Forbes, and more recently Oliver Burkeman, have both discussed the important and interesting difference between “I don’t” and “I can’t” when it comes to breaking bad habits. They note that studies have actually shown that saying something like “I can’t eat that extra cookie” is far less effective at preventing you from eating that extra cookie than saying “I don’t eat extra cookies.” It works in all kinds of other areas too, apparently. Although both articles talk about why that is, each explaining in different ways how “I don’t” is a choice while “I can’t” is a restriction, neither touches on a potential deeper reason for the difference or explores its broader implications.
Consider the implications about who the “you” is in the statement when you’re saying “I don’t” versus “I can’t.” The former suggests you are your actions; you don’t do something because it isn’t who you are. Your body is in harmony with your mind, and the two together make up a person who doesn’t do whatever he or she doesn’t want to do. There’s autonomy and consistency, just like the articles above noted. On the other hand, the latter suggests that the “you” that comprises your conscious thoughts is somehow not only different from the body that will be eating the extra cookie but also subject to some other hidden “you” in your head that likes imposing rules. It’s obviously tougher to get three of you on the same page with the extra cookie than it is to just be a single person who just doesn’t eat extra cookies.
The change in language makes a difference for the same reason that distinctions between selves make a big difference when you’re playing tennis or making music. As a musician or an athlete, you will always perform better if you just non-judgmentally be the you that’s physically doing it and allow the critical voice in your head to fade away. That’s not really you anyway. Those thoughts and judgments are just a needless layer of confusion that’s inconsistent with the reality of what’s happening and actually interferes with your goals with its useless, distracting commentary. Don’t believe me? Try it. Being the unified self that accomplishes things best enables accomplishment. Being a self following orders from another secret self that has to remind you to remind your body of things, presumably because the order-following self isn’t in complete physical control, is complicated and ineffective. Just be a person who performs well. Be a person who doesn’t eat extra cookies.
The relationship of all this to the law may not be obvious, but there is one. It’s a huge one, in fact.
I didn’t wake up this morning and tell myself “I can’t do an eight ball and rob a 7-Eleven today” because I’m not a person who does eight balls and robs 7-Elevens. It certainly wasn’t because an invisible me made a rule that the me of my conscious thoughts had to remind my body to follow. Put that way, it should seem silly for me to even suggest that might be the case. At its root, the idea of not doing something because you can’t is always that dumb. Needlessly dualizing and disempowering ourselves only serves to make us suck at tennis, sound crappy playing music, and eat that extra cookie, yet we’ve organized our entire society and its countless rules around the concept of can’t. Demanding ineffectual thought habits is all really our justice system is capable of doing.
The last thing a guy who may in fact do an eight ball and rob a 7-Eleven today should do is to refrain from doing it only because he tells himself he can’t because we told him he can’t. He will fail, just like you will likely fail if you don’t eat that cookie merely because you can’t. It’s one of the many reasons why probation so often doesn’t work, incarceration so often fails to deter, and the justice system tends to be little more than a revolving door. Can’t doesn’t even work for dieting, so why should we expect it to work for even bigger problems?