What is a vice? Why do we have them and how do we get over one? Greg Bruce examines the changing ideas of what constitutes a vice and talks to those who have them.

The TV watcher

I checked in with his wife because the numbers he had been giving me were so large I wondered whether he might have been deliberately exaggerating them for effect. But no, by her corroborating account they were, if anything, a little undersold.

At 9.30pm on a recent Sunday, she said he had watched "9.5 hours easily" on that day alone. She said it would be 11.30pm at the earliest when the TV would go off.

He had sent me a text at 7.30pm that same night: "Seven hours so far," he had written, "with F1, IPL and some general tidying up of the Sky planner to go."

He is in his mid 40s, owns a successful business,his two children are at university, and he has a reasonable amount of free time on his hands, with which he says he watches, on average, between 50 and 70 hours of television a week.


His five-bedroom home contains six TVs, and his bach has four more: "If there's sport on, I'll have them all going," he says.

His viewing habits are diverse. Someone recently recommended he watch The Wire, for instance, so he smashed that back in several binge sessions. On the Sunday night in which I checked in with his wife, he was watching My Kitchen Rules.

Asked what he would be doing if he didn't watch all that TV, he has no ready answer. He rules out reading as too boring, and eventually speculates he would probably start another business.

Asked what she thinks about it, his wife says, "It doesn't bother me. If he's busy watching TV, I can go shopping."

We are all bad. We are born bad. From as early as we can remember, we are drawn to things that we should avoid, and even though we are told to avoid them, we don't, and then we reach a point where we start to feel guilty about doing those things, then we do them anyway.

Then we stop doing them, then we are drawn back to them. We are creatures caught in a constant battle to find equilibrium between what makes us feel good now and avoiding that which will make us feel bad later.

The problem in some ways is one of knowledge. We constantly define and redefine what is good and bad. We learn that things we thought were good are bad and vice versa. We may think something is fine, then we may think it's a bit bad, then we may conclude that it's really very bad indeed. As one smoker told me, "We are the pariahs of the modern world, so gone are the days of, 'Tsk tsk, naughty naughty.' Now it's more like, 'You evil people are poisoning my children!'"

University of Auckland psychology lecturer Sarah Cowie says a vice is something that is rewarding in the moment, but has the long-term potential for harm.

There is a boundary line somewhere in that definition, but where exactly is it? Is it crossed by having a bowl of icecream three times a week? Once a day? Twice a day? After every meal, with a secret bowl in the laundry at 3am?

Cowie offers one way of establishing if everything's okay: "You can look at it as 'This particular vice accomplishes something for me, it meets some sort of need,' but as long as you are aware that there is a level at which that's appropriate or healthy or not likely to be harmful, and that there are some alternatives that could potentially satisfy that need as well."

The Gambler

Are you bothered by your vice? Is it something that's starting to cause issues in your life? Photo / 123RF
Are you bothered by your vice? Is it something that's starting to cause issues in your life? Photo / 123RF

In 1997, when he was 22 and still a student, with minimal income and a student loan, he bet $500 on Australian rugby league club Manly to win the Australian Rugby League competition. Manly were the standout team, favourites, but by placing the bet at the start of the year, he got what he describes as good odds, and stood to make $1000.

Manly easily made the competition final, were clear favourites to win, led for almost the whole match, then Newcastle scored a try with seven seconds to go and his money was all gone.

Adjusted for inflation, that $500 would now be worth $735, but adjusted for the finances of a non-earning student, it would probably be in the tens of thousands.

For nearly 20 years after his loss, he didn't place another bet, but a couple of months ago, he opened a sports betting account and deposited into it $500, with which he has been making weekly bets.

It is "a symbolic amount," he says. "And by God I will win it back."

He is up $280 at the moment. He has been up as much as $320.

"Once I get $1000, I am going to withdraw $500 and put it on the mortgage," he says. "And then try to double the $500 again."

Asked how he would feel if he lost it all, he replies, "I just think it will be very hard to lose it all because I am doing small bets on the favourites."

He says he is conservative in his betting and the only potential for harm he sees is if he changes his rules, and puts in more money should he lose it all. "But I won't do that," he says. "I can't afford it."

He describes himself as a person who likes projects, and says the gambling is a project, just one of about a dozen projects he has on the go.

Besides, he says, his betting is conservative. Even the $500 bet he placed as a student, with a student loan, was conservative, he says. Asked why he thinks that, he says that Manly were the strongest team in the competition, that he bet at good odds and that Manly were winning the final until Newcastle started playing dirty and the ref did nothing about it.

"I hate to tell you this but I don't think it's a vice," he said.

His wife interjects to say she thinks gambling is a vice. He adds, "She is keeping an eye on it."

He says, "Gambling is fun but it has had the effect that I no longer care about the outcome other than if it wins me money."

Are you bothered by your vice? Is it something that's starting to cause issues in your life? One thing you can do, Sarah Cowie says, is shift your thinking from short-term to long-term.

This is a hard thing to do, obviously, and our ability to change our thinking is limited. A way to get around this is to change your environment.

For instance, if you get up and make a coffee then go out and have a cigarette, the act of making that coffee is what Cowie calls "signalling". By removing that signal, you remove the impetus for that cigarette. Stop making that coffee.

"We commonly tend to think of self-control as a personality trait and it is true that different people are more or less self-controlled and that people who fall prey to addiction tend to score towards the impulsive end of that self-controlled/impulsive continuum of the personality trait.

"It is also true that our current environmental conditions can affect how likely we are to be impulsive, it's not just a case of saying, 'Oh well, I'm a really impulsive person, I have no choice but to eat that cheesecake.' There are things you can do along the way to make sure you have the best chance of making a more self- controlled choice."

If your potential vice is cheesecake, for instance, she says, you may consciously limit your access and make sure you aren't surrounded by things that elicit cravings for that cheesecake. Or you may ensure you have easy access to fruit, or to another healthy cheesecake substitute. In a gambling situation, you may set spending limits before you start betting. In any situation, you might think about alternative rewards, like spending time with your family.

The Shopper

She could easily spend up to a $1000 on clothes in a single outing, and would be out shopping every two weeks or sometimes even more often. Photo / 123RF
She could easily spend up to a $1000 on clothes in a single outing, and would be out shopping every two weeks or sometimes even more often. Photo / 123RF

When she was in her shopping heyday, in her 20s, there was a thing called "Pay as you wear", which allowed you to buy clothes on credit and in one of her bigger fashion splurges she bought $8000 worth of clothes, with a down payment of about $3000, and the rest coming in subsequent instalments.

"Which probably gives you an indication of how big my credit card was," she says.

She could easily spend up to a $1000 on clothes in a single outing, and would be out shopping every two weeks or sometimes even more often.

After she had gone on a splurge, before facing her partner, she would bung all her purchases into a single bag, so it didn't look like she'd spent so much, or she would stuff purchases in her car boot. If she was buying shoes she'd chuck her old shoes away and put the new ones on: "Just so I didn't have to have the conversation, I think," she says.

"I would treat it like an escape. It's the same as someone sitting at the pokies. I don't see it as being any different really. When you say, 'vice', no I didn't damage my life and the bank didn't call in to collect on anything and everything got paid off and I have a great credit rating, but I can see how that would escalate, if at some point you didn't grow up. And I think I grew up."

She says that everything changed for her at about age 30, when she and her partner bought a house. She started wanting big-ticket items for the house, things like carpets and blinds. "I still spend money," she says, "but I spend it on more tangible, worthwhile, grown-up things."

She now has an aversion to debt, she says. She found it painful to pay off her credit card.

"I've genuinely learned what happiness is and it isn't about that stuff."

She now has a pre-school child and says she sometimes takes him shopping. His favourite place to shop is The Warehouse. It took a long time for her to conceive, and she says her son has brought her much joy.

"Maybe in retrospect, yeah, it was some sad thing I did to fill a hole. That, at the time, you don't really realise you have, until later when the hole is full and you go, 'Oh man'."

When we talk about vices, we generally talk, as we have done here, about individuals doing things we consider to be bad. But there is another side to all this: Who is 'we'? How does this 'we' decide what is good and bad? Are these decisions right, or helpful?

In 2015, University of Auckland sociologist Dr Colin Cremin walked into a lecture theatre dressed as a woman. Partly it was social experiment; partly it was because he liked the way it felt to wear women's clothes.

Is a man dressing as a woman a vice? If the answer is yes, why? If the answer is no, why do so few men do it?

"There are many men I think who have a secret desire to dress in women's clothes but feel a sense of shame and guilt for doing so," Cremin says. "In that respect, they repress that desire and live a life of misery and unhappiness."

Cremin believes the focus we put on vices of the individual are distractions from the vices we should really care about, which take place at the level of society.

"In a society of such vast inequality and poverty, where people struggle to pay their rent, their mortgages, I think the issue ought to be focused on the society as opposed to the individual, and the role of politicians in that respect, to ensure all of us can live a meaningful life without the fear of losing our homes, or losing our jobs or whatever."

He says we could say that our politicians have vices: "Maybe their vices are not actually doing their jobs, which is to create a society in which all of us can have an affluent and meaningful life and people don't have to worry about how they're going to pay their bills or their mortgages, or worry about how they're going to pay rent. These are vices of society, of the system, not of individuals.

"So I think the question of vices is perhaps misconceived. Instead of thinking about individuals and their personal habits or tastes or fixations, we should think more about the society."

The reason we don't do this, Cremin says, comes down to the relative ease of seeing a vice at the individual level versus the society-wide level. It's easy to see, and to judge, somebody driving around in a Lamborghini or Ferrari, but it's hard to see the state and the way it regulates or doesn't regulate to provide for the well-being of all its citizens.

Another problem, he says, is articles such as this one, which reflect the sort of issues the media tend to focus on.

"By all means we can have a dialogue about personal tastes and proclivities and so forth, and that's of interest," he says, "but these are minor issues compared to the huge problems we face as a society."

The Gambler says, "In my mind, I have many vices. Gambling is not one of them, in my mind."

He lists some others: Drinking, junk food, phone usage, too much TV, working too hard. "Sugar is a big vice," he says. "Sugar is the hardest one to fight."

We are all just bundles of vices: collections of actions that aren't necessarily good for us, that have the potential to hurt our bodies or minds, our relationships, our financial or work prospects; things that feel good in the moment, but are maybe not so good for our futures.

Figuring out which are the things we're doing that hurt us, and how much of them we have to do before the hurt begins: those are more difficult issues.

The Gambler continues to insist that his $500 bet as a 22-year-old student was conservative. When pressed on why he thinks that was the case, he gives a detailed explanation of why the bet should have won, even though it didn't.

Then he says: "I was 22, irresponsible and loved to be a character. It was a pub story and funny."

One way of defining a good bet is one that doesn't cost you anything. But it's not the only one.