Michigan, Philosophy & Psychiatry

Error and limits of control

Humans have remarkably developed capacities for cognitive control, but this raises a puzzle: Why do we so often fail to exert control over self-destructive desires? One widely accepted kind of explanation is that the person chooses to abandon control because of the aversiveness associated with their desires and the relief obtained when giving in (trichotillomania provides a good example). It is more controversial, however, if there are genuine limits on control such that a person is, in some interesting sense, genuinely powerless to prevent giving in. In this talk, I propose one model that can make sense of such limits. Exerting cognitive control is, I argue, susceptible to rare errors. Even if the point probability of such errors is low, so long as the person faces sufficiently many recurrent desires, the cumulative probability of a self-control lapse rises inexorably towards certainty. I apply this “fallibility” model to the case of addiction.