Social Desirability vs. the Divided Will

Social Desirability Bias is the psychological theory that people lie or insinuate untruths when the truth is less socially desirable. "I can't come to your party because...”

Social Desirability vs. the Divided Will

Social Desirability Bias is the psychological theory that people lie or insinuate untruths when the truth is less socially desirable. The economist Bryan Caplan introduced this concept with the example, "I can't come to your party because...” I have to work, my dog is sick, I made other plans, etc. In this diction, we imply necessity as a sort of rhetorical device: by denying our own agency we attempt to insulate ourselves from responsibility for our choices (at least in the mind of our listener). Dodging consequences in this way is so common that a more 'honest' version is an insult or a punchline: "I can't come to your party because I don't want to."

I agree with the author that regular appeals to necessity are unhealthy - eventually our outward denial of agency must color our thinking about ourselves. Every reflexive, convenient "I can't" assigns a bit more unearned authority to the inertia of the status quo.

Yet the author goes on to describe addiction and mental health narratives ("I can't stop drinking") as an identical phenomena; which is to say, the alcoholic could stop drinking this moment but doesn't wish to, so he tries to appease his listener. The premiss that the alcoholic - 0r any human being - has such a unified power of will strikes me as a dangerous naïveté.

As an antidote to this overly simplistic conception of willpower, I recalled the more complex and profound duality of will ensconced in Paul's Romans 7:19:

"For the good that I would do, I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do."

Akrasia, the inability of the will to act up to the decision of our judgment, may not be an economic concept; but to assume it out of existence elides something significant (if troublesome) about the human experience.

Inspired by The Diction of Social Desirability Bias

Bonus: Under the Volcano, one of my favorite novels, captures a brilliant addict's internal struggle between intention and willpower.