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Me, My Modules, and I

Posted Oct 22 2012 12:00am

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.

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