I quit smoking by pretending there were three of me: past, present, and future. Initially, it was up to present me to conspire with past me to trick future me into doing what we wanted. This took the form of letting my social group see me tearing a cigarette into little pieces every time I usually would smoke one. Destroyed about two cartons this way. I knew they'd make fun of future me for being so wasteful if I ever started smoking again.
Once we got a bit of traction when it comes to reigning in that jerk (future me) we began to realize that diplomacy was more effective than trickery. The compromise now is exactly one cigarette per year. Five years in and I think all parties are happy with the agreement. There's a sort of trans-temporal respect we're building.
This may sound like the ravings of a madman, but people occasionally comment on how balanced and in control I seem to be. I think it's a better way.
In this way, doing things that are enjoyable in the moment but have negative consequences in the future, is not much different from doing something enjoyable that has negative consequences to another person in the present. That is to say, both are morally wrong. Ironically, someone with strong moral sense is far more likely to do the first, to hurt the person they can empathize with the most! (because they will literally become that person lol) Maybe some parallel with "hurting the ones you love most", I dunno though I haven't thought that through.
Your past self hopefully is like your best possible friend who does favors and generally tries to make your life easier. The future self is a stranger you know you will meet soon, and hopefully you can make a good impression. Present self gets to choose whether to do the right thing or not.
The guided meditation might make the concepts a little more obvious.
"Of course willpower exists," I thought. "The fact that it's limited is a symptom of the fact that we are physical entities, and like a muscle, we can exercise it gradually over time to expand that resource."
A few paragraphs later, the author directly addressed the "muscle" analogy, and tore down the points I had intended to make.
I would say the author does point to several concrete examples of superior approaches, including the powerful tools of reframing, moderating physiological response, self-distraction, and building tolerance to and managing negative emotional response.
I felt that the author's examples of how the concept of willpower has been used to shift blame in society were powerful, as well. I think that evolution has given us a strong bias toward the idea that if trying something doesn't work, trying much harder will. Extinction bursts are one example of this. The counterproductive flicker of rage I sometimes feel when working with uncooperative, small, delicate parts, which insists I should use large amounts of physical force, is another. Large amounts of physical force are seldom the right solution in modern times, but in the ancestral environment, it likely was.
I am glad I finished the article. It fits with most of my beliefs, but has also changed my mind, which is the hallmark of a great think piece, in my humble opinion.
I specifically remember learning to control those impulses as a child while playing with toys that consisted of sealed, plastic labirynth with few small metal balls inside that you are supposed to guide to few specific indented spots in the labirynth.
I count this learning experience as one of my greatest lifes achievements.
There is a learned skill to know when to use large amounts of force either physically, emotionally, and/or mentally. The key is knowing when, and for how long which is not always easy or clear.
To use software terminology, he's arguing against abstraction in favour of implementation specifics.
EDIT: The author is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University, whether or not that affects your view of the article is your prerogative.
Some podcast I was listening to had an Olympic athlete on it, they asked her how she avoided slipping up on dietary things like birthday cake, free pizza, etc. She said she doesn't use willpower, she just has a couple bites only. It's this rule she lives by, no stress, no anxiety, just a couple bites and that's it.
I guess I'll follow her lead and take a couple of bites out of this SQL task...
Exactly. Willpower and motivation are fleeting. Real change comes from building habits with self-discipline. This is also why when I want to make a change I do it every day and/or on a very fixed schedule.
People ask how I get up every morning at 6am and workout. I have been doing it for so long I don't really have an answer. It is just what I do. Do I always want to get up and workout? Not really, but what I want doesn't matter. I get up and do it anyways.
That's because it's a habit. We are both conditioned chimps. Working out takes NO willpower for us.
Where willpower/motivation does come into play is the formation of self-discipline and habits. People often need that spark to get started. Look at someone like Goggins with insane self-discipline now, but if you listen to his story it took some very low moments for him to find that initial motivation.
The author tries to present it as though the mere fact that you can have cognitive strategies for improving these decisions destroys the concept of willpower. But it doesn't. Both of these things can be true. We need to get better at teaching people how to re-conceptualize things to improve their willpower, but they also need to have some in the first place! If you have no willpower, all the strategies in the world aren't going to prevent you from eating that cupcake.
I will also add that I am a former addict, and had the same experience as his patient. A big part of quitting for me was indeed a reconceptualization of the issue. But that doesn't mean it didn't also take will. If you tell people in treatment that all they need to do is reframe their addiction, you're lying to them, and they're not going to get better. Yes, reframing is important, and so is a life-architecture that avoids dangerous situations, but there are going to be moments in their lives where their drug of choice is available to them, and in those moments, there is no substitute for will.
The author makes a great case for how we use the term willpower is different scenarios to mean entirely different concepts. While the marshmellow experiment willpower is similar to interpersonal bargaining willpower, the difference is important for defining scientific vocabulary. The author is not talking about colloquial use of willpower. And these two separate use cases of the term need to be rectified.
Granted, the author doesn't discuss solutions. But it seems to me a discussion of solutions would be better as another article.
Cognitive strategies are not in tension with willpower. They are complementary. You tradeoff one for the other.
> The author makes a great case for how we use the term willpower is different scenarios to mean entirely different concepts. While the marshmellow experiment willpower is similar to interpersonal bargaining willpower, the difference is important for defining scientific vocabulary. The author is not talking about colloquial use of willpower. And these two separate use cases of the term need to be rectified.
He's absolutely talking about colloquial use of the term.
> These studies also set the stage for the modern definition of willpower which is described in both the academic and popular press as the capacity for immediate self-control—the top-down squelching of momentary impulses and urges.
> The specific conception of “willpower,” however, didn’t emerge until the Victorian Era...Self-control became a Victorian obsession, promoted by publications like the immensely popular 1859 book Self-Help, which preached the values of “self-denial” and untiring perseverance. The Victorians took an idea directly from the Industrial Revolution and described willpower as a tangible force driving the engine of our self-control. The willpower-deficient were to be held in contempt. The earliest use of the word, in 1874 according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was in reference to moralistic worries about substance use: “The drunkard ... whose will-power and whose moral force have been conquered by degraded appetite.”
These are the same definition. There is no meaningful difference between them as far as I can see.
In any event, it only seems to argue against willpower versus addiction. As someone who has spent his life on-and-off exercising, I finally made a more long-lasting change and have lost 50lbs in 18mo and I'm in the best shape of my life. There's no secret, but the more time you spend thinking about it and focusing on it, and putting it in practice, the easier it gets. To me, it's mostly willpower.
To the article's credit, however, I've had much better luck exercising regularly and cutting out bad foods than I have at cutting out alcohol :)
I'm 46, 6'3", 245.
Frankly it is difficult as a mfer. It feels like pure willpower as I'm not naturally athletic. Orangetheory is helping (holy crap, what a workout!), but also LoseIt (the app). Been at it since November and only have 10 lbs to show. But I will keep at it.
Interesting thing- what finally hooked me exercise-wise was the mental boost, not the physical benefits (which are also great). And the Orangetheory workout is just great- and cost-effective.
I'm going to end up being in the best shape of my life at 47. I wish I had not waited this long.
But I have to log every single thing I eat (and my personal rule is "before it enters my mouth"), and that becomes quite onerous after a few months.
Without tracking, your inputs and outputs are so disconnected. You might 'eat right and work out' out for a month, and see zero results, and give up. In fact I've done dry january maybe 3 years, and each time I said "well, I guess alcohol's not a problem, because I didn't lose a pound!" It's so easy to tell yourself these obvious lies when you're motivated to hear them, and don't see evidence to the contrary.
The other thing is, it made me realize that most of my habits were actually really good, but the few bad ones were far worse than I thought, from a consumption standpoint.
I've been tracking meals for the whole 18mo, and I barely even notice it anymore. I stopped entirely when I went on a 3 week vacation to south america, but the nice thing is, it's so easy to pick up where you left off.
It's really strange to me that the article didn't mention "habit" even once,
 Obviously, this may not apply for everyone. I'm not sure that I'm 'clinically' addicted, but it sure feels like it.
 Well, it did but it was just in a tangential sense of "it became a habit" or similar.
As an aside, I believe we would be prudent to not give in to substances/habits that form addictions. You could say that John/Thomas have incredibly high willpower that they are willing to keep poisoning themselves even though they consciously know the effects. The dependence on alcohol was trained, and now they have an abundance of "willpower" to continue doing just that.
I take it you're referring to abstention?
That would be very hard to do given the wide variety of addictions (everything?)
Think of addiction as a symptom rather than a problem in its own right, the article briefly goes there by revealing that one of the men was stressed.
Second, for your last point, the man seeks a coping mechanism for his stress, but does he lack agency and therefore colloquial willpower when he decides which cooping mechanism he chooses? (That's an up in the air question for a more generalized form.)
I suppose you could argue someone were searching for agency by doing a self destructive thing. I don't think willpower comes into it. Although I would agree willpower and agency are related insofar as if you don't feel you have agency, its probably hard to show much willpower.
But I guess this is why everyone is having a back and forth on here. It arises from ones own philosophical belief on external vs internal loci of control.
My most charitable reading of it, is basically saying willpower isn't scientific enough, more precise words should be used. Combined with willpower (or lack of) has negative connotations, and so can be demotivating.
Does having strong willpower mean that you will be able to resist every single one of your many impulses if you see them as negative? Let me reformulate that: is willpower generalizable?
Though I do agree it is pretty well known that ego depletion isn't replicating and that there's no magical way to strain your mind like some sort of non-fraudulent Uri Geller and achieve "willpower."
I don't think the article made its point cleanly.
And, as the author pointed out, "willpower" is used as an excuse for injustice. That should make us uncomfortable, not more comfortable.
It’s a very interesting article with a tantalizing suggestion that if we just redefine the problem, then we can pass the blame and find other solutions. But I don’t think I buy the logic. Take the litterbug example. The author argues that a more finessed understanding of what motivates people means we don’t have to hold people responsible for littering and can look at big soda for manufacturing litter in the first place. It’s tempting, who doesn’t hate soda these days? But if we don’t hold people responsible for their actions then who is? How do you structure ethics and laws in a socierlty built on preserving individual liberty if you delete ego?
I’m sure in psychology it’s useful to understand how priorities shift and evolve over time. I hear the point that scientific understanding is lacking. Great! But I’m not sure I’m onboard for the extent to which the author argues this should impact our society with respect to human ego. Maybe I’m just not ready to submit to the swarm...
Depending on one's definitions, "willpower" and "temperance" are synonymous. While Augustine certainly wrote about self-control both in Free Will and Confessions, he was largely borrowing ideas from Cicero, who largely borrowed from Aristotle and Plato (see e.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardinal_virtues for a history of this). I don't understand why the author would only go as far as Augustine instead of the 800 years earlier than Plato. The distinction matters because this isn't just a thing that Christians made up to figure out how to make life compatible with a deity we happen to believe in, it's an idea that many thinkers independent of religious perspective have agreed with as an important aspect of having virtue, happiness, eudaimonia, or whatever other term one wants to use.
> The limited-resource concept likely has its roots in Judeo-Christian ideas about resisting sinful impulses
Citation needed. It seems the much more common notion in Western or Judeo-Christian tradition is that all the virtues are practiced habits, and we therefore get better at them as we do them more often. This can be seen in either the writings or living example of at least the following: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, the St. Benedict, St. Anthony and the Desert Fathers, and Francis of Assisi, but probably in lots more.
If the author's claim (that the Judeo-Christian taught the limited-resource concept) were true, then fasting or abstinence like many of us are doing now in Lent would make no sense - fasting is an exercise in willpower. If using willpower made you more likely to not use it later, making it more likely to sin, fasting would make you more likely to sin, not less likely, which would be the opposite of what it's trying to accomplish.
If I recall correctly, I think many of them also said something about when free will is impaired, so although the author does the standard "look, these people were simple and thought X," trope, I think it's a great deal more complicated than that.
Obviously, the usual qualifications apply - one may not agree with any of the above, but it seems that one should represent it accurately.
Once I'm in the habit of going to the gym, it's a lot easier. I've allocated the time. I know the ins and outs, my gear is ready, I know what I'm going to do, it's the 'natural course of action' for the day.
It takes much less 'willpower' to rationalize doing (or not doing something) when the forces you're up against are different.
Also, I think some people have much greater perspective of consequences. Some people live in the moment, and want the rush or feeling of whatever they're about to do. Others can rationalize better how it will affect their lives down the line.
I'm just a little wary of somehow rejecting the notion that 'will', especially as it relates to choice ... doesn't even exist.
For example, Sigmon Freud, while one of the first true scientific minds of Psychology, still created the theory of Psychosexuality. The full theories of psychosexuality is utterly insane by today's standards (Ex: Freud's theory that male children undergo an "Phallic phase" wherein they develop Oedipus Complex and sexual attraction for their mother: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oedipus_complex), but its important to study them if only to understand how easily pseudo-science develops. Also, lots of people still believe in Sigmon Freud's ramblings, even today (Ex: Freud's "Anal Retentive" and "Anal Expulsive" theories are still colloquial concepts, even as modern psychologists have dismissed the idea). So knowing the pseudo-science helps you dismiss the irrelevant stuff.
So under this context: is "Willpower" just as busted as a concept as Freud's Psychosexuality? By demonstrating "Willpower's" roots in Victorian-era literature, this article really speaks to those who have actually studied Psychology: this was a dangerous era that was filled with pseudo-science. And therefore, we must question the concept of Willpower.
With that being said: pseudo-scientific concepts may give rise to true science. The pseudo-science of Alchemy gave rise to Chemistry (Robert Boyle: an Alchemist, is credited with both Chemistry and the modern Scientific Method). But its important to recognize pseudoscience, so we can advance as a people. Alchemists were very wrong about "elements wish to return to perfection: closer to God"... but those Alchemists were the ones who first defined the elements to begin with!
And Freud's ideas of Id, Ego, and Superego ultimately gave rise to modern Psychology and experiments. Perhaps "Willpower" should be treated in the same respect. There's clearly an element of self-control that exists, but it is perhaps poorly understood by... at least... laypeople.
Once again, I'm not very studied in Psychology. But I do know enough about Skinner-boxes and the strong scientific experiments that define addiction. Getting people addicted to something is a very well understood science (precisely exploited by Slot Machines and Loot Crates in modern video games). We all want a solution to addiction, but whatever the answer... its not well understood by laypeople yet.
The article may be a bit provocative by dismissing Willpower from the get-go. But I'm in agreement with its discussion. Perhaps willpower as a concept is at least partially incompatible with reality. But how is it wrong? What concepts of Willpower are false? And is there any nugget of truth we can extract from the concept of Willpower?
First, it has a distinctly moral component to it. The implication is that you have failed as a person if you lack willpower. We discuss willpower as if our minds are purely rational things, which they most assuredly are not.
Second, it does not recognize the asymmetry of arguing with yourself. Especially with things like diet or addiction, your mind will simply remake the playing field to suit itself, and win. There is a reason 99% of everyone who diets to lose weight has failed at the five year point. The only way to succeed is to introduce a mental disorder: OCD.
Can you design an experiment which demonstrates the concept of willpower?
There are "concepts" of Willpower that people believe: does "Willpower" run out when you keep using it? Or does "Willpower" get stronger the more you exercise it? Or is Willpower just completely wrong and completely a red herring?
That's how the field of Psychology ACTUALLY advances: with people performing experiments on hundreds of people, to determine fundamental facts of how the human brain / human behavior works. The first two questions ("exhaustion of willpower" and "willpower exercise") can potentially be experimented. I'm wondering if any studied Psychologist knows of any experiments which can answer those questions.
Without experiments, the field of Psychology death-spirals into pseudoscience. It is EXPERIMENTS that ground us back into reality (Pavalov's Dog. Skinner's box. Etc. etc.) That's my lesson from Psychology class.
Operant Conditioning exists and is 100% reproducible. Slot Machines and Loot Boxes are designed to follow Skinner's experiments on conditioning. Perhaps we can define "Scientific Willpower" as the (theorized) ability to resist conditioning, and develop experiments in that direction.
I mean, people CAN quit slot machines, and give up on video-game loot boxes eventually. Why? What causes people to leave the Skinner-box? Is it an internal-force (ie: "Willpower")? Or is it an external stimulus? Skinner's experiments only studied the addiction-part of the cycle, it seems like the "quitting" part is still an open question.
The actual scientists who employed the scientific method (Pavalov, Skinner, etc. etc.) would enter the field decades after Freud. For better or worse, the best psychologist in the 1890s was Freud. Since Freud has huge impact on the field of Psychology, he's important to study (especially with regards to "movie psychology": the commonly-believed false-psychology propagated by fiction).
In any case, the article draws "Willpower's" historical basis to the rough time period immediately before Freud (the 1850s). That alone is sufficient to bring suspicion to our understanding of "Willpower".
I gave the accepted definition of willpower above. The author trying to redefine the term doesn't make it so.
It's like the author trying to say that endurance is the same as free will, because free will can dictate whether or not you train it.
There is the understanding that people are just the result of their genes and environment - this is common sense. Then there is trying to say that willpower doesn't exist at all - it does, and it's medically defined.
With that being said, conscious effort is not always required to get out of bed in the morning. What if you're stressed out for an exam and you just automatically get out of bed to study a few minutes more? What if you're fully rested or hungry, so that you've no internal debate about whether you should get up or not?