Books : reviews

George Ainslie.
Breakdown of Will.
CUP. 2001

In this challenging and provocative book, the researcher who originally proposed hyperbolic discounting theory presents important new findings that confirm its validity and describes implications that undermine our most basic assumptions about how self-control works. Hyperbolic discounting theory has provoked much recent controversy in psychology, economics, and the philosophy of mind. It begins with a startling experimental finding: People devalue a given future event at different rates, depending on how far away it is. This phenomenon means that our preferences are inherently unstable and entails our present selves being pitted against what we can expect our future selves to want. Although the notion of temporary preferences upsets conventional utility theory, it offers radical solutions to problems that have defeated utility theory: Why do people knowingly participate in addictions, compulsions, and bad habits? What is the nature of will? What makes a will weak or strong? Do we in fact need a concept of will at all?

The author argues that our responses to the threat of our own inconsistency determine the basic fabric of human culture. He suggests that individuals are more like populations of bargaining agents than like the hierarchical command structures envisaged by cognitive psychologists. The forces that create and constrain these populations help us understand much that is puzzling in human action and interaction: from addictions and other self-defeating behaviors to the experience of willfulness, from pathological overcontrol and self-deception to subtler forms of behavior such as altruism, sadism, gambling, and the “social construction” of belief.

This book uniquely integrates approaches from experimental psychology, philosophy of mind, microeconomics, and decision science to present one of the most profound and expert accounts of human irrationality available. It will be of great interest to philosophers concerned with the mind and action theory. By questioning some of the basic assumptions held by social scientists about rational choice, it should be an important resource for professionals and students in psychology, economics, and political science.