Thursday, April 3, 2008

Poverty And The New You

Back in the fall, in simpler times, I wrote about Roy Baumeister and his theory of ego depletion. I found it hilarious, and intuitive, the idea that the self was a "limited resource" that could be used up.

If you've got the right sort of mind, thinking about the self this way is an extremely handy way to justify doing lots of things you want to do. I frequently tell myself: sure, have another glass of wine; have a cookie; buy those new linen pants. After all, you're using up your ego on more important things. So knock yourself out.

In a way it seems like a rationalization. But in a way I am convinced this is sound reasoning. I do wear myself out using up my self-control, and I would rather use it up getting my work done and going to the gym than being sober, skinny, and rich. Not that I don't want to be sober, skinny, and rich, mind you. OK, not that I don't want to be skinny and rich. You know what I'm saying.

Yesterday some other neuroscientists wrote in the Times that the "belt-tightening" we're likely to experience in the economic downturn will lead to literal belt-loosening: that is, having to restrict our consumer spending, while painful in the short run, may lead us to actually have more will power in the future.

They're using Baumeister's research, and the point seems to be that while egos get depleted in the short run, you can expand your reservoir of self-control by practicing restraint. Eventually your will power will increase.

I made a joke about this in my previous post: how can you get started practicing self--control if you have no self-control? But here there's a different, and more troubling, theoretical problem. Because belt-tightening is not, in this case, an exercise in restraint at all. It's an exercise in restriction.

Look, we're already making less than we need to spend. That's not going to be "new" in a recession. What's going to be new is that there'll be actual bankruptcy, and actual credit card cancellations, and actual inability to overspend.

If you don't buy fancy shoes because you can but you decide not to, that's self-restraint. If you don't buy fancy shoes because you literally cannot, that's not self-restraint, it's just, you know, I can't buy those shoes.

Since the any ecomomic downturn is likely to involve the latter -- as in, "No, you failed to make your mortgage payment; you can't live here" -- there won't be any increase in practicing restraint.

There'll just be a lot of pissed off consumers. And what's one of the things that uses up your ego and will-power most quickly? Not acting on feelings of aggresssion. So I'm not predicting a return to the savings-account-bankbook-eat-your-brocolli style of living. Not soon, anyway.

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