John M. Talmadge, M.D.

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Science on Will and Willpower - Part II

Although he is not known for work in the addictions, Roy F. Baumeister, Ph.D., a social psychologist at Florida State University, writes and does research on willpower, one of the most important issues in alcoholism, drug addiction, and other dependencies. In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, makes the case that willpower is a limited resource subject to being used up. In simple terms, we get up in the morning with a certain amount of gas in the tank, and by the end of the day we can be running on empty.

An excellent video of one of Roy's lectures is on my media page.

We try to control ourselves in all sorts of ways: eating right, exercising, avoiding drugs and alcohol, studying more, working harder, spending less. Baumeister says that the practical significance of all this is enormous. He says: "Most of the problems that plague modern individuals in our society — addiction, overeating, crime, domestic violence, sexually transmitted diseases, prejudice, debt, unwanted pregnancy, educational failure, underperformance at school and work, lack of savings, failure to exercise — have some degree of self control failure as a central aspect."

Baumeister goes on to say that two main traits that seem to produce an immensely broad range of benefits: intelligence and self-control. However, psychology has not found much one can do to produce lasting increases in intelligence. On the other hand, self-control can be strengthened, and the study of self-control is a rare and powerful opportunity for psychology to make a palpable and highly beneficial difference in the lives of ordinary people.

Image of Roy Baumeister

For example, in his research he has found that people perform relatively poorly on tests of self-control when they have engaged in a previous, seemingly unrelated act of self-control: "For instance, in a study in my lab, we invited some students to eat fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies, and asked others to resist the cookies and munch on radishes instead. Then we gave them impossible geometry puzzles to solve. The students who ate the cookies worked on the puzzles for 20 minutes, on average. But the students who had resisted the tempting cookies gave up after an average of eight minutes."

"Such studies suggest," he continues, "that some willpower was used up by the first task, leaving less for the second. The pattern is opposite to what one would expect based on priming or activating a response mode. So we began to think that some kind of limited resource is at work: It gets depleted as people perform various acts of self-control. Over time, we have begun to link this resource to the folk notion of willpower."

Making decisions seems to use up our willpower. After making decisions, people perform worse at self-control. Conversely, after exerting self-control, decision-making shifts toward simpler and easier processes. That can lead people to make poorer decisions, or to avoid making choices at all. Apparently, decision making depletes the same resource as self-control.

One of Baumeister's examples of willpower depletion: "A dieter may easily avoid a doughnut for breakfast, but after a long day of making difficult decisions at work, he has a much harder time resisting that piece of cake for dessert. Another example might be losing your temper. Normally, you refrain from responding negatively to unpleasant things your romantic partner says. But if one day you’re especially depleted — maybe you’re trying to meet a stressful work deadline — and the person says precisely the wrong thing, you erupt and say the words you would have stifled if your self-control strength was at full capacity. What do you call this process? My collaborators and I use the term “ego depletion” to refer to the state of depleted willpower. Initially, we called it “regulatory depletion” because the first findings focused purely on acts of self-regulation. When it emerged that the same resource was also used for decision-making, we wanted a broader term that would suggest some core aspect of the self was depleted. We borrowed the term “ego” from Freudian theory because Freud had spoken about the self as being partly composed of energy and of processes involving energy."

In his book, Baumeister explains that some people imagine that self-control or willpower is something you only use once in a while, such as when you are tempted to do something wrong. The opposite is true. Research indicates that the average person spends three to four hours a day resisting desires. Self-control is used for other things as well: controlling thoughts and emotions, regulating task performance and making decisions. Most people use their willpower many times a day, all day. And toward the end of the day, there is less gas in the tank.

We now know that people can improve their self-control even as adults. As with a muscle, it gets stronger from regular exercise. So engaging in some extra self-control activities for a couple weeks produces improvement in self-control, even on tasks that have no relation to the exercise activities. The exercises can be arbitrary, such as using your left hand instead of your right hand to open doors and brush your teeth. Or they can be meaningful, such as working to manage money better and save more. The important thing is to practice overriding habitual ways of doing things and exerting deliberate control over your actions. Over time, that practice improves self-control. As people deplete willpower, they became increasingly likely to give in to desires they might otherwise have resisted. This was true for all manner of desires: desires to sleep, to eat, to have sex, to play games, to spend money, to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes.

One of the best features of Roy Baumeister's work, particularly his book on willpower, is that he is easy to read, accessible to those of us not trained in clinical research or adept at deciphering scientific papers.

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?"