Willpower is a concept designed to demonstrate we will fail

April 23, 2020

 

I have worked with behavioral change models, hypnosis, meditation, and performance improvement for over twenty five years. I’ve become increasingly skeptical about the concept of willpower, and concerned by the marketed self-help obsession that surrounds it. It's always in the media how you might be broken and how you can pay for a product, service, or experience to get you on the path to being better. What I am sharing here is the accumulation of many years of thought, research, and exploration on this topic. 

 

Teddy is a successful lawyer who feels like he is drinking too much. Wendy is a CEO who feels she can't not finish everything on her plate and then go for long stretches not eating. Susan is an ambitious operations manager who has a sex drive that makes her feel always ready but having sex with multiple people is not feeling healthy. When they came to hire me as a behavioral consultant all of these people had instances where they had hidden this behavior from partners, family, coworkers, and friends. All of them felt there were times where their will power was just not strong enough. We discussed the strategies they had tried to moderate this behavior and I asked them to write down the when,where, and what was happening around them for as many instances as they could before we initially met. I asked them to pay attention to how this behavior made them feel and what their internal dialogue was  before, during the craving, and after they gave in. The results of the exercise were strikingly similar with people sharing this compliant. 

 

“I just found I couldn’t cut back."

"I couldn't stop myself after awhile and I didn't want to anymore."

"I just found a reason and I gave in."

"I just don’t have the willpower to resist.”

 

These personal statements share a clear message of being out of control and feeling powerless in an attempt to change course. There is likely components about the behavior that still feel rewarding and work. Even when someone feels out of control at times it does not mean they are ready to abandon a cluster of behavioral options and familiar rewards. A person has to be very motivated for that complete separation of cognitive and behavioral adaption so discussing moderation-based approaches to set and establish limits is where each person in this article began. Another pattern that each of these people shared is one of acceptance. As things got better in their life their stress levels shifted and a more comfortable acceptance sets in. The most common sentiments that these people expressed about this acceptance were, "I've made peace with this." "I re-accessed the situation."  "Sure, I can get carried away but my routine is solid and this didn’t cause any truly significant problems in my life." This exercise begins to bring to the surface the motivations a person wants to change and the rewards and reasons that life may be good enough the way it is. My interaction with them is not as a therapist or to judge them. I'm there to assist them in recognizing their habits, learning how their mind and behavior is working, focusing on feedback, and building effective pathways for them to choose to change. 

 

Everyone succumbs to short-term temptations sometimes, but our priorities assist us to shift our focus and reframe the situation in healthy way most of the time. I wondered if a learned pattern of behavior like this also be effecting how these people achieve their long-term goals and personal objectives? As it turns out it often does. While Teddy attributed those failures to problems with willpower, Susan found she just didn't have the energy to resist what she wanted anymore, and Wendy came to reframe her behavior from a perspective that skirted the concept of willpower altogether. Everyone here did resolve their issues, but in very different ways. The majority of clients I've seen appear to feel more comfortable with Susan's narrative. They would agree with her self-diagnosis that she lacked willpower, and that she is simply making excuses to not deal with thoughts and emotional feedback. Over the course of Teddy's career people have told him that he was rationalizing his problems and his coping fell into self-deception, so that he'd never have to deal with the real problem. Many people have told Wendy that her environment is setting her off. That stress and planned out meals would ensure that she would eat on a schedule and not binge. These strategies of what willpower is and why it starts and stops working deserve skepticism. I believe many of us have become seduced by the mystical status that modern culture has assigned to the idea of willpower itself. Ultimately, this magical concept of willpower is one designed to fall apart on us when we become sick, tired, emotional, or have a very good reason. 

 

Removing the concept of willpower from your plans and strategies to achieve behavioral outcomes may sound absurd at first, but, I think you may change your mind. I’ve become increasingly skeptical about the marketed cultural concept of willpower, and concerned by the industry driven self-help obsession that surrounds it. It's always in the media. Headlines on every medium for how we access information telling us how you might be broken and how you can pay for a product, service, or experience to get you on the path to being better. There are endless books, speakers, classes, and blogs wanting to offer us ways to “boost our self-control,” and even “influence your way to more control over others through willpower.” What’s not widely talked about is how new research has shown many of the principals underlying these messages to be wrong. Researchers ought to be able to duplicate the findings of other scientists’ work, but in the field of Psychology many studies' results could not be replicated. That could mean that the studies were wrong in the first place, but researchers say that the findings tell more about the difficulty of designing a reproducible study than the accuracy of the studies themselves. 

 

The common definition of willpower is self control exerted to do something or restrain impulses. This definition leaves out several important distinctions such as willpower is finite and exhaustible. Willpower is a mongrel concept encompasses a wide and often inconsistent range of cognitive functions. The closer we look at the concept of willpower, the more it appears to unravel. The defining concepts of willpower and self-control have deep roots in western culture that have been passed down generation after generation because of Christianity The idea of free will and having the willpower to chose for oneself was used to explain how sin could be possible with an omnipotent deity. The specific conception of “willpower,” however, didn’t emerge until the Victorian Era, as described by contemporary psychology researcher Roy Baumeister in his book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. During the 19th century, the continued waning of religion, huge population increases, and widespread poverty led to social anxieties about whether the growing underclass would uphold proper moral standards. 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.” Products designed to restrain sinful impulses are still around today but have lost their original purposeful profiteering for dietary religious purity. For example, KELLOGG'S Corn Flakes were originally invented as an "anti-masturbatory morning meal" to reduce the urge to pleasure yourself. The bland cereal was designed to put people off sex and discourage them from pleasuring themselves. Another of Kellogg’s dietary innovations, developed to ensure clean intestines, was an enema machine that ran water through the bowel and then followed it with a pint of yogurt—half delivered through the mouth and the other half through the anus. This one didn't really catch on.

 

In the early 20th century, when psychoanalytic theory was striving to establish itself as a legitimate, Freud developed the idea of a Superego, Ego, and ID.” All of these parts of the mind had willpower and each sought to express their impulses. However, the Superego is the psychoanalytic cousin to willpower, sharing in the same family traits of philosophical roots of Christianity for free will and willpower, the Superego represented the critical and moralizing part of the mind internalized from parents and society. It has the moral role in basic self-control functions and seeks to repress the savage and carnal impulses of the ID. The Superego expends psychic energy to oppose and counter the impulses of the id. Freud gave reason and explanation to how morality and sins of thought won out without returning to cannon of religion. Freud is commonly credited with discarding Victorian mores, and it didn't take long for a theorist to cast the tradition of freedom of choice and will power. B.F. Skinner's theory posited that there is no internally based freedom to control behavior. It was this academic camp of psychology that turned the world to focus on what could be observed and acted on. The mind became a black box of unknowns as the world shifted toward behaviorism, and willpower as a concept was actively disregarded. 

 

That might have been it for willpower, were it not for a resurgence of interest in the study of self-control in the 1960s, American psychologist Walter Mischel set out to test the ways that children delayed gratification in the face of a tempting sweet with his now-famous “marshmallow experiment.” His young test subjects were asked to choose between one marshmallow now, or two later on. It wasn’t until many years later, after he heard anecdotes about how some of his former subjects were doing in school and in work, that he decided to track them down and collect broader measures of achievement. He found that the children who had been better able to resist temptation went on to achieve better grades and test scores. This finding set off a resurgence of scholarly interest in the idea of “self-control,” which is the common search term for willpower in psychological research. The marshmallow test became one of the most famous pieces of social-science research: Put a marshmallow in front of a child, tell her that she can have a second one if she can go 15 minutes without eating the first one, and then leave the room. Whether she’s patient enough to double her payout is supposedly indicative of a willpower that will pay dividends down the line, at school and eventually at work. Passing the test is, to many, a promising signal of future success. The original results were based on studies that included fewer than 90 children  and this study was recently restaged and sought to replicate the results. The researchers adjusted the experimental design in important ways: They used a sample that was much larger, (more than 900 children) and more representative of the general population in terms of race, ethnicity, and parents’ education. When analyzing the test’s results the researchers controlled for certain factors, such as the income of a child’s household, that might explain children’s ability to delay gratification and their long-term success. Ultimately, the new study finds limited support for the idea that being able to delay gratification leads to better outcomes. Instead, it suggests that the capacity to hold out for a second marshmallow is shaped in large part by a child’s social and economic background and, in turn, that that background, not the ability to delay gratification, is what’s behind kids’ long-term success.The marshmallow test isn’t the only experimental study that has recently failed to hold up under closer scrutiny. The concept of willpower here appears to be linked more by privilege but it shares a story whereby anyone may have privilege too. Simply develop your willpower. 

 

The modern definition of willpower has changed very little over the years. Having willpower ability is usually portrayed as a discrete, limited resource that can be used up like a literal store of energy. The limited-resource concept likely has its roots in Judeo-Christian ideas about resisting sinful impulses, and its a natural analogy to other physical functions like strength, endurance, or breath. In the 1990s, Ego-depletion was theorized by Roy Baumeister when he did the famous “cookies and radishes” experiment. In the experiment, participants had to use their willpower to resist the urge to eat cookies on the table in front of them, and eat radishes instead. Afterward, these participants showed significantly less persistence to complete a challenging puzzle than the participants who could eat the cookies. The big idea from that experiment was that when you expend your willpower on one thing, you have less left to take on another. Willpower as a resource that gets depleted was being tested now. He and many other researchers then confirmed this theory by replicating the experiment with different willpower challenges, types of “fuel,” and exercises. In total, over 100 studies were published over the next 18 years with similar results. In 2007, a graduate student at the University of Miami tried to fuel the willpower of participants by using sugar-full lemonade (a popular willpower fuel used by researchers due to the quick spike of energy it provides to the brain).However, the study did not find any difference in the willpower of people who drank the lemonade, versus those who drank lemonade with artificial sweetener (which wouldn’t provide any change in blood glucose or energy).So the experiment was repeated over and over again without any significant results.This student's advisor started questioning the idea of willpower fuel itself in 2010 by running a meta-analysis of all studies on ego-depletion. After conducting the study he and his advisor found a significant “publication bias." A publication bias means that over the near 20 years of ego-depletion studies, the only ones that would make it into published journals are those which confirmed ego-depletion in their participants. This analysis led many other researchers in the field to challenge the whole concept of ego-depletion, or at least its relative impact on our willpower. This led to the latest study in which they tried replicating all of the ego-depletion experiments with no significant results. 

 

The problem with the modern notion of willpower goes far deeper than ego depletion. The usual academic simplifications surrounding willpower are under attack. In a widely-cited 2011 paper, Kentaro Fujita called on the psychology field to stop conceptualizing self-control as no more than effortful impulse inhibition, urging his colleagues to think more broadly and in terms of long-term motivations. For example, some behavioral economists argue that self-control should not be seen as simply suppressing short-term urges but instead understood through the lens of “intrapersonal bargaining”: the self as several different decision making systems often in conflict with one another. This model allows for shifting priorities and motivations over time and seems to confirm subconscious communication difficulties leading to self sabotaging habits  more than any lack or presence of willpower. This is what happened with my clients above as they rationalized and accepted these issues as part of a subconscious internalized calculus of competing advantages and disadvantages. Intuitively, it should be clear that there’s an emotional component to taking action or resisting an action: Stopping yourself from yelling at your annoying relative can be much different from resisting the urge to drink. Emotional self-regulation is a complex function, and trying to willfully manage your emotional cognitive states through brute force alone is bound to fail. Instead, regulating emotional cognitive states must include skills to develop habits to shift attention (distracting yourself ), modulating your physiological response (taking deep breaths), being able to tolerate and wait out the negative feelings, reframing beliefs, and testing out strategies so that they can be practiced. Actions practiced are transformed into habits. A conscientious reframing and retraining out from a problem in this manner would certainly be an example of willpower, but it would not fall into the conventional understanding of the term. Rather than engaging in fighting ourselves against impulses the best solutions teaches the individual to completely reimagine the problem and avoid the fight in the first place. So we label methods of changing our thoughts and behaviors by the different camps that promote solutions and offer a different way of thinking.

 

Either the cultural definition of willpower is too narrowed and simplified or it is an imprecise term representing conscious subconscious communication. Willpower is a artifact of faith and philosophy born from generational attitudes and speculation rather than research. The term has persisted into modern psychology because it has a strong intuitive hold on our imagination and how we tell our stories: Seeing willpower as a muscle-like force does seem to match up with some limited examples, such as resisting cravings, and the analogy is reinforced by social expectations stretching back through recorded history. The best way forward may be to let go of “willpower” altogether and acknowledge how much our subconscious mind plays an active part in our life. 

 

In the end, believing in willpower is the only thing lacking does not help you and it did not help my clients. While Teddy struggled with alcohol he had no problem motivating himself in the positive sense, and he continued to be successful in his professional career. Each client had difficulty resisting their impulses to drink and their problem was not related to their ability to stick with a plan. Some researchers call this quality “self-discipline” and differentiate it from impulse control and resisting temptations. Which of those cognitive functions is the “real” willpower? I think we should stop using this term because it does not help people seek answers to their problems. The concept of willpower does not encourage people establish meaningful strategies that they can practice to focus on what they want instead of attempting to resist impulses that may be used as a somewhat successful coping strategy. There is a lot we can do without depending on the store of invisible energy that is predicted to fail us when things get tough. You may not agree with all my conclusions here but I hope you now have doubhts about telling anyone they need more willpower. 

 

Joseph Crown

 

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