Sunday, May 1, 2016

Expectation Adjustment as willpower tool (for self-sufficiency)

I've tried quite a few willpower (self-regulation/self-control) techniques from books by Roy Baumeister and Kelly McGonigal and others, all quite helpful. But have found for me personally, wanting to boost my performance in efforts to be self-sufficient in food production, the best technique has been to adjust my expectations of how pleasurable and easy gardening is and should be.

I suspect most people interested in getting back to nature and growing their own food because they don't like the industrial "system"  have a rather "idealistic" "romantic" "hippy" "greenie" "Garden of Eden" idea of what gardening will be like, everything will be harmonious, cooperative and nice. This view is not limited to "greenies" this has been called the Pastoral Fallacy (7) and the Arcadian Fallacy. New Zealand was largely colonized on the basis of this myth/lie. Early advertisements in England for the country  typically said things like " everywhere pigs drunk from eating fermented wild peaches, begging to be shot" (8). Perhaps all societies since prehistory have held such beliefs about new frontiers.  So this particular adjustment may be of use to this relatively large group of people in particular. It simply means changing your expectations to accept gardening will indeed be magical, beautiful and pleasant but at times may also be ugly, disappointing, unpleasant, boring and difficult.

I don't think doing this is especially unusual, since thinking about this I've noticed people quite often talk about "being prepared" psychologically, for instance I recently read (something like) "rats make wonderful pets but they only live a few years so be prepared".  I just haven't seen it discussed in science based writing on willpower/self-regulation, so it seemed worth writing about.

"Expectation adjustment" is my term, I got the idea after noticing many of the willpower techniques Baumeister reports on already seem to exist in the military, such as tidiness and eating well (glucose believed to be the chemical basis of willpower) which reminds one of the saying "an army marches on it's stomach". So I started wondering about other thing the military do, since sacrificing your own life and killing others in battle are probably the most difficult things a rational person can attempt to do (5) and an effective army really needs to be more rational than emotional (6). It seems to me the expectation and acceptance they are going to do something extremely unpleasant and undesirable is a major factor in how soldiers are able to conduct war, or even disaster relief, imagine if they expected it to be nice*.

There is a cruel but hilarious experiment in Baumeister's book that seems to touch on this, by Mark Muraven. Runners were given equal distances to run, but some were told the run was shorter, then were told there was more to do once they'd completed this, these runners performed poorly for the remainder of the run compared with the other group (pg 34 Ref 1). This was discussed in terms of conservation of energy, but to me it is an example of being psychologically prepared or not prepared; "expectation adjustment".

I think this phenomenon may also have something to do with overcoming addiction through acceptance of the unpleasantness of addictive cravings "riding the wave" McGonigal talks about. (pg 225 Ref 2). Also ascetic people are better at difficult tasks I recently heard (3) by taking the emphasis off seeking pleasure I suppose this makes you more ascetic, temporarily.

The reality is sometimes gardening is negative, weeds and pests are competing with you and would gladly take over your niche if they could, you can't always be nice to all plants or animals. The elements don't care about you, nor does the land itself, but if you use your head and your body eventually you'll get back what you give. The aim of being self-sufficient should presumably be a degree of autonomy or independence, if seeking pleasure gets in the way of this it will have to be dispensed with for the moment. In the end you'll have far more beauty and pleasure that way.

* I'm not entirely certain adjusting expectation always fits the psychologists definition of willpower/self-control/self-regulation.  I've even wondered if this approach, at least the way I have been using it, actually makes me have less self-control as I seem to take more risks and become more daring as a result of not worrying about unpleasantness, trait normally associated with poor self-control or impulsivity. There are times when we need less self control (when conceiving a child or getting a flash of artistic inspiration) and times when we need more (when dealing with a misbehaving child or developing an artistic idea into a work of art).

Finding ways of deliberately reducing willpower/ self-control, for specific tasks for limited periods, may turn out to be just as important for a full balanced life as ways of increasing self-control, which appears to be the main, or even sole, focus of science at the moment.

At times I find the terms will power/self-control/self-regulation rather confusing anyway, for instance in a famous experiment children who resist the temptation to eat a marshmallow are considered to have more willpower than those who stared at it & usually gave in and ate it, that seems more like a technique that serves the will than actual will to me. I find adjusting expectation to be a  a way of doing something I believe I should be doing but don't feel like doing, which is all the matters to me, not terminology.

After thoughts.

Since writing the above I emailed the authors of "Self-Regulation and the Five-Factor Model of Personality Traits" in "Handbook of Personality and Self-Regulation" about my experiences. Corina Lockenhoff responded explaining that what I decided to call "expectation adjustment" sounds like what psychologists call "task framing", a term I was unaware of & will most likely use in future.

Another possible insight since writing the above is I noticed I've been working much more in the garden since moving my studio to my home, before I was catching buses across town to get to my studio. It appears the commute was draining my willpower, an example of what Baumeister & Tierney refer to when they say "pick your battles"; we all have limited willpower, we have to save it for the most important things, don't try to do too many challenging things. 

The thing is I would have never thought catching buses through town was depleting my willpower as I find negotiating the chaos of public transport and city crowds entertaining and educational. But perhaps maintaining civility in such anarchy does exactly that, drains willpower, probably a good example of what Ivan Illich called Shadow Work (9); unpaid toil and time required to support industrialism. Even more so if it is actually eclipsing our ability to do sustainable autonomous work by depleting our self-control, leaving us in a state fit only for impulsive activities, probably impulsive consumption of addictive industrial commodities in particular. Sometimes it may be a good idea to be on the lookout for seemingly inconsequential, even enjoyable, things that are depleting vital mental energy, stopping one from being able to do the important things. 

In other words, in order to do something you want to do, but find impossible, you may have to drop one or more activities from your current routine. I find this a very humbling idea, it makes you face your limits. But expecting the science of self-control to help us perform multiple superhuman feats, as I was, is probably unrealistic. Such high expectations may ironically be a symptom of the prevailing culture of narcissism/grandiosity psychologists like Baumeister (1) have criticized extensively for weakening self control.    

Finally, it also seems possible I simply became "home-centred" moving my studio home, before I was probably mainly "town-centred". "A man cannot have two masters" as a Christian friend of mine used to say, perhaps that means he also cannot have two "centres".  


1)Willpower. Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Roy Baumeister & John Tierney 2011
2) The Willpower Instinct. How Self-control works, why it matters
 and what you can do to get more of it. Kelly McGonigal 2012
 3)  Jim Mora interviewing Marc Wilson on 'refutation' of Baumeister's ego depletion theory. Radio New Zealand 11:06 am 30/4/16
4) Overwhelming Terror. Love, Fear, Peace and Violence among Semai of Malaysia. Robert Knox Dentan, 2008.
5) Our Inner Ape. A Leading Primatologist Explains why we are who we are. Franz de Waal 2006.
6) Civilisation. K Clark. 1969
7) The Ideal Society and its Enemies: The Foundations of Modern New Zealand Society 1850-1900. Miles Fairburn. 1989.
8) Shadow Work. Ivan Illich 1981

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