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You vs. temptation: Why self-control has gotten so hard

Human nature hasn't changed, but the ease of indulgence – from food to credit cards to the Internet – has. The good news is that we can outsmart our impulses.

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The latest grim news in our battle with our waistlines is that the problem is going global: A new report in the medical journal The Lancet has found that the rate of obesity worldwide has doubled since 1980. Some 500 million people now qualify, and three times that number are "merely" overweight.

That individuals the world over increasingly find themselves in such straits is in its way good news, despite the dire medical implications. Traditionally, after all, the world's difficulty with hunger was that there was never enough food. Perhaps someday, if we are fortunate, obesity will supplant famine altogether in the catalog of the world's problems.

If it does, it will only provide further evidence that in the future, for more and more of us, our greatest challenge will be managing our own appetites and addictions in an environment of expanding freedom and affluence. Meeting this challenge won't be easy. Humans evolved to cope with an environment of relative scarcity and respond powerfully to stimuli – fats and sweets, for example – that were vastly less common in our ancestral landscape than they are today.

Human nature hasn't changed, but the landscape of temptation sure has. Technology is a leading culprit. From refrigeration to credit cards to automobiles to the Internet, technology makes it possible for more and more people to live surrounded by "supernormal" stimuli. Technology goes hand-in-glove with capitalism, which plays a large but complex role as well.

Seduction at every turn

In our work lives, the discipline and demands of commerce have typically been effective at inculcating moderation. But it's a very different story when we get off duty; in our lives as consumers, capitalism beckons and seduces us at every turn to indulge.


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