The strange, mutating story of "willpower" and what we think it might be as of right now

"Willpower" began as an element of philosophical/theological arguments, used to explain riddles like how humans could commit sin even though they were created by a perfect, all-powerful god -- but it took on new meanings through the Enlightenment and then the Victorians imbued it with mystical, all-important significance, as a kind of synonym for morality and goodness.

After a detour through Freudian ideas like "superego," willpower came under scientific scrutiny in the 1960s in the lab of Walter "Marshmallow Experiment" Mischel, who proposed a link between bad life outcomes and willpower.

Today, with Mischel's work failing to replicate, willpower is once again up for debate, and experimental psychologists and philosophers are engaged in heated debate about what willpower is, whether it is just one thing, how we can have more of it, and whether we should want to.

Like everyone, I struggle with willpower (for example, here I sit on 6 hours' sleep, writing a blog post, because I know that in the long run I will be able to catch up on my sleep and I also know that I will feel better for having read, synthesized and summarized this article), and find myself formulating unconscious theories about what I'm actually doing when I "exercise willpower." I use Ulysses pacts and other cognitive "hacks" to try to reconcile my long-term and short-term desires.

This long article really illuminated things for me: first, by exploring the idea believing certain things about willpower (for example, that willpower is like a draining, rechargeable battery) seems to make it true, and the idea that willpower isn't a unitary thing. The "willpower" we use to exercise when we're tired is very different from the willpower we exercise when we force ourselves not to snap at people we're upset with.

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.4 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—which is what happened with my patient John, who would say that he simply reevaluated his drinking issues in light of the complex calculus of competing advantages and disadvantages.

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.

Against Willpower [Carl Erik Fisher/Nautilus]

(via 3 Quarks Daily)