The Everyday Hypocrite - musings on paradoxical behavior: Part 1

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For all the heights it has touched and potential it holds, human nature can be comedically absurd and erratic. Admiration abounds for individuals who embody unwavering self-control and integrity, yet achieving such distinction demands considerable effort, steadfast perseverance, and, at times, a touch of fortune.

The failure to self-exert and act according to one's best judgement/knowledge is an age-old problem. Accounts of it has captured social vernacular in many forms, from akrasia, to procrastination, low conscientiousness, low willpower, laziness, etc.

The topic holds deep personal significance for me, as I frequently grapple with the chasm between the "ideal me" (encompassing actions and principles I staunchly advocate for) and the "actual, everyday me" (who succumbs to even the most transparent and well-acknowledged errors, consistently). Wrestling with self-discipline so persistently leaves me feeling as though I could never truly remain faithful to my own essence, a realization that hits hard.

executive Function

One root of all of the mentioned problems may be traced to executive function - a person's ability to regulate their behavior, inhibiting habitual patterns and reflexes, managing attention, "executing" plans, etc.1 And it's a variable, replenishment-requiring resource. No wonder it's so difficult to rely on sheer will consistently.

pathological Executive Dysfunction

A normal, healthy brain, when provided the right conditions (enough nutrition, sleep and rest, physical activity, etc), can hold its own for enough-amounts of durations when required. It gets tricky though for people with neuro-developmental disorders - such as ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder - among others2, which entail executive function hardships in differing ways.

ADHD, for one, makes it difficult for the prefrontal cortex of one's brain (the hotspot of executive function) to exert control over the rest of the brain. It is traditionally explained by poorly developed connections between the prefrontal cortex and a subcortical structure named as "striatum"3. The atypical development in connections across the brain is a common theme for ADHD.

Autism, in some sense, is the opposite. Although there's a lot of variety in how the disorder could affect an individual (aptly called a spectrum disorder), it's often characterized by a very high-performing prefrontal cortex, but incompletely developed limbic and subcortical brain regions4. Autistic impairments in executive function hence tend to involve getting way too fixated at a thing, not knowing when to move on. The fixation also results in difficulties to be flexible.

treatment and crutches

Given the large number of possible causes to executive dysfunction, diagnosing the exact cause(s) is necessary to precisely tailor treatment plans. Often, people that get the right treatment can have life-changing benefits.

There are also multiple treatments available for each individual cause, and what works for an individual may not work for another even with similar diagnostic profiles. It's best to work with trained professionals, hence, to discover what medical (and non-medical!) crutches is optimal for one.

To use a crutch shouldn't be something to be ashamed of, especially when it is necessary and provably effective.

compensatory behavior

When living with an impairment for too long, it's in the nature of humans to figure out workarounds implicitly5, that diminish the negative effects of the deficit to varying extents. But they aren't always without cost.

Following are a couple of popular examples. Both have obvious tradeoffs.


As previously described, the fluency of executive control requires regular replenishment. Over-exertion and the resulting burnout can naturally lead to rebounds, revenge-procrastination, long-hauls of slumps and negative effects beyond just self-control.

other conditions leading to worsened executive function

Any mental health disorder could have a negative effect on executive function. The effects needn't be permanent, but impactful and unpredictable enough to cause concerns. Depression, anxiety, panic disorders, OCD - each when presenting its symptoms, logically, could capture one's mind too tight to leave much space for self control.

Lack of conduciveness in an environment could also spark obstacles. Constant bombardment with distractions sure is a quick way to get fatigued even when at the top of one's temptation-inhibition game.

Traumatic-brain injuries and other neural damages could also, very obviously, have a contribution.

Some studies6 show that even uncertainty is related to worsened executive function.

on resistance and procrastination

One of the most popular topic in productivity-literature, happens to be another example of paradoxical behavior. It doesn't always occur due to an impaired executive function. Procrastination is actually an evolutionary-selected function. And even in modern contexts, it could be very useful - from helping spark creativity to helping avoid impulsive decisions.

The problem arises when procrastination turns maladaptive and difficult to control

emotional dysregulation

Technically, any negative emotion could cause procrastination and resistance. More aptly described, it's the anticipation of a negative emotion or experience - be it fear, shame, embarrassment, sadness, or pain - that can cause one to either freeze, or flee (escaping through distractions, for example). Actually facing negative consequences also tends to skew our neural predictive models, resulting in increased likelihood of future maladaptive procrastination.

familiarity bias

Put simply, we tend to be too attached to the comfortable and familiar. They make us feel safe. That results in procrastination for anything that requires getting out of one's comfort zone. It's related to the effect mentioned in emotional dysregulation and the instinctive avoidance of negative emotions.

See also, creative resistance - a term coined by Steven Pressfield to describe a "universal force that has one sole mission: to keep things as they are"

other factors

on general akrasia

"Akrasia" is an ancient concept, popularized first by Greek philosophers. It's a philosophical precedent to what we call paradoxical behavior today.

strong habits

When one is too used to acting a certain way or reacting a certain manner, it's imminent to be akrasic when the matter of judgement is in stark contrast.

It could also work the other way around - developing strong positive habits could help one stay on track easier than exerting raw willpower

temporal discounting

We are more driven by instant-gratifications than we'd like. The evolutionary explanation is its advantage in the era of our ancestors. Conditions have changed now, but behavioral artifacts remain - temporal discounting being one of them.

inability to correctly judge/evaluate an action without hindsight

This includes situations where an individual has some understanding or intuition that their choice might not be the best, but they lack the complete foresight to fully appreciate the consequences or they discount future outcomes in favor of immediate gratification (also courtesy to temporal discounting).

An example scenario: ignoring initial doubts due to loneliness or societal pressure, an individual rushes into a relationship. Compatibility issues later emerge, confirming overlooked reservations and leading to regret.

what the philosophers had to say about it

contains excerpts from the wikipedia article on akrasia

blows to self esteem

Repetitively failing to make it, especially when conditioned to place high importance to keeping one's word and being true to oneself, could naturally lead to self-esteem and confidence problems. Which could further create a vicious loop either indirectly (fueling some other mental health issue such as worry, depression, hopelessness, rumination, etc), or more directly - by getting a sense of futility that makes trying at all seem pointless.

free will and despair

Sometimes, it's too difficult not to consider if we have any control at all. At a fundamental level, that's what the debate of free will is all about.

A feeling of agency, as argued by Charles Duhigg7, is a very common requisite for motivation (which is compatible with illusionary freewill). For me, it extends beyond, to needing to believe that having agency is actually possible, and not just as an illusion. I would love to have it proved someday, but for now, I acknowledge the epistemological uncertainty surrounding it. Tl;dr - I am biased towards the existence of free-will.

But, as described in blows to self esteem, when one repeatedly has experience penalize a certain belief, it's almost inevitable to question the very foundations of one's reasons to live. Venturing down such paths of thought can lead one into an abyss, potentially culminating in profound despair and a nihilistic depression that lingers for an extended period.

Free will and executive function could each stand exclusively. But for someone attaching high importance to the "reality" of things, without free will, would there be a point to executive function? Not to me, not at this period in time.

concluding remarks

This has been a rather meandering discourse on everyday paradoxical behavior, but with hardly any mention of resolution strategies. The original draft also had the solution-oriented points included in the same post, but I split it up to make it less intimidating to publish.

When published, you shall be able to find part-2 here.

Do you face similar issues? How do you generally cope? I would appreciate reach-outs for discussion, advice, rants, rectifications, or anything at all!



for a few studies expanding on the underlying neurobiology of executive function, see this, this and this


"The dopamine pathways and norepinephrine pathways which project to the prefrontal cortex and striatum are directly responsible for modulating executive function (cognitive control of behaviour), motivation, reward perception, and motor function; these pathways are known to play a central role in the pathophysiology of ADHD. Larger models of ADHD with additional pathways have been proposed as well." (Excerpt from the wikipedia entry on ADHD)


see this and this for less handwavy and more precise descriptions of mechanisms of autism


A reminiscent example from my own childhood (aged ~2-5), in a detached context, is how I used to get extremely close to things, unexplained, to see them. It wasn't until I turned I turned 5 that it was finally discovered that I have a highly pathologic case of myopia. It's easy to see how this generalises beyond.


Alquist JL, Baumeister RF, Tice DM and Core TJ (2020) What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You: Uncertainty Impairs Executive Function. Front. Psychol. 11:576001. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.576001


In his book, Smarter, Faster, Better