Is nothing sacred? First, Paul Bloom tells us that empathy is a bad thing; and now, Carl Erik Fisher tells us there’s no such thing as willpower and we should darned well stop pretending there is.
Writing at Nautilus, Fisher briefly traces for us the history of “willpower,” “self-control,” and the Freudian “superego”. In Fisher’s telling, post-WWII psychology leaned towards determinism and environmental explanations for behavior, until Walter Mischel came along and manipulated a bunch of toddlers into becoming poster children for willpower:
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,” the usual term for willpower in psychological research.
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. Or, as the American Psychological Association defined it in a recent report, “the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.”
Willpower having been thus defined, discovered, or invented, it proved to be in regrettably short supply:
This ability is usually portrayed as a discrete, limited resource, one 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 it seems like a natural analogy to other physical functions like strength, endurance, or breath. In the 1990s, the psychologist Roy Baumeister conducted a key experiment to describe this capacity, which he labeled “ego depletion”: A few undergraduate students were told to resist the urge to eat some fresh-baked chocolate cookies and instead eat from a bowl of red and white radishes, while others were allowed to snack freely on the cookies. Students who were made to exercise self-control performed worse on subsequent psychological tests, suggesting that they had exhausted some finite cognitive resource.
What is it with psychologists and snacks, anyway? And why assume that the effort of resisting temptation led to worse performance on tests—couldn’t it have been the result of eating too many radishes?
In any case, Fisher points out some unintended consequences of our belief in willpower:
Notions of willpower are easily stigmatizing: It becomes OK to dismantle social safety nets if poverty is a problem of financial discipline, or if health is one of personal discipline. An extreme example is the punitive approach of our endless drug war, which dismisses substance use problems as primarily the result of individual choices. Unhealthy moralizing creeps into the most quotidian corners of society, too. When the United States started to get concerned about litter in the 1950s, the American Can Company and other corporations financed a “Keep America Beautiful” campaign to divert attention from the fact that they were manufacturing enormous quantities of cheap, disposable, and profitable packaging, putting the blame instead on individuals for being litterbugs. Willpower-based moral accusations are among the easiest to sling.
If we manage to give up moralizing and stigmatizing about willpower, what do we have left as a way of understanding human behavior? Fisher suggests some alternatives:
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
Another overlooked dimension of self-control is emotion regulation, a scholarly field that has exploded over the past few decades, with citations increasing approximately fivefold every five years since the early 1990s. This component of self-control is also largely ignored by the unidimensional willpower-as-muscle perspective that dominates today’s discussions. Intuitively, though, it should be clear that there’s an emotional component to some kinds of willpower: 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 as we’ve long known in psychotherapy, trying to willfully manage your emotional states through brute force alone is bound to fail. Instead, regulating emotions also includes skills such as shifting attention (distracting yourself ), modulating your physiological response (taking deep breaths), being able to tolerate and wait out the negative feelings, and reframing beliefs.
The conclusion, then, is obvious: willpower, like empathy, is a notion we need to abandon. Carl Erik Fisher directs us to bid it good riddance:
Willpower may simply be a pre-scientific idea—one that was born from social attitudes and philosophical speculation rather than research, and enshrined before rigorous experimental evaluation of it became possible. The term has persisted into modern psychology because it has a strong intuitive hold on our imagination: 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 to Victorian moralizing. But these ideas also have a pernicious effect, distracting us from more accurate ways of understanding human psychology and even detracting from our efforts toward meaningful self-control. The best way forward may be to let go of “willpower” altogether.
All this discussion of willpower has been exhausting; now I need to go have some marshmallows and cookies.