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The Science of Self-Control [Paperback]

Howard Rachlin
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 31, 2004 0674013573 978-0674013575

This book proposes a new science of self-control based on the principles of behavioral psychology and economics. Claiming that insight and self-knowledge are insufficient for controlling one's behavior, Howard Rachlin argues that the only way to achieve such control--and ultimately happiness--is through the development of harmonious patterns of behavior.

Most personal problems with self-control arise because people have difficulty delaying immediate gratification for a better future reward. The alcoholic prefers to drink now. If she is feeling good, a drink will make her feel better. If she is feeling bad, a drink will make her feel better. The problem is that drinking will eventually make her feel worse. This sequence--the consistent choice of a highly valued particular act (such as having a drink or a smoke) that leads to a low-valued pattern of acts--is called "the primrose path."

To avoid it, the author presents a strategy of "soft commitment," consisting of the development of valuable patterns of behavior that bridge over individual temptations. He also proposes, from economics, the concept of the substitutability of "positive addictions," such as social activity or exercise, for "negative addictions," such as drug abuse or overeating.

Self-control may be seen as the interaction with one's own future self. Howard Rachlin shows that indeed the value of the whole--of one's whole life--is far greater than the sum of the values of its individual parts.

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Editorial Reviews


This book combines behavioral psychology and economics in an unusual fashion. Of particular importance is his emphasis on the sensitivity of individual choices to the social environment. I recommend Rachlin's new book to everyone with an interest in the psychological foundations of individual behavior. (Gary S. Becker, Nobel laureate in Economics)

This excellent book contains the kind of brilliant and unique insights that the behavior-analytic community has come to expect from Howard Rachlin. Its contribution, however, will be accessible more broadly. Almost any intelligent person will find much to reflect on here, relevant to many social problems and his or her own life. (William M. Baum, Professor of Psychology, University of New Hampshire)

This is a lucid and important book that is chock full of insights into why people behave the way they do. Rachlin reviews research and theory on self-control with a suitable blend of scientific rigor and lively prose. The book advances the field by presenting in a systematic fashion what is known about one of the central phenomena in behavior, self-control, and by enhancing (with the help of some illuminating and engaging examples) our understanding of self-control and how it may be understood in the larger context of choice. (Edmund Fantino, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of California, San Diego)

It is rare that an academic psychology book can change your life. This one can. It combines ideas from the behavioral psychology laboratory with modern economic reasoning to provide a theoretical account of human impulsiveness, addiction (including multiple addictions), relapse, craving, and commitment (what a clinician like me would call the psychoanalytic conflict between pleasure and reality principles). Although Rachlin denies that this is a self-help book, it contains numerous insights and prescriptions relating to alcoholism, gambling, heroin addiction, eating disorders, and other serous human conflicts. (Marvin Frankel Contemporary Psychology)

Howard Rachlin has spent much of his illustrious career exploring the science of self-control, the subject of this fascinating book. In our opinion the book may be appreciated in at least four overlapping ways. First of all, this is a textbook on self-control suited for an advanced undergraduate or graduate class. Second, it is a theoretical and empirical primer for understanding self-control, including some useful general applications to self-control in our everyday lives. Third, it is a forum for presenting some intriguing principles about behavior, especially as related to self-control. And finally, it serves as a vehicle to advocate a broad general theory of behavior, teleological behaviorism...The powerful and intriguing analysis presented in The Science of Self-Control has broad applicability, whether or not we accept the author's view of teleological behaviorism. This is indeed 'a good read.' (Edmund Fantino and Stephanie Stolarz-Fantino Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior)

Howard Rachlin's The Science of Self-Control is a masterwork by a master scientist. Written with elegant simplicity, exquisite precision and admirable economy, this brief 220-page book combines experimental detail, astute generalizations, mathematical rigor, and philosophical breadth-all the elements of first-rate science. Not a handbook for practitioners but a treatise on theory, it nevertheless includes many useful insights for persons seeking more felicitous ways to manage behavior, their own or that of others. Such is its authority that I expect it to become a fixture in the libraries of experimental psychologists and practicing psychotherapists, but such is the grace and clarity of its writing that I also think it will be read with pleasure by many intelligent laymen. (Max Hocutt Metapsychology)


This book combines behavioral psychology and economics in an unusual fashion. Of particular importance is his emphasis on the sensitivity of individual choices to the social environment. I recommend Rachlin's new book to everyone with an interest in the psychological foundations of individual behavior. (Gary S. Becker, Nobel laureate in Economics) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (March 31, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674013573
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674013575
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 6.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #985,152 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
54 of 56 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Insightful science, not practically oriented October 27, 2002
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Rachlin does an excellent job of deconstructing the concept of willpower, reducing it to a small number of skills and abilities which can be directly studied. His central thesis is that our ability to delay gratification for future gain is based on the act of "chunking" experiences. If you always make your decisions based on how you'll feel five minutes from now, then you'll never stay on a diet or learn to play the violin. Even for someone who's gotten past the initial hard work, the extended and deep pleasure that comes from (say) reading a challenging novel or kicking butt at football may be overwhelmed by the extraordiary low-cost but unfulfilling pleasure of vegging in front of the television or surfing random book reviews on the web.
Rachlin uses some very clear language and some very confusing diagrams to explain how this works and how we can work to change, but his practical methods are a little naive. His construction of drug abuse is also highly questionable, although as a general model for self-perpetuating but valueless activity it is worthwhile. This book will give you a fascinating new perspective on why even good people can be lazy, stupid, or self-destructive, but don't expect detailed self-help exercises.
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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars About Smokers, Alcoholics and Pigeons December 9, 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Rachlin's book has been a wonderful read for several reasons.

1. Rachlin defends the approach of pure behaviorism (that relies only on observations and doesn't need to know anything on internal states) in a clever way. In particular, watch out for the blue coat/brown coat example.

2. He explains very clearly the notion of hyperbolic discounting: the switch in preferences as the time horizon changes. Self-control is the contrary of hyperbolic discounting. Too simple? I don't see a case in my life that can't be framed in that fashion. Same thing with other notions like the 'primrose path'.

3. The examples are mostly about alcoholics, smokers and pigeons. That is, about all of us. After you read this book, you will be convinced that either you are a pigeon, or you often act like one.

4. Towards the end of the book, Rachlin suggests that self-control can be seen in a game-theoretic setting where the players are the 'I' of today and the 'I' of tomorrow. Although not supported by facts, this interpretation looks like a wonderful way to attain more self-control -- provided you think of the 'you' of tomorrow as your partner and friend, with whom you want to collaborate.

I already had a positive view of behavioral psychology, but considered self-control as essentially in the realm of the cognitive. Rachlin convinced me otherwise.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Impulsiveness versus Self-control July 5, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition
I read this book as I wanted to learn more about intertemporal discounting and why we value thing less, the more they are in the future. The book nicely elaborates on this theme but that's by far not all it does. It goes on to show why intertemporal discounting is analogous to probabilistic discounting and social cooperation and how, once these behaviors get considered holistically, they will lead almost naturally to a concept of self.

Highly fascinating book that I would recommend to all who want to know more about this mesmerizing teleological behaviorist's subject.
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