrections in order to stay in your lane. If you don’t pay attention to the road, you may begin to drift toward the shoulder and be startled by the sound of a rumble strip or gravel crunching under your tires. When that happens, you don’t give up and say, “Oh well, I’m already off the road, so – what the hell – I might as well drive into that cow pasture.” Instead, you control the car by steering it back onto the road. Once you’re back in your lane, that small deviation should have no impact whatsoever on the rest of your trip, other than to make you more attentive to your driving. This is the meaning of self- control – perhaps self-direction is better – that applies more suitably to eating behavior.

You have to eat, even when you want to lose weight. Your only real choice is not whether to eat, but what and how much. Therefore, when people feel the need to apply an all-or-nothing approach to eating, certain foods must be declared off-limits. It’s an unnatural and artificial type of abstinence. It allows you to pronounce “I shall never allow [sugar, fat, carbohydrates, processed foods, etc.] to pass my lips” in the same way that a recovering alcoholic will declare the same about alcohol.

This goal of establishing some type of food abstinence is a common feature of what I refer to as the “diet mentality.” It becomes a new source of external control in your life, even if it’s coming from you. Your own sense of self-determination, the small steering corrections you make to stay in your lane, is taken over by this repressive authoritarian control. When other life situations begin to add to your sense of being controlled, guess which one is the first candidate for regime overthrow? It’s the dictator you set up yourself in the hope of restoring some law and order to your diet. Be careful what you hope for, though, because at some point, you’ll rebel.