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Against Willpower (nautil.us)
93 points by dnetesn on Feb 4, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 41 comments

I've thought about this in the past, and one thing I dislike about the way willpower is framed in everyday conversation is as a moral judgement.

I.e. "he is still smoking because he has a weak will"

The implied idea there is that he should try harder.

But my personal belief is that we have far less agency than we like to believe. That person with greater ability to say no to certain things (smoking, overeating etc.), can they take credit for superior moral fortitude? I don't think so. That ability to resit <insert vice> was hard-coded in their genes. They can no more take credit for it than a tall person can feel superior for being tall. You don't will yourself to be taller. It's written in your genes. Why would "willpower" be any different?

I'm not sure where that leads us though. Do we just throw our hands in the air and say "well, I'm subject to my genes therefore I'll stop trying". That doesn't seem very productive. In reality there probably is an element of hard work involved (although, the rabbit hole continues further. Why are some able to put in the hard work and others not? Genes again.), but there are limits to how much "stronger" you can make your will. Even though I will never beat Usain Bolt in a race I can improve my own PB through hard work, however my total ability is bounded by my genes.

It's a liberating view to take. Keep trying and don't fret too much when you fall short of whatever mark you'd ideally like to achieve.

If you want to think like that, then a logical conclusion is that our fate was determined at the beginning of time when the state of the world was pre-seeded from the divine RNG. This is the religious concept of predestination that featured prominently in Luther's Protestant Revolution. It's quite possible our consciousness is just a passenger on the ride and we only think we are making decisions when our actions have been determined before we even think.

If the previous statements were true, then a question is "why bother trying?". The ones that believe they can effect change are also the ones that do. Whether this is a consequence of free will or the divine RNG is up for religious and philosophical debate.

How do we deal with trying and results? The Bhagavad Gita has some good lines on this that several other religious traditions surely share. Detach yourself from the outcome and fulfill your duty. In this way you will find greater liberation and peace.

You may want to brush up on nature vs nurture: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nature_versus_nurture.

For those who are rightly skeptical of religion and have written it off entirely, I present you a quote:

"All men seek to be enlightened. Religion is but the most ancient and honorable way in which men have striven to make sense out of God's universe. Scientists seek the lawfulness of events. It is the task of Religion to fit man into this lawfulness."

- Dune

Bhagavad Gita !Hinduism is the religion of systematic opression through caste to control everone(who should marry whom, what name one should have e.t.c. by the way this continues till today even by almost all educated non-educated everyone) by brahmins. So quoting gita here definately out of context because gita is written by the brahmins.

> You don't will yourself to be taller. It's written in your genes.

Partially genes and partially other factors:


You don't have direct control over this.

> Why would "willpower" be any different?

Because I can willpower myself out of bed tomorrow early in the morning to go to the gym despite me physically not wanting it. I can make decisions that go against what my natural urges want. My genes don't want me to go to the gym, I would feel more comfortable going to the office an hour and a half later, yet I make the call going against most of my body.

You could argue that maybe there are some good parts in my brain that have been there since I was born that help me make these uncomfortable decisions, however I wasn't always like this, during my university years I was making different kinds of choices. If this trait would be genetic, surely it would have been consistent all my life.

> But my personal belief is that we have far less agency than we like to believe.

What if you have exactly as much agency as you believe that you have? What if the whole thing is in hour head?

> however my total ability is bounded by my genes.

The great thing about it is that you don't know where does boundaries are, however you can imagine that you know and put limits on yourself, however that will only harm you from reaching your true potential.

The fact that you can push yourself harder in some areas more than other does not mean that willpower does not exist, it means that if it exists it's most likely not one dimensional.

And yet millions of people — including my father and uncle — have successfully quit smoking cold turkey (no nicotine gum or patches) after being addicted for years. So willpower obviously counts for something.

That's not really what I was getting at. My point was that those that do quit <vice> deserve the roughly the same amount of praise as a tall person deserves for being tall.

Why did they have the motivation to give up? Not through some personal moral superiority, but rather it was encoded in their genes. How much control did they have over this encoding? None.

I feel like both you and the person you responded to failed to read the article.

And you seem to be completely ignoring the environmental factors involved in behavior, which are much more significant than those involved in height (e.g., avoiding malnourishment during the first 20 years of your life). The article mentioned a few of them.

I'm actually fully in agreement with the article. I just thought I'd chime in with personal view as this idea of will power and moral judgement is extremely pervasive in society. We have, for the most part, only vague control over our actions, wants desires etc.

from the article:

"The best way forward may be to let go of “willpower” altogether.

Doing so would rid us of some considerable moral baggage. Notions of willpower are easily stigmatizing: ... An extreme example is the punitive approach of our endless drug war, which dismisses substance use problems as primarily the result of individual choices."

I don't see substance abuse as an issue of moral weakness. It's simply a pre-encoded genetic predisposition. From this it directly follows that those that avoid vices and lead healthy lives also don't deserve any special credit. They are doing it because their genes dictate it. You are, for the most part, along for the ride, good or bad.

Right, but that's still ignoring the environmental component which throws a wrench into your reasoning.

Particularly relevant from the article is the part of reframing the problem as a means of kicking addiction. Obviously, this isn't a silver bullet, but it's also part of the evidence against this notion of genetic determinism as predominant factor.

(We're in agreement regarding the whole moralizing aspect of this.)

How about you read HN rules first before accusing people of not reading the article.

I made sure to qualify my comment in case I was mistaken.

A person cannot change his height but can build miscles or will power through practice. It is not a genetic constant.

I tried quitting several times, but only really managed it when I was doing it for no reason, kind of as a joke.

That argument only makes sense if you assume your uncle and father have more willpower than the average person who attempts to quit smoking.

I think that there is also an interesting connection between the common concept of willpower and "free will" itself. When discussing "free will" it often comes down to the "free" part of the brain that exercises willpower against the "unfree" part of underlying emotions/feelings etc.

Obviously that is quite an oversimplification and the brain just works a lot more complicated that. But - as the article points out - it is a concept that influences our notion of other humans a lot. We say that those who have a fundamental problem with the "unfree" part of their brain are ill and we try to help them medically. Those who do things with the "free" part of the brain but fail to properly control the "unfree" part (overweight/drinking problem) are treated very differently. Which might evolutionally speaking be a very reasonable differentiation for humans to pursue. But we don't want our society shaped by what is right evolutionally. Therefore we probably need some new research into that direction to make correct decisions on who is free and who isn't - which fundamentally shapes certain aspects of our society (criminal law/health law etc.)

There is this interesting trend in the social sciences to deny the existence of inconvenient parts of reality. "Oh, my field failed to reproduce an important experiment on one theory (ego depletion) of willpower: therefore willpower doesn't exist, and I will turn this towards a conversation on bargaining which I (as a psychologist/legal/economics scholar) know something about; pay no attention to the fact that I actually named a piece of the brain involved in exerting willpower."

Maybe there is no such thing as "willpower." Maybe some dope is indulging in nihilism in an attempt to get us to click on his article. I'm open minded, but I don't think his argument is much good.

>pay no attention to the fact that I actually named a piece of the brain involved in exerting willpower."

You seem to have payed little attention to the fact that the author refers to several experiments that point to the absence (or severe limits) of willpower as such.

How is the guy analyzing his drinking, finding the problem (too much stress) and then reducing that not an example of using willpower? The author creates a selective definition of the word that does not make any sense. Telling people that "willpower is bad" seems like an extremely dumb idea.

It's not that willpower is bad; it's that willpower is a word that's being used for something that doesn't exist, that is a symptom of the interaction between different systems. So rather than figuring out what is the cause of something, people point at the symptom, and say that willpower is lacking.

With that in mind, it's better to forget about the imaginary concept of willpower altogether, and look at reframing things so that different decision making systems come to the fore; or altering factors that are gumming up the decision making process.

The point at the end about stigmatizing people for lacking this imaginary attribute is particularly important. It's political, too; if you curtail people's freedom even in their best interests, it's easy to become corrupted from that position of power. Maintaining a belief in an invented character defect is a convenient way of deflecting the responsibility, but it's not necessarily any less evil.

I once conveyed this belief to someone who had been through a path that is equivalent in difficulty to what the US nave SEALs have to go through. I told him that perhaps willpower is an illusion and it's basically has to do whether the net total of motivation is above or below zero given a set of circumstances. He answered that from his experience, motivation takes you up to a certain point but beyond it something else comes into play which he called willpower.

I don't take the personal experience and interpretation of a single person to be much evidence for the existence of this vaguely defined concept called willpower, but just thought this anecdote would be of interest

And my message in this thread was an exercise in adopting a viewpoint, to see how it feels. I've found it sometimes useful to go to the far end of something to shift my default position.

I think there is some effortful thing in the mind that sometimes needs to be engaged to accomplish something, but perhaps that effort is expended at a different level. Maybe it's constantly bringing a goal to mind, to support one decision making process. Maybe it's breaking a habit by avoiding what triggers it, or creating a new habit. Generally, expending conscious effort to change the tracks of the unconscious train, not by steering it.

It's too facile to call it willpower though; I think it needs to be more strategic than that, and I think the baggage of the word is unhelpful.

"Willpower" is the thing people supposedly have when there is something that is "very hard" to want to do in the moment (or very hard to resist doing), but they still manage to make the "better" choice in the moment anyway.

"Willpower" isn't usually used to refer to ways to plan the context of your decision outside of the "very hard", tempted-to-give-in timescale, so that the temptation to give in is lessened (i.e. the decision is no longer "very hard.")

Of course, you're still correct in a sense: it requires willpower to even take the steps to work on your life to fix problems. This is the point of prescribing antidepressants to depressed people: usually the drugs themselves aren't enough to fix someone's life, but they give them the boost they need to start fixing their life (by attending therapy sessions, getting out of bad relationships/jobs, etc.)

I agree. Basically what I read was that removing all the stress from your life, makes it easy to make the decisions you desire. That seems a lot like willpower to me but apparently the author considers willpower to be X not Y, but that also begs the question: who is he to say? I think it is something different and so does everyone else in their own unique way.

What ever it is called, we face decisions in life. Do I get up with the alarm to go to work and earn a living or do I stay in bed (continually) and get fired? What's for breakfast? What to wear? Which way to travel? ....... Now, a lot of these decisions are pretty easy to make but that changes day to day. It largely comes down to this: When we have the mental energy and aren't stressed, we tend to think through our decisions, weighing pros and cons. When we are stressed or upset or depleted, we tend to react and just choose something and ignore consequences. Saying "just remove the stress" is just as hard and unreasonable as "just choose to stop drinking".

Anyone who is interested in this subject should also read Thinking: Fast and Slow. It goes fairly deep into the kinds of studies and implications of choice referenced in this article.

It's not that 'having' willpower is bad, it's that the concept is misleading. Pretty much any story where someone changes themselves (or tries to) can be coerced into an anecdote about willpower.

The point here is that the thing which decides whether or not someone succeeds at changing themselves is not the having/not having of willpower, it's everything else. And willpower as a concept is just one more distraction.

Maybe OT, but this helped me understand the concept of coercing an idea.

People seem to think willpower is something you use to fight against yourself but I feel it's actually a way to fight with yourself.

An example of willpower is to stave off peer pressure, or living a life you believe in despite the inconveniences it might entail.. like not using Facebook or something, although I guess that's also a form of peer pressure so maybe my 'example' would also be a sufficient definition...

So the guy clearly believes that alcohol is a good way to unwind from stress but he may also believe that he should hide his drinking, thereby he was willing to go through all that trouble (being tipsy all the time _and_ hiding it) by exercising willpower.

Your beliefs shape the flow of your life, willpower is how that flow overcomes obstacles (e.g. peer pressure, circumstances) or a way to nudge the direction, thereby slightly changing your life. If you want to quit a substance dependence you need to change the underlying pattern, swim out of the rip instead of against it.

I don't know. They might've just chosen a bad example. But it seems quite unconvincing since it's using the exact same example that is already used by the willpower-exists way of thinking. Summary usually goes like this: Since willpower is limited, try to reduce the stress and don't beat yourself up about failures, because that would exaust the willpower you need to succeed.

Worth a read even if it could be a bit more straightforward. What I found valuable was the author distinguishing

- willpower (and providing some historical context)

- self-control

- ego depletion (he points to debunking studies)

- temporal discounting

- emotional regulation

Anyone struggling to make headway with a challenge may benefit from taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture.

> understood through the lens of “intrapersonal bargaining"

This comic regarding willpower and "intrapersonal" messages is highly relevant here:


This comic seems kind of dumb.

> If it was you who decided there would be no conflict, for a thing cannot be in conflict with itself, such is a contradiction.

What? Of course you can be in conflict with yourself. People have mixed feelings and conflicting desires constantly. Different parts of our mind can want different things. Is the author a robot or something, to have never experienced this?

> Remember indeed, but not a decision! You simply had a thought, and an empty thought at that! You stood there like a fool and declared you would no longer smoke, and then what? And then nothing!

First off, what does the author think a decision, is, exactly? Most decisions aren't things that are acted upon immediately after the decision is made.

Secondly, the thing in question is the stopping of an addictive habit. By definition, quitting smoking literally IS doing nothing.

> And this is what you need, Sanus, to quit smoking: You need obedience, not will!

I thought it was obvious that willpower IS obedience, obedience to yourself, or rather the wiser part of yourself, the part that isn't focused on base or shallow urges.

It's a comic that oversimplifies philosophical arguments and (often) makes fun of them.

I said it before (and I got downvoted a lot), but I'll say it again:

Willpower is not about forcing yourself to do something, but to deliberately put yourself into a situation that forces you to do it.

This is how self-control really works. If you can't stop drinking, join the military or something. You'll sober up real quick.

No matter what I can't motivate myself to work for my university first year degree. And going to the library doesn't help either, I seem to find myself just sitting and not doing much at all.

That may just be misplaced energy. If you can't study but you can sit there practicing guitar or working on a hobby coding project for hours, you are certainly capable in a physical sense. But your mind cannot say "I will do my homework with identical enthusiasm to my guitar practice" and just have it happen. That is where the mythical aspect of willpower manifests and people do all sorts of things to try to make it work like that, but most people, I think, end up finding a substance to use that blunts their thinking in a particular way that helps them stay on task. That could be caffeine, or alcohol, or pot, or Adderall. Other people try to build elaborate social obligations with study groups and use of office hours. But the biggest success tends to be from getting the intrinsic motivations in place, the "I want to know what happens next" factor and those are never easy to find. Sometimes you just have to start from zero and do something very simple and low energy like washing dishes before you can access a higher level of concentration, and then quickly use that moment of concentration to make a breakthrough.

You might want to visit your university's advising office and maybe their psychology office as well. With their help, you could explore your motivations for wanting to attend university at this time or maybe other issues that are blocking you.

Attending university is not necessarily the right decision for everyone. A lot of people are pressured in to it by social expectations, families, and peer pressure. They don't have much internal motivation and may really prefer to do something else. Sometimes taking a year or more off to do something else (like travel or work) can be beneficial. Maybe you could come back to school after the break and finish your degree.

I really don't know you or your situation, though, so it's hard to comment without a lot more information. That's why a trip to the advisor's/psychology offices could help much more than a random person's advice on the internet.

"You don't need motivation, you need discipline."

Exercise really helps for this. Seriously. Can't stress it enough. Start jogging, or cycling, or anything that makes you sweat for at least a half-hour a day. I believe a big part of what makes it effective is practicing pushing yourself to continue even though your body is telling you in no uncertain terms to stop. After that, pushing yourself to study even though you kinda don't really feel like it suddenly feels real easy.

Maybe you should study something different. And find a way to turn off the internet.

Are people not allowed to drink in the military?

One of the points the article relies on is ego depletion which as a theory is coming into question because of issues with replication


The other point seemed to be about how willpower alone will eventually cave in so other strategies like interpersonal bargaining will be required as well. That's not really news. I think we all knew that already. For example we wouldn't tell a recovering alcoholic to hang out in a bar where everyone is drinking and rely on will power alone. We also tell alcoholics to think of the benefits of not drinking and weight that against drinking. That does not show that willpower is useless or has no place, but that it's a part of a strategy to overcome addictions or build good habits.

Wait a minute. Did you actually read the article? I literally came here to post the opposite comment. The article directly claims that ego depletion is debunked.

> The recently published results failed to show any evidence that ego depletion is real. It appears to be just another casualty of psychology’s replication crisis.

I did not know that ego depletion is considered to have little evidence behind it and wanted to remark that the article saying so has caused me to rethink things.

Likewise. I had read of ego depletion before and didn't realize it was having a replication crisis. I like that this article has me update my priors.

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