Weapons of Mass Consumption

Has modern technology ruined our self-control?


The good times are killing us, Daniel Akst suggests in We Have Met The Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess, but at least he believes there are steps we can take to keep ourselves from having too much fun. Compared to other critics of American affluence, this qualifies him as an optimist. His general take: Cheap food, easy credit, overwhelming consumer choice, lax social mores, and all the other virtues that bedevil us here in the land of the alarmingly unrestrained may stack the deck against us, but if, like Odysseus, we're willing to bind ourselves to the mast whenever our own personal Sirens start trilling their irresistible melodies, we may yet escape complete ruin.

In Akst's estimation, saying "no" to modern life's immersive temptations is our culture's "biggest and most enduring challenge," and he's got some compelling statistics to bolster this contention. According to a Harvard study he cites, extending medical coverage to all Americans would save approximately 45,000 lives a year. Meanwhile, nearly half of the 2.5 million Americans who expire each year could postpone their demises if they could only summon the strength to forsake punitively taxed cigarettes and Jersey Shore marathons.

Hear that, tubby patriots? Universal jumping jacks could save far more lives than universal healthcare, a prospect that should gladden the sclerotic hearts of both Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore, and yet we mostly fail to take action. Or at least score few victories in our battles with temptation. "Why is self-control so difficult?" Akst asks. "We might as well start by looking at our own devices, which have made everything cheaper, faster, and easier. Someday somebody will invent devices that can help us exercise more self control," but until that day, he concludes, "technology is the problem."

Akst dismisses TV as a "cheap, immediate pleasure" that turns us away from "longer term satisfactions requiring patience and diligence." He calls the Internet a "diabolical means of distraction." Everywhere he turns, in fact, he sees "weapons of mass consumption" designed to undermine our good intentions by playing to our more impulsive urges.

When Akst covers how our brains work and the many experiments social scientists have devised to show us how easy we are to manipulate, the bad news continues. Have you heard, for example, about the Yale psychologist who was able to influence how subjects assessed an individual's personality simply by giving them hot or cold drinks to hold for a while? (Those given hot drinks judged the individual warmer.) Or inspired subjects to interrupt more frequently by exposing them to words associated with rudeness? "We have much less volition and autonomy than we think," the psychologist tells Akst.

Still, Akst stands firm in his conviction that we do, as individuals, have agency over our choices and must take responsibility for them. The trick is to know we're sailing through dangerous waters and to constrain our will against foreseeable desires we'd like to withstand. Psychologists call this practice pre-commitment. Akst describes one woman who freezes her credit card in a block of ice as a way to discourage spending. Another pours salt on half her dessert as a means of portion control.

To regulate their Internet usage, problem Web surfers use Covenant Eyes, which keeps track of the sites you visit and mails them to an "accountability partner" you designate. Freedom is a productivity app procrastinators use to keep themselves off the Internet long enough to get some work done. At, you can pledge to give $1000 to a charity you support—or oppose—if you light up a cigarette. "Anti-charities are apparently highly motivating," Akst reports. "stickK says they have an 85 percent success rate."

And thus technology marches forward. Indeed, when Akst exclaimed that technology has made everything cheaper, faster, and easier, he was right—it's just that everything includes organic bananas as well as Big Macs, portion control plates along with bottomless pasta bowls at Olive Garden. And even the invidious forces of TV and the Internet have incredible upsides. Shows like Trading Spaces and Biggest Loser have transformed the boob tube from electronic pacifier to America's life coach, inspiring millions to remodel their kitchens and renovate their asses. The Internet may distract us, but it can also inspire preternatural focus in those who use it. Before the Web came along, how many tweens were writing 10,000-word fanfics about their favorite characters from the 2,500-page serials they spent their days and nights chain-reading? How many adults devoted their leisure to crafting encyclopedia entries on Spanish heraldry or leaf-cutter ants? Even in the Internet age, patience and diligence persist.

If it's easy to overindulge these days, it's also easy to make good choices. And it's getting easier all the time. Thus, it comes as something of surprise when, after making a case for self-control, Akst is so quick to suggest that the government might manage, somewhat oxymoronically, our self-control for us. "If self-mastery is such a problem, should we demand that government do more to ?protect us from ourselves?" he asks. "And is it really capable of doing so? The answers are yes and maybe."

In their 2008 book Nudge, University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler and White House advisor Cass Sunstein promoted what they call libertarian paternalism—the idea that the government or other "choice architects" can make it easier for people to make decisions that benefit themselves and society in general by the way they arrange potential choices or options, without actually compelling anyone to engage in specific actions. An employer might make its 401(k) plan opt-out rather than opt-in to encourage more employees to participate in it. A health insurance plan might offer some kind of reward points to members who exercise on a regular basis.

Akst echoes such sentiments. "[The government] needs to step in where informational asymmetries or dangerous appetites make people easy marks for amoral profit seekers," he writes. "It needs to shape the public realm in ways that promote healthy choices. And most of all, it needs to provide strong weapons of pre-commitment to those who would use them."

One idea Akst proposes is allowing people to affix "No Tobacco" or "No Alcohol" stickers on their IDs, banning themselves from purchasing these products. Another is giving a tax break to couples who reach "some marital milestone." In these instances, the pre-commitments affect people  on an individual basis, but it's easy to see how pre-commitment for one might easily shift to pre-commitment for all once the government got involved. Who, for example, gets to decide which appetites are dangerous enough to warrant government intervention? How can the public realm be shaped without imposing features that some individuals will consider coercive rather than elective?

Then of course there's the fact that the government tends to suffer self-control problems of its own. The best way we can help it from compulsively fine-tuning our lives is to refrain from granting it such powers in the first place.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @GregBeato.

NEXT: US Government (Sorta) Reconsiders Poisoning Drug Addicts for their Own Good

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  1. Cyber-Puritans. Can I buy a new hairshirt on Esty?

  2. Is there any way we can convince nanny-staters to refrain from indulging their puritanical predilections?

    1. Fight fire with fire. Tell them that it’s gluttonous and primative to indulge in every little urge to stop people from doing as they wish. Then call them knickledraggers.

      1. ickle=uckle.

  3. NOW do you see people don’t really have control of their own lives? THIS is why the government has to help us make the right choices.

    1. That’s not the point. The point is that, while the internet (which by the way we both used to post our comments) has increased laziness, relatively unintrusive means can help to promote long term thinking and commitment.

  4. “Hear that, tubby patriots? Universal jumping jacks could save far more lives than universal healthcare, a prospect that should gladden the sclerotic hearts of both Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore…”

    We could have a jumping jack competition between Moore and Limbaugh – the loser has to say the winner is correct in their politicial beliefs and why, or perform analingus on the winner.
    Lets see how much their political beliefs really mean to them…

    1. Rush would win because he a least walks a golf course.

    2. I just vomited a little bit ALL OVER MYSELF!

    3. I don’t know about Rush but I would go to town tossin Mikey’s big rump salad before I would tell him he is right about anything. I think the latter would leave a worse taste in my mouth.

  5. The only way to keep your health is to drink what you don’t like, eat what you don’t want, and do what you’d rather not.

  6. “As a people, we have become obsessed with Health. There is something fundamentally, radically unhealthy about all this. We do not seem to be seeking more exuberance in living as much as staving off failure, putting off dying. We have lost all confidence in the human body.”

    Lewis Thomas, The Medusa and the Snail (1979)

    “If you resolve to give up smoking, drinking and loving, you don’t actually live longer; it just seems longer.”

    Clement Freud, The Observer, 12/27/1964

  7. Warlock?


  8. read this article from work… dammit

  9. I think the problem is not that there is too much technology, but that the technology and society makes the penalties for “not doing it right” much less than times gone by.

    You eat too much, you get a double bypass. Whatever.

    You spend too much of someone else’s money, you get the government to back the loan.

    You bang more people you should or in circumstances you shouldn’t, there is abortion and valtrex.

    I am not saying these aren’t good things to have around, but they *really* undercut the penalties that someone would experience if they were to exhibit the same behaviors say 100 years ago.

    And if most people are rational, like I believe, they will continue to engage in these dangerous behaviors because they really aren’t that dangerous.

    1. “And if most people are rational, like I believe, they will continue to engage in these dangerous behaviors because they really aren’t that dangerous.”

      It is a misrepresentation of reason to suggest that it is supremely rational to bounce from moment to moment responding to pleasure/pain stimulus without any longer range goals.

      A more rational person would decide where he wants to be in a few years and work to get there. If that goal isn’t reached by all kinds of impulsive risky behavior, it would be irrational to do it.

      1. My point is that because the result of impulsive risky behavior is mitigated by society and technology, the results will not have a great effect on where a person wants to be in a few years.

        These impulsive behaviors in times gone by ended in death (health problems or starvation) or extreme social ostracizing. The results of the behaviors have become inconveniences in comparison.

        1. But it seems like you’re saying there’s something bad about that. Shouldn’t you enjoy the luxury of being less and less preoccupied with watching your diet and exercizing as the harm is reduced. I’m sure you don’t boil your tap water before you brush your teeth with it. There was a time when just trusting that some water source was safe was considered risky behavior. There’s much less risk now so it’s much less risky. There’s no higher sense in which people who don’t boil their tap water are “not doing it right” because society has mitigated the risks. It’s just no longer a bad idea. The consequences of unprotected sex and overeating, however are still really bad and I think people do try to avoid them.

          1. I think that your example of tap water is one that is a really good example of how technology has helped us, but that is not what I am really talking about.

            “The consequences of unprotected sex and overeating, however are still really bad and I think people do try to avoid them.”

            Have you been to a Walmart? I do not think people avoid unprotected sex and overeating as much as you would like to think. 🙂

            In seriousness, I don’t “blame” technology for this “overindulgence” problem. And I do not think that technology is bad.

            I wish people would do the right just because it is the right thing to do – but I really do not think it works out this way. The lowering costs of bad choices has simply affected how people will behave in the “choices market.” Certain people do not want to claim responsibility for their poor eating, financial, and personal choices. And technology advances has done a lot to mitigate the costs of their choices. It doesn’t make technology bad, it just is.

            In my mind the responsibility of the choice is still the choosers.

            Now if I could just convince everyone else the same thing…

            1. I’m still waiting for you to explain why overeating or promiscuity is bad.

              In three posts, you’ve steadily assumed that we should all think these behaviors are bad and that the punishments should be somehow restored, even if artificially, so people don’t do these things. Um, why?

            2. I think we agree that everyone should be responsible for himself.

              I just don’t understand from whose perspective bad choices are still considered bad choices without the bad outcomes. When you don’t acknowledge that it’s not nearly as bad of a choice to eat a burger a day in 2011 than it would have been to do so in 1911 it sounds like you’re saying that the pleasure itself is intrinsically bad. If someone was to do so in 2111 with no negative consequences at all, would it still be a bad choice?

            3. At what point does ‘indulgence’ become ‘overindulgence’.
              Who the fuck are you to set the bar?

    2. Speak for yourself.

  10. Did not RTFA, I save time and brain cells by stopping immediately after

    “We might as well start by looking at our own devices, which have made everything cheaper, faster, and easier. Someday somebody will invent devices that can help us exercise more self control,” but until that day, he concludes, “technology is the problem.”

    The contention is ancient, trite, intellectually shallow and just plain fucking stupid.

    1. +1 Technology is the ANSWER!
      At least, to all non-interpersonal problems.

      The fact that the Red Queen principle applies in reverse doesn’t mean that technology is the problem.

  11. I love buying new toys, bigger and shinier than the last. I have a 42″ flat-screen, but would love to have a 55″ LED. I’m trying to build out my home theater from a 5.0 system, to a 7.1 system and I’m eyeing that 27″ monitor for my PC. And, I can’t wait to replace my Blackberry with a shiny, new Android.

    I’m paying off both credit cards this month and just closed on a 3.875% 15-year mortgage that will allow me to pay down the principle *so* much fast than before with the 30-year we had.

    I save 10% towards retirement each paycheck (it should be more) and save for the kid’s college fund too. My car is paid off and the wife’s will be in about 20 months. And we’re building a very nice nest egg in savings.

    What a bizarre freak I am.

    1. I read that as:

      “My car is paid off and the wife will be in about 20 months.”

    2. You’re not bizzare. You just make a lot of money. Try doing that on a $24K a year private school teacher’s salary.

  12. Libertarian Paternalism isn’t.
    This sort of thinking is just a more insidious form of authoritarianism thought up by people who obviously don’t remember how constraining it was to be a kid and actually have parents “guiding” you.

  13. OK, apologies upfront for threadjack, but found this today, file in unintended consequences of legislation file perhaps.

    Fox hunting ban leads to manhunting…

    (Alternate titles considered included “The Most Dangerous Game” and “SIV’s Recurring Nightmare Comes True”)

    1. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried man-flesh.

      1. I recently had some surgery done with a laser. I was awake and the odor dreated by the laser cauterizing my skin confirmed something I have long believed: I SMELL DELICIOUS!

        1. Was it you, or the stick of butter you lathered in before the procedure?

          1. All me. Like searing a pork tenderloin.

        2. *created* Apporently tey scoarched de speeling sinter uf mah brains.

        3. I thought the smell of my eyes being scorched with a laser was the most vile thing I’ve ever smelled. Maybe I should eat more pineapple and less asparagus.

          1. Maybe your eyes smell that way from all the things you’ve seen. They’ve been soiled.

            P.S. Go to the place I can’t mention or link to anymore because it encourages retards. You are catching up with Nancy.

            1. So what do I win? I hope it’s ham.

        4. Smelled burnt people, worst smell in the world. You can’t get it out of your hair or clothes. Uhg, worst smell ever.

    2. Reason is key to Kay’s approach.

      Uh oh.

    3. It’s even worse! They are forcing British actors to don fox outfits and be chased through the woods. AND THE FILM THE WHOLE WRETCHED THING!!

  14. In their 2008 book Nudge, University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler and White House advisor Cass Sunstein promoted what they call libertarian paternalism


    1. It’s more like that scene in Team America.


    2. Thaler has done some kool work in finance.

  15. Ok, so people are fatter than they used to be. And the constant message is ‘hey, fatty, you’re not going to live as long as this other person, and you’re going to have all these health problems, and you’re going to be a burden on the rest of us, so shape up’. But what I haven’t seen is any sort of comparison to what life for someone who is somewhat obese would be now compared to any normal person’s life from some earlier period? Everyone points to the folks on The Biggest Loser or TLC as ‘see all the stuff they can’t do cause they’re obese???’, but then they define ‘obese’ as folks who are 225 pounds or something.

    Same thing as always: Puritans hectoring other people who are doing what they would LIKE to do, but don’t for whatever self-hating reason. Keep your goddamn moralizing away from me. You want to wear a hair shirt and punish yourself for some reason, then go ahead. I won’t stop you. But don’t tell me I have to live like you. And when I ignore you, don’t get your goons to come after me for my own good.

    And you want to save your money on healthcare? Go ahead! Don’t pay for mine. If my choices kill me, then oh well.

    1. I love you. Too bad I hate kids; I would so want to have yours.

      I wonder if we’ll ever be scrubbed clean of that Puritanical taint, the one that automatically labels self-denial and even self-flagellation as interchangeable with good character.

      Not everybody wants to live to be 110, or even 90. I’d much rather crap out at 70 but enjoy doing or eating whatever I damned well please along the way. I guess we’re all supposed to want to live to be centenarians, because Oprah says it’s best. That’s certainly about the level of logic I’ve seen explaining why we must all want this.

      Nobody’s paying for my healthcare. I’ve been to the doctor fewer times in the last 10 years than my sports-nut cubicle mate has been in the last year. I love hearing her talk about her “healthy lifestyle” a week after she’s shown us the film from her latest MRI. I love hearing the co-worker with five kids going off about how fatties are the reason our premiums are going up. Irony, my favorite.

      I can’t watch that show, “The Biggest Loser.” I can’t watch a bunch of grown men and women who allow — nay, invite — thinner adults to speak to them and scold them like misbehaving children, just because they’re fat.

      Akst doesn’t realize, there’s no bottom to the barrel he wants us to plunge into. So we get the government to save us from ourselves, and ration out Internet access, candy bars, electronic goodies, and p0rn. Then, some apparatchik comes along who thinks we should give up cars, and all ride bicycles. (This is not even considered an extremist position in Seattle, BTW, where the bicycle-worshipping mayor put the city on a “road diet,” actually spending millions to narrow roads and reduce lanes, to discourage car traffic.) Then, even the resulting lifestyle seems too extravagant to the next regime, who rations flour, sugar, butter, and oil, so the fatties can’t make cookies at home to circumvent retail candy bans.

      Then, we’ll all be thin, svelte, bored, and miserable, ratting our neighbors out to the police for concealing bootleg Snickers bars. Perfection attained! Better living through government intervention.

      1. The end goal of continually increasing privatization is not a police state, but death. Of course, a police state is just a very formal version of death, so there isn’t really any worriable difference.

        I really hope that I live well into my second century, just because I enjoy the idea of living, and the interesting possibilities that longevity has to offer. Plus, on a more primal note, it allows me to ensure that my genetic lineage lives on.

    2. Sorry Highway, you need to put your State-Issued Flagellum to better use.

  16. speaking of excess, how about intellectual academic thieving fuckstain of a human being? Oh noes my free stolen internets is gone. How fucking delusional do you need to be to follow her logic?……html?_r=1

    1. If she ever paid back her student loans — after all, the funds came from an amorphous “cloud” of funds. She’s living the good life now.

  17. I have always said that in the context of the rest of history and much of the rest of the world, having a fat population is a pretty damn good problem to have.

    1. have you notice that with all these fat lazy people and all these pollutants in the air and in our food we continue to live longer. Maybe based on that Fact we should promote more pollution and laziness.

      1. Yes, an we have high unemployment, homelessness, and a ridiculas high school drop out rate, but Washington wants to worry about happy meals. Considering the first three problems are caused by Washington we should be really worried about them focusing on the last.

        1. I generally worry about Washington on principle. Anarchism looks more attractive every year.

        2. My Barack sneaks cheeseburgers and cigarettes, but he understands my position on banning that stuff for everyone else. Ban your Happy Meal and your ass will follow.

  18. I hope no one blows up a donut shop next week, because, if so, I think we know who’s going to bear the blame.

  19. “When Akst covers how our brains work and the many experiments social scientists have devised to show us how easy we are to manipulate, the bad news continues. ”

    Why is this bad news? If we are so easy to manipulate they could make us get up from our slough inducing technology with their super smart manipulating ways and be the citizens these jerks think we should be.

    1. Yeah? How many jumping jacks did you guys program me to do last year? If the answer is none then you sure are one nudgey nudgerfucker Cass!

  20. There is no such thing as “Libertarian Paternalism.” What the book Nudge promotes is government fascism. “Sure, you can smoke but it’s gonna cost you $20 a pack.” Or “yeah, you can be fat but I’m gonna hide the french fries from you.”

    I don’t need fascists like Sunstein nudging me in any way. My body, my choice, my life!

    What’s next? Libertarian gun control? Libertarian censorship? Libertarian honor killings?…..olent.html

    1. “My body, my choice, my life!” These are property of the state in the NWO.

  21. STOP CALLING ME FAT! I’m big boned.

  22. It’s typical that people want to blame technology for laziness and gluttony.

    Television is a relatively new technology, but it has been evolving ever since its invention and the direction of its evolution is towards greater complexity and interactivity. TV shows of the past had one main story line and perhaps a comedic subplot. Modern shows have upwards of ten detailed plot lines that are weaved together seamlessly. There are studies that show the level of neuro-activity we experience when watching these complex shows is similar to that of engaging in a complex conversation with multiple parties and there is a good reason for this. While the individual may be aware of the fact that the television show is simulated, the individual parts of the brain that analyze speech and deal with interpersonal interactions are not necessarily aware of the fact that it is watching a simulated event and these parts of the brain still role play within these complex social events as if they were real events. Television is not a passive experience like pediatricians like to suggest, the brain is being flexed here and just because there are a lot of dim bulbs out there is doesnt necessarily mean television or the internet caused them to be dim.

    Video games and the internet are even more interactive and stimulate the brain much more than television. People today are more intelligent and are filled with more information than ever before. While some people may be ignorant of certain things, it is always easy to spot ignorance, but just for shits and giggles mentally travel back in time to the 1980’s and think about how much information people would have been exposed to back then. Did you have access to information that you have today? For work, I needed to learn more about standard deviation formulas. Within two hours of digging on the internet and fucking around in excel, I was able to apply previously unfamiliar information to my job. Could I have done that in the 1970’s?

    Now to food. Yes, we have a lot of food and yes there are a lot of fatasses out there. But is anyone really going to argue that we are worse off for having MORE FOOD? Food scarcity has been the bane of human existence since the BEGINNING OF HUMAN EXISTENCE! Despite being huge fatasses, we LIVE LONGER than any other prior civilization due to medical advances.

    Control is a myth. If Cass Sunstein tries to “nudge” people, people will eventually see through it. WE ALREADY SEE THROUGH IT. If he tries to “nudge” me, I will push back. Do these fucking nanny state morons not see how dangerous it is to “nudge” an intelligent civilization?

  23. It’s a really good thing that Akst isn’t one of those radical right-wing Christian fundamentalist crusaders, or one of those radical jihadist blow-em-all-up-let-Mohammed-sort-em-out Muslims. He might want to oppress people or something.

  24. “[The government] needs to step in where informational asymmetries or dangerous appetites make people easy marks for amoral profit seekers,”

    Oh, that’s promising.

    And where the informational asymmetries are our ignorance of government actions and their consequences, and our dangerous appetites are our desires to see our neighbor controlled by government, where do we turn for the angels who would protect us from ourselves?

  25. “sclerotic hearts of both Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore”

    Limbaugh lost his excess weight. Moore is still a greasy, stupid swine.

  26. The government could stop subsidizing the fast food industry, corn, industrial animal farming, oil, etc., and allow prices to rise without such subsidies to help dissuade consumers from pigging out on meat, junk food, etc. that harms their bodies, harms the environment, the ocean, etc. (use of nitrogen, manure ponds, etc.).

  27. Has modern technology ruined our self-control?

    We always had the same lack, we just needed less self control when we had less access. If you can afford too much food you do not need self-control to stay thin.

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