Why Do We Trust Ourselves So Much?

02/05/2014 02:48 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2014

Ever hit snooze on your alarm clock when you were certain the night before you needed that morning time? Ever have an extra piece of cake when you were certain a few hours earlier it would be the wrong choice? These seemingly meaningless actions raise the larger question of why do we trust ourselves to make our own decisions? Consider the words of psychology professor David DeSteno:

Such misplaced trust typically occurs because of two cognitive glitches. The first, identified by the psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson, is that our predictions for how much we'll want something in the future are often swayed by how we're feeling right now. In one of their experiments, participants' expectations of what they'd like to eat for breakfast tomorrow were principally influenced by how hungry they were today. Those who were very hungry believed they'd be so hungry the next morning that they'd even enjoy eating spaghetti for breakfast. Meanwhile, those who were not hungry believed they wouldn't feel much of a need to eat spaghetti even for dinner, though in general they loved spaghetti. This tendency to give too much weight to extraneous momentary feelings poses a big problem when it comes to gauging the trustworthiness of future-you. The second glitch is that your mind tends to discount the value of future rewards, meaning that as the time between you and a potential reward shrinks, your desire for it grows. The new iPhone that seems only mildly enticing now can be irresistible when it's sitting in front of you.

If you combine these two factors, immersion in the present and discounting the value of the future, humans can make some really poor choices. And we all do!

We can see this most dramatically in addiction, where dependency on drugs, tobacco and/or alcohol causes catastrophic results for the addicted as well as their loved ones. The use of recreational drugs, tobacco and alcohol offer obvious examples of physical addiction, while gambling and other compulsive behaviors evidence psychological addiction. Less obvious, but still poor choices, occur when people ignore a family history of diabetes and early cardiovascular disease by eating diets high in simple carbohydrates and fat while living mostly sedentary lifestyles. In the United States, the number of people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes has risen from 1.5 million in 1958 to 18.8 million (and 7 million who remain undiagnosed) in 2010. In addition, an estimated 79 million adults have prediabetes (fasting blood glucose levels around 100-125 mg/dL, higher than normal, but less than the type 2 diabetes threshold of 126 mg/dL). Acting wisely today could prevent, or at least delay, the onset of this deadly disease, but how many will make the appropriate decision?

One of the primary functions of religion is to help us live in the present, that is to stop and immerse in the power of the moment. One of the other functions is to pull us out of the moment to see the bigger picture, the opposite of immersion in the present. Adherence to religious law helps us tame our impulses and desires in order to meet higher goals.

Jewish law has two primary solutions to the problem of self-accountability: Imperative (there is no other option) and community (surround yourself around others with the same moral and ritual commitments). Still, on some issues we must only trust ourselves, for we are the ones who must live with our decisions. On other issues with which we struggle, however, we cannot trust ourselves in the moment. Rather, we must trust a rule or a trusted loved one to help us handle and make the appropriate decision given the issue.

The famed author C.S. Lewis wisely explained that one dimension of "faith" is believing in ourselves in the moment we have the most clarity. This insightful explanation can be related back to our alarm clock moment. While I would not necessarily trust myself at the moment my alarm clock goes off, I would rather have faith in my clear decision the night before when I set the alarm.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."

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