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In 1887, Henry Morton Stanley went up the Congo River and inadvertently started a disastrous experiment. This was long after his first journey into Africa, as a journalist for an American newspaper in 1871, when he’d become famous by finding a Scottish missionary and reporting the first words of their encounter: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Now, at age 46, Stanley was leading his third African expedition. As he headed into an uncharted expanse of rain forest, he left part of the expedition behind to await further supplies.
The leaders of this Rear Column, who came from some of the most prominent families in Britain, proceeded to become an international disgrace. Those men allowed Africans under their command to perish needlessly from disease and poisonous food. They kidnapped and bought young African women. The British commander of the fort savagely beat and maimed Africans, sometimes ordering men to be shot or flogged almost to death for trivial offenses.
While the Rear Column was going berserk, Stanley and the forward portion of the expedition spent months struggling to find a way through the dense Ituri rain forest. They suffered through torrential rains. They were weakened by hunger, crippled by festering sores, incapacitated by malaria and dysentery. They were attacked by natives with poisoned arrows and spears. Of those who started with Stanley on this trek into “darkest Africa,” as he called that sunless expanse of jungle, fewer than one in three emerged with him.
Yet Stanley persevered. His European companions marveled at his “strength of will.” Africans called him Bula Matari, Breaker of Rocks. “For myself,” he wrote in an 1890 letter to The Times, “I lay no claim to any exceptional fineness of nature; but I say, beginning life as a rough, ill-educated, impatient man, I have found my schooling in these very African experiences which are now said by some to be in themselves detrimental to European character.”
In his day, Stanley’s feats enthralled the public. Mark Twain predicted, “When I contrast what I have achieved in my measurably brief life with what [Stanley] has achieved in his possibly briefer one, the effect is to sweep utterly away the ten-story edifice of my own self-appreciation and leave nothing behind but the cellar.” Anton Chekhov saw Stanley’s “stubborn invincible striving towards a certain goal, no matter what privations, dangers and temptations for personal happiness,” as “personifying the highest moral strength.”
But in the ensuing century, his reputation plummeted as historians criticized his association in the early 1880s with King Leopold II, the profiteering Belgian monarch whose ivory traders would later provide direct inspiration for Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. As colonialism declined and Victorian character-building lost favor, Stanley was depicted as a brutal exploiter, a ruthless imperialist who hacked and shot his way across Africa.
But another Stanley has recently emerged, neither a dauntless hero nor a ruthless control freak. This explorer prevailed in the wilderness not because his will was indomitable, but because he appreciated its limitations and used long-term strategies that social scientists are only now beginning to understand.
This new version of Stanley was found, appropriately enough, by Livingstone’s biographer, Tim Jeal, a British novelist and expert on Victorian obsessives. Jeal drew on thousands of Stanley’s letters and papers unsealed in the past decade to produce a revisionist tour de force, Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer. It depicts a flawed character who seems all the more brave and humane for his ambition and insecurity, virtue and fraud. His self-control in the wilderness becomes even more remarkable considering the secrets he was hiding.
If self-control is partly a hereditary trait—which seems likely—then Stanley began life with the odds against him. He was born in Wales to an unmarried 18-year-old woman who went on to have four other illegitimate children by at least two other men. He never knew his father. His mother abandoned him to her father, who cared for him until he died when the boy was 5. Another family took him in briefly, but then one of the boy’s new guardians took him to a workhouse. The adult Stanley would never forget how, in the moment his deceitful guardian fled and the door slammed shut, he “experienced for the first time the awful feeling of utter desolateness.”
The boy, then named John Rowlands, would go through life trying to hide the shame of the workhouse and the stigma of his birth. After leaving the workhouse, at age 15, where he had done cleaning and bookkeeping, and later traveling to New Orleans, he began pretending to be an American. He called himself Henry Morton Stanley and told of taking the name from his adoptive father—a fiction, whom he described as a kind, hardworking cotton trader in New Orleans. “Moral resistance was a favourite subject with him,” Stanley wrote of his fantasy father in his posthumously published autobiography. “He said the practice of it gave vigour to the will, which required it as much as the muscles. The will required to be strengthened to resist unholy desires and low passions, and was one of the best allies that conscience could have.” At age 11, at the workhouse in Wales, he was already “experimenting on Will,” imposing extra hardships on himself. “I would promise to abstain from wishing for more food, and, to show how I despised the stomach and its pains, I would divide one meal out of the three among my neighbours; half my suet pudding should be given to Ffoulkes, who was afflicted with greed, and, if ever I possessed anything that excited the envy of another, I would at once surrender it.”
Years later, when Stanley first learned of some of the Rear Column’s cruelties and depredations, he noted in his journal that most people would erroneously conclude that the men were “originally wicked.” People back in civilization, he realized, couldn’t imagine the changes undergone by men “deprived of butcher’s meat & bread & wine, books, newspapers, the society & influence of their friends. Fever seized them, wrecked minds and bodies. Good nature was banished by anxiety...until they became but shadows, morally & physically of what they had been in English society.”
Stanley was describing what the economist George Loewenstein calls the “hot-cold empathy gap”: the inability, during a rational, peaceful moment, to appreciate how we’ll behave during a time of great hardship or temptation. Calmly setting rules for how to behave in the future, one often makes unrealistic commitments. “It’s really easy to agree to diet when you’re not hungry,” says Loewenstein, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
It’s our contention that the best strategy is not to rely on willpower in all situations. Save it for emergencies. As Stanley discovered, there are mental tricks that enable you to conserve willpower for those moments when it’s indispensable.
Stanley had first encountered the miseries of the African interior at the age of 30, when the New York Herald sent him in 1871 to find Livingstone, last heard from some two years earlier, somewhere on the continent. Stanley spent the first part of the journey slogging through a swamp and struggling with malaria before the expedition narrowly escaped being massacred during a local civil war. After six months, so many men had died or deserted that, even after acquiring replacements, Stanley was down to 34 men, barely a quarter the size of the original expedition, and a dangerously small number for traveling through the hostile territory ahead. But one evening, during a break between fevers, he wrote a note to himself by candlelight. “I have taken a solemn, enduring oath, an oath to be kept while the least hope of life remains in me, not to be tempted to break the resolution I have formed, never to give up the search, until I find Livingstone alive, or find his dead body....” He went on, “No living man, or living men, shall stop me, only death can prevent me. But death—not even this; I shall not die, I will not die, I cannot die!”
Writing such a note to himself was part of a strategy to conserve willpower that psychologists call precommitment. The essence is to lock yourself into a virtuous path. You recognize that you’ll face terrible temptations and that your willpower will weaken. So you make it impossible—or disgraceful—to leave the path. Precommitment is what Odysseus and his men used to get past the deadly songs of the Sirens. He had himself lashed to the mast with orders not to be untied no matter how much he pleaded to be freed to go to the Sirens. His men used a different form of precommitment by plugging their ears so they couldn’t hear the Sirens’ songs. They prevented themselves from being tempted at all, which is generally the safer of the two approaches. If you want to be sure you don’t gamble at a casino, you’re better off staying out of it.
No one, of course, can anticipate all temptations, especially today. No matter what you do to avoid physical casinos, you’re never far from virtual ones, not to mention all the other enticements perpetually available on the web. But the technology that creates new sins also enables new precommitment strategies. A modern Odysseus can try lashing himself to his browser with software that prevents him from hearing or seeing certain websites. A modern Stanley can use the web in the same way that the explorer used the social media of his day. In Stanley’s private letters, newspaper dispatches and public declarations, he repeatedly promised to reach his goals and to behave honorably—and he knew, once he became famous, that any failure would make headlines. As a result of his oaths and his image, Jeal said, “Stanley made it impossible in advance to fail through weakness of will.”
Today, you can precommit yourself to virtue by using social-networking tools that will expose your sins, like the “Public Humiliation Diet” followed by a writer named Drew Magary. He vowed to weigh himself every day and reveal the results on Twitter—which he did, and lost 60 pounds in five months. Or you could sign a “Commitment Contract” with stickK.com, which allows you to pick any goal you want—lose weight, stop biting your nails, use fewer fossil fuels, stop calling an ex—along with a penalty that will be imposed automatically if you don’t reach it. You can make the penalty financial by setting up an automatic payment from your credit card to a charity or an “anticharity”—a group you’d hate to support. The efficacy of such contracts with monitors and penalties has been independently demonstrated by researchers.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are Stanley early one morning. You emerge from your tent in the Ituri rain forest. It’s dark. It has been dark for months. Your stomach, long since ruined by parasites, recurrent diseases and massive doses of quinine and other medicines, is in even worse shape than usual. You and your men have been reduced to eating berries, roots, fungi, grubs, caterpillars, ants and slugs—when you’re lucky enough to find them. Dozens of people were so crippled—from hunger, disease, injuries and festering sores—that they had to be left behind at a spot in the forest grimly referred to as Starvation Camp. You’ve taken the healthier ones ahead to look for food, but they’ve been dropping dead along the way, and there’s still no food to be found. But as of this morning, you’re still not dead. Now that you’ve arisen, what do you do?