John M. Talmadge, M.D.

A Blog Covering Many Topics

Science on Will and Willpower - Part I

The fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous is one of the few places where we will hear discussion of will, willpower, and willingness. Most recovering individuals have never heard of one of the finest philosophers of the 20th Century: Professor Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University. His focus on human will is brilliant, but often overlooked. His analytical philosophy is described in a collection of essays titled The Importance of What We Care About. Early in his career he referred to the study of human will as "the most neglected area in modern philosophy," and he asserted that human will is the characteristic that makes us uniquely human.

We are the only sentient creatures having the capacity to know our own will and assert our will. Frankfurt also observes, in his elegant essays, that human beings are uniquely capable of knowing that there are times when "the will that I have is not the will that I want to have." For example, someone may want to learn to play the piano, but they may say, "I can't find the will to practice." They want to have the will to practice, but somehow it's not there, or it's subordinated to a different expression of will. The same is often true of addicts and alcoholics. Wanting to stay sober, the alcoholic/addict yearns for "the will to stay sober," but often the search for the will comes up empty. Alcoholics Anonymous teaches that alcoholics cannot will themselves to quit drinking—indeed, that self-will and self-centeredness are likely a root cause of the drinking. Yet recovering addicts must be willing. That is, they must be open to the possibility that the group and its principles are powerful enough to trump a compulsive disease.

For decades Frankfurt's scholarship failed to receive the attention it deserved, and then neuroscience became an unexpected ally in the philosophical inquiry. At the University of Illinois, for example, Dr. Ibrahim Senay has studied the concepts of will and willingness from the perspective of clinical psychology. Senay figured out an intriguing way to explore possible connections among will, willingness, intention, motivation and goal-directed actions. In short, he identified some key traits needed to achieve any personal objective, from losing weight to learning to play play piano.

Senay did this by exploring self-talk. Self-talk is just what it sounds like—that voice in your head that articulates what you are thinking, spelling out your options and intentions and hopes and fears, and so forth. It is the ongoing conversation you have with yourself. Senay thought that the form and texture of self-talk—right down to the sentence structure—might be important in shaping plans and actions. What’s more, self-talk might be a tool for exerting the will—or experiencing willingness.

Senay's study involved two groups. One of the groups was told that they might be working on a task (solving a puzzle), and the other group was told that they actually would be working on a task. The first group was instructed to think about whether they would, or would not, be asked to work the puzzles. The second group was told that in a few minutes they would definitely be doing the puzzles. In this clever way, Senay created one group contemplating the question, "Will I be doing this?", and another group thinking, "I will be doing this," declaring their objective to themselves.

As it turned out, people with wondering minds (contemplating what might possibly happen) completed significantly more puzzles than did those with willful minds (thinking what they definitely were about to do). In other words, the people who kept their minds open were more goal-directed and more motivated than those who declared their objective to themselves.

The point is that questions, by their nature, speak to possibility and freedom of choice. Meditating on them might enhance feelings of autonomy and intrinsic motivation, creating a mind-set that promotes success. There is a scientifically verifiable difference between asking, and contemplating, the question "Will I?" versus narrowing the focus to a willful, determined statement, "I will."

What’s more, when the volunteers were questioned about why they felt they would be newly motivated to get to the gym more often, those primed with the question said things like: “Because I want to take more responsibility for my own health.” Those primed with “I will” offered strikingly different explanations, such as: “Because I would feel guilty or ashamed of myself if I did not.”

According to Wray Herbert, who summarized the research in Scientific American magazine, "This last finding is crucial. It indicates that those with questioning minds were more intrinsically motivated to change. They were looking for a positive inspiration from within, rather than attempting to hold themselves to a rigid standard." And there was more: "Those asserting will lacked this internal inspiration, which explains in part their weak commitment to future change. Put in terms of addiction recovery and self-improvement in general, those who were asserting their willpower were in effect closing their minds and narrowing their view of their future. Those who were questioning and wondering were open-minded—and therefore willing to see new possibilities for the days ahead."

In terms of Professor Frankfurt's metaphysical philosophy, the individual who thinks about his will and asks, "Will I?" opens the door to possibility and freedom of choice. The key to satisfaction, Frankfurt says, is "taking ourselves seriously, and getting it right."

In terms of Alcoholics Anonymous, the person who seeks to exercise willpower and "an iron will with grim determination" is much less likely to succeed. The person who struggles with AA is the person who says, "I know what I need to do, and now I just need to do it." The more successful person asks, "If I knew what I need to do, I probably would have done it by now, so I wonder what I will do?"

Two Talks Today to Good Teams

Today I had the pleasure of meeting with the staff at Windhaven House in Dallas, a sober living program for women in addiction recovery. We discussed many of the important issues facing women in recovery today, and I was very impressed with the knowledge and commitment of the team at Windhaven. Later I enjoyed a really tasty lunch at Innovation360, a progressive program developed by my longtime friend and colleague, Dr. Kevin Gilliland. I presented my short talk, "Four Sides to Every Story," outlining the basic concepts advanced by Dr. Paul McHugh of Johns Hopkins. I am happy to share the slides upon request. By the way, i360 has one of the most elegant websites on the net. Kevin and I are thinking about putting up some podcasts and videos, and i360 has already done some great media work.