Know thy (future) self!


The problem of akrasia, the weakness of the will, is mostly discussed as a problem of control, in many variants. For example, the theory of hyperbolic time preferences suggests that there are preference reversals against we cannot resist, such as preferring a smaller reward that is near to us over a larger reward that is far away in the future. Solving such internal conflicts requires control mechanisms. Yet, this idea always raises the analytical mess of implicitly positing a homunculus, as I pointed out in an earlier blog (October 23, 2017).

After reading the paper by Mitchell et al. (2010) about the role of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC) in determining how people refer to the future, I reinstate my point that Mead’s distinction between ‘I’ and ‘me’ offers an alternative view that avoids the homunculus trap. The authors have shown experimentally that different degrees of patience may be explained by different capabilities that people have in imagining their own future selves and, correspondingly, developing emotional stances towards them. This partly matches with their capabilities to imagine other selves in similar tasks of judgment. That means, if I fail to stick to my plan to do exercises every day because of actual distractions which appear more rewarding at that moment, the reason is that I cannot adequately imagine how my future self will feel about it. This is different from a lack of control or divergent valuations, because we might say that the decision situation is just represented mentally in a way that directly triggers my choice. In other words, the solution would not be to increase the power of controls, but to accentuate, detail and enhance the picture of my future self.

Mitchell et al. discuss their results in a sophisticated way, pointing to the difficulties in distinguishing between self-reference in the strict sense and other cognitive capabilities in establishing and judging counterfactuals. The more recent survey of brain connectivity studies by Li et al. (2014) has shown that the vMPFC plays a central role in connecting different brain areas that relate to the processing of emotions in the context of social cognition, and is therefore also an important part of the default mode network which often is interpreted in toto as enabling reference to the self or continuously engaging in constructing the self.

Therefore, I think that these results strongly support my suggestion that Mead’s approach may offer an alternative framework for understanding human behaviour. If akrasia is mainly a problem of imagining ourselves, and even feeling empathy with our imagined future selves, this is a specific form of relating ‘I’ and ‘me’. As I have outlined in previous blog posts (e.g. June 6, 2017), Mead suggests that we cannot know our ‘I’ directly, but only via intermediation by the ‘me’, which is the internalized view that we entertain of others’ views of ourselves. Although the ‘I’ is the irreducible source of action, we can only conceive of ourselves as a ‘me’, thus interpreting the ‘I’ through a special cognitive and emotional lens. In nutshell, Mead’s theory is the theory of the ‘social brain’, in more recent terms. In other words, relating to our future self is a problem of social cognition, not individual cognition. Since the ‘me’ is seen as reflecting different roles that an individual plays in groups, it is enabled by counterfactual thinking, thus relating the two aspects that are pointed at in the Mitchell et al. paper.

Indeed, this study easily fits into that conceptual framework. People construct their ‘me’ in different ways, and hence end up with different ways to feel about their future selves. Ultimately, it is a question how firm we establish and maintain our individual identity through time, as I have argued in other contributions (such as in Herrmann-Pillath 2017). If we normatively diagnose akrasia, and consider this as undesirable, the solution cannot be found in control or external incentives, but changing and strengthening one’s own personal identity, in terms of an imagined self. This is fundamental to create the motivation for overcoming akrasia. I think it is remarkable that Adam Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, already pointed at ‘imagination’ as the most important power of human mind.

For more on Mead, visit my Research Gate site where I have set up an INSOSCI project entry. You find a working paper on Mead there.


Cited literature

Herrmann-Pillath, Carsten, ‘Performativity, Identity and Economic Naturalism: A Comment on John Davis’ “Economics, Neuroeconomics, and the Problem of Identity” ‘, in: Schmollers Jahrbuch 136: 1-10

Li, Wanqing, Xiaoqin Mai, und Chao Liu. ‘The default mode network and social understanding of others: what do brain connectivity studies tell us’. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 8 (2014).

Mitchell, Jason P., Jessica Schirmer, Daniel L. Ames, und Daniel T. Gilbert. ‘Medial Prefrontal Cortex Predicts Intertemporal Choice’. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 23, 4 (April 2011): 857–66.

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