Dynamist Blog

The Warm Little Boy vs. The Cold Little Boy

Along with the setup, here's one of my favorite passages from Thomas Schelling's essay, "The Intimate Contest for Self-Control":

People behave sometimes as if they had two selves, one who wants clean lungs and long life and another who adores tobacco, one who yearns to improve himself by reading Adam Smith on self-command (in The Theory of Moral Sentiments) and another who would rather watch an old movie on television. The two are in continual contest for control.

As a boy I saw a movie about Admiral Byrd's Antarctic expedition and was impressed that as a boy he had gone outdoors in shirtsleeves to toughen himself against the cold. I resolved to go to bed at night with one blanket too few. That decision to go to bed minus one blanket was made by a warm boy. Another boy awoke cold in the night, too cold to retrieve the blanket, cursing the boy who had removed the blanket and resolving to restore it tomorrow. But the next bedtime it was the warm boy again, dreaming of Antarctica, who got to make the decision. And he always did it again.

Aside from its personal charms, this passage is great because it isn't clear which little boy we should root for. Is it good self-discipline or foolish fantasy to leave off the blanket?

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