On January 4, 2023

In New Year’s resolutions, when it comes to conscience, less is more

By Robert S. Emmons

Editor’s note: Robert S. Emmons has maintained a private psychiatric practice in Vermont for 33 years. He is a member of the volunteer clinical faculty at UVM Larner College of Medicine, where he has taught in the fields of professionalism, ethics and psychoanalytic psychotherapy.

It’s hard to wrestle old habits to the ground. We all know that New Year’s resolutions too often falter and provide only fodder for self-criticism.

A look at the connections between conscience, moral life and social hierarchy shows us another path to more satisfying lives.

The unconscious mind can be envisioned as housing a library of algorithms, shortcuts that enable one to make decisions, large and small, without expending undue energy on the problems that have already been solved.

Conscience consists of the section of the library that pertains to life with others, along with a hardwired system of reward and punishment that enables one to learn new rules and follow the old. We like to imagine that we reason through dilemmas of right and wrong according to the moral codes we profess, but in mental life, automatic shortcuts tend to win out over conscious problem-solving.

Conscience enables us to survive and thrive in social hierarchy. Family is the first of the many social organizations we will participate in throughout our lifespans. Social life requires some form of hierarchy and regulation to keep things organized, and a family is no exception.

Moral rules are instilled in children through combinations of reward and punishment administered by parents. The external incentives of childhood give way in adult life to internal incentives: Moral satisfaction can serve as a springboard to success, and the fear of self-criticism can be a good way to get unpleasant things done.

Once we leave our families, we encounter new social hierarchies that vie to harness our hard-wired systems of reward and punishment, and our wishes for group affiliation, in order to install algorithms that serve their ends into our unconscious libraries. As social hierarchies multiply, and existing ones get more complex, more and more rules are loaded into our libraries, even though total mental bandwidth is limited.

It’s not natural to work against one’s own interests, so it takes extra mental effort to follow Other People’s Algorithms. Our minds turn into mush as we struggle to comply with externally imposed, other-serving rules, rather than joyfully and playfully working out our own algorithms for the problems that are meaningful in our lives.

Habits can be understood as the unsatisfying compromises that result when conflicts arise between self-directed and other-serving algorithms.

As a way to deal with habits, New Year’s resolutions are typically framed as moral imperatives: “I promise to myself …”  If we accept the premise that an unhelpful moral algorithm lurks beneath the surface of every habit, then we can see that adding yet another rule is unlikely to cure the problem of too many rules.

A year-end review might be used more productively to evaluate the library of algorithms, in order to delete the ones that do not serve personal wellbeing. Let’s call this method “pruning the conscience.”

To illustrate, imagine a hypothetical person who feels frustrated that others regularly railroad them, overlooking their needs. Conscience pruning in this case starts with a search for the unconscious moral rule that gets in the way. Upon reflection, our person recognizes that they grew up in a family where accommodating others was considered a virtue, and following one’s own interests was labeled selfish.

Now, in adult life, the imperative to please others throws sand into the gears of solving even a simple problem like planning daily exercise, so personal fitness falls by the wayside. It’s time for this person to dial back the childhood rule. An optimal motivational slogan makes the link between behavior and results: “When I look out for myself, I’ll like myself and others better.”

The moral algorithms worth keeping show us how to meet each other on equal footing and treat each other with consideration. Regular pruning of the conscience frees up mental bandwidth so we can live more happily and effectively with our families, friends and neighbors. That moves us toward a world with a lot fewer rules, less blame and punishment, and a lot more flexibility, tolerance and compassion.

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