One of Laura Vanderkam’s hobby horses is this idea that you should never say you “can’t” do something, just that you don’t want to make those trade-offs.
Of course, usually people are using “can’t” as a short-hand for “could but I’d have to do all these other things I either don’t want to do or I don’t want to tell you about possibly because it’s none of your business.”
The basic idea makes some sense, the idea being that it gives you agency. It isn’t that you can’t quit your job, you just don’t want to give up the income from your job and downsize your home etc. From one perspective you can’t, because you can’t without giving up things you don’t want to give up, but from another perspective you’re not really trapped. Maybe “won’t” instead of “can’t” will help you think about alternative things that will get you want you want. In my world view you’ve already thought these things through, but I’m not a self-help guru… I assume people are already at their optimum unless they’ve told me otherwise. Any changes I force on people are going to knock them off their optimum path. (Though in some cases society may prosper with the change because of externalities, spillovers, and so on.)
But is agency always a good thing?
There’s a couple of books that summarize literature than includes research on the benefits of limiting choices. Framing something as “can’t” rather than “won’t” means you don’t have to think about re-optimizing every time you’re faced with a choice. For example, when I had borderline gestational diabetes, I said that I couldn’t have sugars or refined calories. Now, of course, I *could* (heck someone with celiac can have wheat so long as ze is willing to face the extremely dire consequences), but I didn’t want to hurt the baby, have a c-section (because of my irrational fear of anesthesiologists among other more rational reasons), or whatever. If I’d said, “I choose not to” (but could make another choice) or “I won’t” (but am susceptible to cajoling) that would have made it much more difficult to resist the temptation I was resisting every time I was offered something that would spike my insulin. Now that the only negative consequence to eating refined carbs is me getting fat (and some longer-term unproven potential health consequences), it is much more difficult to mentally frame the choice as “truly can’t.” So I eat more refined carbs, even though I know I probably shouldn’t and in time t-1 would choose to not be offered the potato chips in time t if I could. Allowing the choice makes it much harder for me to say no when the opportunity presents itself. Many other reasons how and why arbitrarily limiting choices can help willpower and happiness can be found in the book Willpower by Baumeister and Tierney.
The Paradox of Choice is another great book that talks about the benefits of limiting choice (or rather, the problems with not limiting it). We’re often happier when we’ve made an irrevocable decision and don’t have to think about it anymore, and what is “can’t” other than a signal that we’ve made the decision not to and we’re sticking to it.
Recently I’ve been reading a lot of sociology literature on how people react to “decisions” other people have made. It turns out that people have much more sympathy towards people when they don’t think a choice has been made and a lot more blame when they think the person made an active choice. For example, is homosexuality a choice? Under LV’s definition it is– if only the homosexual person had a different utility function or budget constraint, he or she would be heterosexual! When experimental participants are primed to think that homosexuality is a choice, they are more likely to think badly of homosexuals and homosexual causes (e.g. gay marriage) than when they are primed to think it is not a choice. An enormous literature covers this finding across many different areas from obesity to welfare receipt. Saying can’t instead of won’t is a way that we attempt to protect ourselves from the judgment of others. So much the better if we can’t because our circumstances are different. Changing to “won’t” in common parlance may hurt our interactions with other people.
On top of all that (or perhaps negating all that!), the idea that language changes culture is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and you can read up on how it has been well and thoroughly discredited. Everybody knows that “can’t” only actually means “absolutely can’t” in certain situations (“I can’t have children [because I am infertile]”) and has the addendum “given reasons I’d rather not go into detail about or are obvious” in most situations (“I can’t have breakable china until my kids are older”). Most people are pretty good at context and know when they’re using the short-hand “can’t” rather than the absolute “can’t”. Because the word “can’t” already encompasses a vast spectrum of meanings, only in rare cases could using won’t or don’t instead of can’t actually affect anything, in theory.
And in practice, it’s far more likely that even those rare cases are really reverse causality– a person has a defeatist attitude or just hasn’t thought of all the possibilities and unhappily says “can’t” because of that, not the other way around. In those cases, the response should not be to use different language, but to think of why the person thinks it’s impossible. The attack should be on the thinking, not on the words. That’s not to say that positive restructuring from cognitive behavioral therapy doesn’t work– it does and there’s a large literature on it working. In situations for which CBT is recommended, anxiety, depression, etc. then changing “can’t” to “won’t” or even “will” may be appropriate and effective, but that also comes with the introspection of what changes can be made. It isn’t solely the change in wording, but a complete change in mental framing.
Obviously, not having pretty china is not a cause of anxiety or depression for most people. When someone says they can’t have breakable china because they have small children, it’s pretty ridiculous to suggest that they reframe that, unless the person is really really unhappy about not having breakable china. And if they are really unhappy about Corelle, they probably actually already do have breakable china or carpeting in the kitchen or what have you. Because what problem is reframing “can’t have breakable china” as “choose not to have breakable (even though I want it)” solving? Oh gee, now I have the agency to make different choices about my china than the choices I’ve already made, even though I already knew I was making those choices when I used the short-hand “can’t” rather than “won’t.”
Update: There were many interesting and thought-provoking comments on LV’s post expanding on her complaints about wording choice but my favorite has to be this one from The Frugal Girl:
I think sometimes these discussions can be like when someone points out to you that a tomato isn’t a vegetable.
Ok, this is technically true, but no one’s going to put it into a fruit salad anyway, so what is the point?
So, bottom-line. It’s ok to say you can’t do something even if what you mean is you’ve “chosen not to given your utility functions and your budget constraint”. Only in cases in which you are really unhappy about the choices you’ve made or feel that you’ve been forced into should you go back and think more about how you can change them. And don’t go lecturing people about their choice to use “can’t” instead of “won’t” unless changing that language is actually going to make them happier. I can assure you that I derive no additional happiness from being told that I could have pretty breakable china if I just wanted it enough. And the title, “Things I want but can’t have until my children are older” is much more fun than, “Things I may get if I still want them in the future when my children are older,” even if the latter is framed positively. Seriously, this blog is called GRUMPY RUMBLINGS. We have to rumble grumpily sometimes or we lose street cred.+
+Ignore the fact that from a cognitive restructuring standpoint, both phrases are actually positively framed indicating that I can have these things later even if I can’t have them now. (Willpower also talks about the positive effect of noting you can have stuff later.) We still rumble with the grumps.
Ok Grumpeteers! Go!