June 7, 2011
You’re all following the story of Anthony Weiner and his escapades. The common view is that he had extraordinarily bad judgment and low self-control. That makes sense if you believe humans have something called free will. But let’s hold the free will argument for later and look at the question of his self-control.
To begin, let’s agree that as a general rule, the more you do something, the better you get. Practice makes perfect. People who do lots of public speaking become smoother and more confident. People who live near train tracks probably sleep better in noisy environments. People who live at high altitudes can exercise longer in that environment than people who don’t. Likewise, if self-control exists, it is probably the sort of skill you can improve with practice.
On the other hand, research has shown that self-control is diminished in all areas if you try to resist a temptation in any particular area. For example, if you successfully resist eating chocolate, you might have trouble resisting a glass of wine. But that sort of temptation has more to do with the moment. By analogy, a weight lifter gets stronger in the long run through repetition, but immediately after a strenuous workout he can lift less than before he started. So timing is important with any skill.
If we assume that self-control is something you can strengthen over time, but might be diminished in any specific hour if it gets overtaxed, that’s the model we should use to examine Weiner’s self-control.
We know a few things about Weiner – too much, actually. Apparently he is like catnip for women. He’s powerful. He’s smart. He’s tall. He’s famous. He’s ambitious. He has a way with words. He has all of his hair. He’s built like Wolverine. He also lives in the DC area, which has (correct me if I’m wrong) the highest concentration of young, single women of anywhere in the country. That’s a random factoid I remember from somewhere.
In this environment, Weiner probably had to exercise his self-control more than anyone you have ever met. Before marriage, we can assume he gave in to temptation often. But I’ll bet he had to practice his self-control a lot, just so he’d have time to exercise and do his job. In other words, he has far more practice at self-control than 99% of the public. If you look at his physique – and we all have – it’s also obvious that he has a tremendous amount of self-control in terms of fitness and diet. There’s also no evidence that he smokes, does drugs, or drinks too much. He probably studied hard in school too, or he wouldn’t have the job he has. In other words, this man is probably a world-class self-controller.
But self-control is only part of the equation. The human body has a way of making you so horny that you’re literally stupid. This phenomenon is unevenly distributed across the general population. Horniness in males is most closely linked to testosterone. And Weiner was a testosterone machine. Here’s an abbreviated list of activities that boost testosterone in men:
1. Eating right
2. Exercise – especially weight-lifting
3. Avoiding cigarettes, drugs, alcohol
4. Being around attractive women
5. Power, winning, attention
6. Sleep (Weiner has no kids and sets his own schedule)
Weiner also has the classic sharp facial features associated with high testosterone. He probably started in the upper range naturally and sent his levels into the stratosphere through his healthy lifestyle. And it is worth mentioning that his lifestyle is exactly what any doctor would recommend.
Now we get into the gray area of free will and self-control. The mechanistic description of a “mistake” in this context is when the urge (testosterone in this case) is higher than the counter-urge (fear of consequences). In theory, some amount of urge will trump any amount of fear, including the fear of death itself. This equation would be true for any healthy male, from priests (obviously) to presidents (more obviously). And Weiner probably had testosterone shooting out of his ear holes.
Against this urge was his self-control, which I have argued is probably in the top 1% if you had some way to compare him to the general public. The problem is that his urges were also probably in the top 1%. One particular urge (horniness) lops about 50% off of a man’s IQ. You can blame evolution for that. I assume evolution favored men who took stupid risks to get sex because those are the genes that were most often passed down. As a result, modern men are wired so that a boost in horniness shuts off half of the brain.
For the benefit of society, we have a responsibility to condemn Weiner’s inappropriate behavior. Doing so will increase the fear level for other married people and make it harder for chemistry-driven urges to win in the future. And so I join you in condemning Weiner for his actions. Shame is useful. But it is also objectively true – or at least highly likely – that Weiner has more self-control than 99% of the people who condemn him. And it is also objectively true that the “devil” that raised his level of temptation to the danger zone was a combination of healthy living and public service. That’s not an excuse. It’s just context.