Saturday, February 18, 2006

Self Improvement and Society

I bet you' like to lose some wieght, change your eating habits, make a lot more money, or be much more successful with the opposite sex. How much of an imporvement can you really hope to make in these areas?

Last time I noted 11 factors that shape a person's life. Basically, my point was that many factors shape a person's success, or lack of it. Yet we tend to attribute our successes to our own efforts rather than to the combination of chance, biology, genetics, and social environment that objectively affect our lives.

So, if the idea that we can dramatically improve ourselves is a myth, why does the belief persist? Keep in mind that what I'm writing applies to all sorts of self-improvement efforts and not just to making more money.

Two sociological reasons for the persistence of this myth come to mind. First, our constant striving to improve ourselves spurs economic growth as we start businesses, invest, and get specialized training. The other reason has to be that striving to improve oneself in socially approved ways (firmer body, higher income, new values and attitudes) channels our energy in useful directions. This channeling of wenergy supports economic growth and keeps us from causing trouble.

Have you ever been to the self-help/psychology section of a large bookstore? Try running a search on self-improvement at! The persistence of the idea that we can dramatically improve our lives by reading the right books or doing the right diet generates millions in revenue each month for bookstores, publishers, and authors.

(I will deliberately ignore the question of how well these self-improvement methods really work. Is there any research on the results that people get from applying the ideas in books like Unlimited Power, Getting Things Done, Think and Grow Rich, or The Power of Focus? Really, I don't know. If you have any information, please pass it along!)

Jump back to my last post to review the eleven factors that shape our lives. How many do you think are really under your control? Your opinion could reasonably be different from mine, but here is my view:

  • Only 2, 4, 6, 7, and 11 are somewhat controllable. And the individual's control over decision making, intelligence, and physical health and mental health are probably not as great as we like to think.
  • The other personality traits that contribute to success - perserverence and self-control in high amounts - seem to be there or not there. Dramatically increasing your self-control is likely to prove extremely difficult. Your efforts could easily be undermined by chance events, like a death in the family, or other biological traits like a predisposition to alcoholism.
  • The government, economy, blind chance, socialization, and the cultural environment are not under our control at all. All we can really do about the cultural environment, government, or economy is to leave the country for better opportunities elsewhere.
  • We can attempt to manage the impacts of chance occurrences on our lives through making contingency plans, buying insurance, conducting thought experiments, and other methods. Our ability to use those methods effectively, and even our awareness of them, is likely determined by factors that are mostly beyond our control.
The "take-away" from these two posts is this: The scientific truth is that many factors shape our ability to get ahead in life or to otherwise make major changes in our lives. Your experience of being fully in control of your life is a useful illusion, but an illusion nonetheless. The illusion is useful because it is psychologically helpful to us and promotes progress in society.


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