No ‘Healthy Outlet’ for Bad Habits

No ‘Healthy Outlet’ for Bad Habits February 24, 2012

Remember you can vote once per day for the Atheism Awards.  I’m one of five nominees for Best Atheist Blog.  More details here.

This is part two of my response to Brian S. about my choice to give up free food during Lent.  The first focused on why I glommed on to Lent in the first place.  Now we’re addressing the substance of the change I’m trying to make.  Brian wrote:

I disagree [that the feeling of having cheated someone is a bad pleasure to cultivate], or at any rate don’t feel that you’ve demonstrated that sufficiently. I could make the argument, as you almost do, that “getting one over on someone” is a natural human feeling, and you’re finding a healthy outlet for it. Or I could argue that what you’re feeling isn’t a sense of having outfoxed someone, but rather just a misinterpretation of your pleasure at getting something for nothing – since it’s often the case that doing that does involve taking advantage of something, you’ve been conditioned to associate the two implicitly.

I think the basic point on which Brian and I disagree is that I think these feelings are unsafe at any dose.  I don’t want to channel this attitude differently, I want to burn it out of myself.  For me, there’s no such thing as a healthy outlet for these impulses.

We imagine that we have certain immutable tendencies or faults, so, if we have to express them, we should do it safely.  Punch a pillow, play a video game, do visualizations, vent to a friend.  One way or another, those flaws will surface, so you might as well be careful about their manifestations.  As a transhumanist, this kind of concession to my character depresses me, and, fortunately, the social science is on my side.

The ASL word for ‘habit’ looks like bound wrists for a reason. Choose your constraints wisely.

David McRaney, author of You Are Not So Smart, did a nice rundown of the research on venting and catharsis.  Here’s a representative study by Bushman, Baumeister, and Stack.  Subjects wrote an essay, and half were told their essays were great and half got back a comment that said “This is the worst essay I have ever read!”  They got a little break before the next step of the experiment, and could pick an activity from a list that included “play a game, watch some comedy, read a story, or punch a bag.”  And then they got to play a game against the person who had graded their essay.

The game was simple, press a button as fast as you can. If you lose, you get blasted with a horrible noise. When you win, blast your opponent. They could set the volume the other person had to endure, a setting between zero and 10 with 10 being 105 decibels.

On average, the punching bag group set the volume as high as 8.5. The timeout group set it to 2.47.

The people who got angry didn’t release their anger on the punching bag, it was sustained by it. The group which cooled off lost their desire for vengeance.

In subsequent studies where the subjects chose how much hot sauce the other person had to eat, the punching bag group piled it on. The cooled off group did not.

When the punching bag group later did word puzzles where they had to fill in the blanks to words like ch_ _e, they were more likely to pick choke instead of chase.

Now here’s the kicker: in another iteration of the study, the researchers found that if people believe venting is useful (in this case, they read an article to that effect) they’re much more likely to choose the punching bag.  But, even though they think they’re cooling down, they still score as much more aggressive in the competitions, same as the people who weren’t primed to think venting would help.

Talking about blowing your lid, losing your cool, etc, reinforces a feeling of powerless over our actions and reactions.  We’re managing them, not changing them, and, as the studies show, we’re not managing them particularly well.

So when I notice myself falling on bad habits, I don’t want to to write them off as a safe manifestation of my faults.  I want to disrupt this feedback loop wherever I can and reinforce the habit of spotting this tendency and immediately trying to subvert it.  There’s no safe dosage for solipsism.

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  • Ferny

    Though I’m more curious about the following:
    The thing I’m thinking is that the people venting might have even angrier responses with the venting, but we have no way of testing what they would have chosen beforehand.

    One study prompted venting, the other allowed it, but what is the comparison between natural response versus opportunity to vent? Like, am I likely to be angrier without the venting, but I’m pretty angry already even with it?

  • Brian S

    It seems like your post is saying “Punching a bag when you’re angry might seem like a ‘healthy outlet for natural human feelings’ but actually it isn’t helpful and we shouldn’t do it!”

    But what you’re actually saying, I think, is that punching a bag doesn’t release the anger or desire for vengeance. I think you are making the assumption that desire for vengeance is a bad thing. If you believe in retributive justice (as does our legal system), maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

    Regardless, inclinations such as anger (or perhaps even a smug satisfaction after getting the good end of a deal or getting something for free) come from somewhere. Are they just primitive evolutionary relics from a time when we had to rely on them for survival? Maybe. But even if that’s the case, there is probably a way we can take advantage of these inclinations. Athletes sometimes play better when angry, for example. You frown upon your smug satisfaction, but why? Isn’t that just your body telling you “Good job, Leah! You got some food and didn’t have to pay for it!” (Are you worried you’re going to get high off that feeling and start stealing things?)

    I mean, I think we have enough discretion to know which circumstances are positive and which are negative. For example, I drink alcohol, but I know my limit – the point at which another drink is a bad thing instead of a good one – and I stick to it rather than just cut out alcohol entirely for fear that I couldn’t control it. Why can’t we do the same with anger and taking-advantage-of-something satisfaction?

    You seem to champion the rational mind over the emotional impulses, so…if you rationally know that both you and the offeror benefit from your taking advantage of free food deals…why are you intent on stamping out this behavior? In your quest to avoid letting your impulses control your behavior…aren’t you letting your impulses do exactly that?

    TL;DR – Free food is great. I still don’t get why you’d give it up, or why you’re feeling any guilt about taking advantage of it. Nobody’s twisting the hands of the people offering these deals.

    • deiseach

      I think, Brian, it’s because people who go around thinking they’re so much smarter than everyone else and so much cleverer are really unpleasant. Haven’t we all known someone who liked to boast of putting things over on others, or who jeered about the suckers he/she could fool into helping them?

      I’ve been that person who plumed myself on being smarter/better than the rest around me, and I didn’t like myself for it, nor do I think I was better for it.

      The people giving the free food are doing it for a commercial reason, so Leah is not ‘really’ putting one over on them. However, there are nice and there are not-as-nice ways of commercially manipulating one’s customers, and exchanging food-for-entertainment is one of the nicer ways. So cultivating a habit of gratitude engenders a virtuous cycle, whereby Leah expresses her appreciation for the cupcakes and cheese to the respective shopowners; they are gratified by how well things are working and this encourages them to continue with it; and the end result is more delicious baked goods and/or cheesy delights for all!


  • Patrick

    First, your study doesn’t support your point at all. Second, if your goal is to condition a behavioral response, you’re going about it wrong.

    The study cited is evaluating whether acting aggressively prolongs the duration of feelings of aggression. It does. The study cited does NOT evaluate whether acting aggressively in response to feelings of aggression increases or decreases the likelihood of feeling aggression in the future. It is not a study about character modification.

    What you’ve got is a situation where a particular stimulus causes you to feel a particular way, and you’d prefer that it not. What you’ve done as a reaction is 1) feel guilt, 2) deny yourself a pleasure, and 3) remove yourself from the situation. That’s most likely the response you’re training into yourself. Personally, I think its an unhealthy response that only treats a symptom, and does nothing to address the issue you say is motivating your efforts. You’re not training yourself towards more mature emotional reactions to stimuli. You’re training yourself to avoid free food, using a negative reinforcement.

    Lets say your dog barks at the mailman. You don’t just want the dog to not do that, you want the dog to be the sort of dog who doesn’t bark at mailmen. How far do you think you will get if you just prevent the dog from encountering the mailman for a few weeks? During those few weeks he won’t bark at the mailman. Great. But at the end of those weeks he’ll still be the sort of dog that barks at mailmen. If you want him to change what sort of dog he is, you need him to encounter MORE mailmen. What you want is “sees mailman” -> “calm response” instead of “sees mailman” -> “excited response.” A better technique would involve rewarding the proper response, not avoiding the stimuli.

    • HBanan

      The dogs I have known would be thrilled to encounter numerous mailmen all day long and to bark at each one. Dogs like barking, especially when their targets quickly leave the porch, terrified of the brave, brave dog. Mailmen are especially fun because, unlike guests, they arrive and then scamper off almost immediately. The dog doesn’t know it’s because the mailman was going to just leave an envelope anyway. Mark Twain like that idea too, that people who avoid temptation would be more prone to falling into it; he was wrong, though his story was entertaining. Leah doesn’t want to just break herself of a bad attitude, but to become more grateful. It is easier to be grateful for things you don’t get very often. Leah does know what she wants from her own psyche, and she’s going to try a method of obtaining that. I think it will work. I guess we’ll find out in 6 weeks!

  • Katie

    Patrick and Brian make good points.

    I’m not sure I understand why you even feel like you’re getting one over someone in the first place. It only makes sense if you subscribe to radically individualistic ideas about economic activity and take seriously the rhetoric about needing to personally “earn” everything you enjoy. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a very big household, but getting something for what seems like nothing, just because it’s around or someone wants attention or whatever, seems perfectly ordinary to me. (Of course, it’s not actually nothing, because you’re expected to contribute at some point as well, but it doesn’t feel transactional.) I don’t feel a moral imperative to keep effort and enjoyment tethered in my brain, and I’ve never found overly strict concepts of personal property particularly persuasive.

    I guess I want to know why you’re more interested in avoiding the feeling than re-evaluating the thought process behind it. I could be totally wrong about what thought process that is, but I’d be curious to find out.