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[LINK] Lectures on Self-Control and the myth of Willpower

8 Post author: joaolkf 13 March 2015 12:34AM

Last week Professor Neil Levy, a neuroethicist,  gave three lectures on Self-Control at the Oxford Martin School. Roughly, the first lecture targeted philosophical issues, the second empirical issues and the third bridged the two. Neil's summaries and audio are at the bottom. In the next two paragraphs I will briefly summarize the take-home message of the lectures.


Over the three lectures, he offered a new approach to self-control. He argues that will-power is of little relevance to self-control, that the self-control character-trait which correlates with success is not will-power and that relying on will-power alone leads to low levels of self-control. He defends that self-control is mainly the ability of self-management, of managing the environment so that temptations become more costly, less salient or inaccessible - he mentions Facebook nanny, Beeminder, commitment devices and so on. Self-management is the ability of not having to use will-power. Will-power is only relevant insofar as it enables these techniques to be deployed, but once in place the techniques themselves consist in avoiding to use will-power altogether. Will-power is an extremely scarce resource, and we should use the little we have so we don't have to depend on it anymore. He cites numerous evidence in support for his view. To mention a few, people with high self-control character-trait are less able to resist temptations, exert less effortful self-control, but are nonetheless more likely to pick environments with few temptations/distractions and better at developing techniques to ignore temptations (e.g. little children sung, slept, etc.). He contends that glucose role in increasing self-control is exerted by signalling high short-term resource availability, a stable environment, and thus low opportunity costs - but he doesn't expect this effect to hold in the long-term. He predicts that unconscious signals of a stable environment will increase self-control, which helps explains why high social-economic status correlates strongly with self-control. Neil has a blog post discussing how the myth that willpower equals Self-Control prevents the prescription of policies that would use these managerial techniques to increase people's Self-Control. By the end, he hinted his view could perhaps be seen as the extended will view, mirroring the extended mind view.

I believe the first lecture is not especially helpful for LessWrongers as it mainly focuses on contrasting his view with the rationalist view within philosophy, which is not pretty rational and likely false. Those interested in the empirical side will find the second lecture more attractive and should check this blog post summarizing it. I think the take-home message is more extensively spelled out in the third lecture. On the first lecture, there is this post by Professor Julian Savulescu, which particularly addresses the objective stance towards oneself present on Neil's view and opposed by the (philosophical) rationalists. There's some disagreement about to what extend these rationalists would really disagree with this view.

 

Lecture One: Self-Control: A problem of self-management

In this lecture I argue that self-control problems typical arise from conflicts between smaller sooner and larger later rewards. I suggest that we often fail successfully to navigate these problems because of our commitment to a conception of ourselves as rational agents who answer questions about ourselves by looking to the world. Despite the attractions of this conception, I argue that it undermines efforts at self-control and thereby our capacity to pursue the ends we value. I suggest we think of self-control as a problem of self-management, whereby we manipulate ourselves.

Lecture One Audio.

Blog post by Professor Julian Savulescu on the objectifying view defended in the first Lecture.

 

Lecture Two: The Science of Self-Control

In this lecture I outline some of the main perspectives on self-control and its loss stemming from recent work in psychology. I focus in particular on the puzzle arising from the role of glucose in successful self-control. Glucose ingestion seems to boost self-control but there is good evidence that it doesn't do this by providing fuel for the relevant mechanisms. I suggest that glucose functions as a cue of resource availability rather than fuel.

Lecture Two Audio.

Blog post by Dr. Joshua Shepherd summarizing the second Lecture.

 

Lecture Three: Marshmallows and Moderation

There is evidence that self-control is a character trait. This evidence seems inconsistent with the management approach I advocate, since that approach urges that we look to external props for self-control, not to states of the agent. In this lecture I argue, that contrary to appearances, we should hesitate to think that people high in what is known as trait self-control have any such character trait. In fact, properly understood the evidence concerning trait self-control supports the management. 

Lecture Three Audio.

 

EDIT: Changed the title from willpower's relative irrelevancy to the myth of Willpower. Added a link to another blog post.

Comments (14)

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 18 March 2015 04:20:16AM 3 points [-]

He contends that glucose role in increasing self-control is exerted by signalling high short-term resource availability, a stable environment, and thus low opportunity costs - but he doesn't expect this effect to hold in the long-term. He predicts that unconscious signals of a stable environment will increase self-control, which helps explains why high social-economic status correlates strongly with self-control.

Seems related to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broaden-and-build

Comment author: brazil84 13 March 2015 12:10:44PM 3 points [-]

I agree with the idea that you want to organize your life so that you control your behavior with the minimal amount of mental exertion, but I think it would be helpful to define the term "willpower" precisely to help flesh out Professor Levy's argument. Does he offer a definition at some point?

Comment author: joaolkf 13 March 2015 02:25:05PM *  1 point [-]

I think effortful self-control would be one. Probably around the middle of the second lecture he offers a better one as he clearly sets apartment measures of self-control and measures of willpower. Unfortunately I can't remember well enough but it goes along the lines of effortful self-control, the simple and direct resistance to temptation. Looking and smelling the chocolate cake but not eating would take willpower, while freezing the cake so it always takes a couple of hours between deciding to eat and being able to eat it would be self-control as he defines.

Comment author: brazil84 14 March 2015 07:18:03AM 2 points [-]

the simple and direct resistance to temptation. Looking and smelling the chocolate cake but not eating would take willpower, while freezing the cake so it always takes a couple of hours between deciding to eat and being able to eat it would be self-control as he defines.

Right, there seems to be a time factor involved. "Willpower" in this sense seems to mean resisting temptation in the heat of the moment with the temptation immediately available.

But here's a question: Suppose that you know you will be at an office function tomorrow and some tempting food will be served. So you decide in advance that you will not have any. If you've ever tried this, you will see it's a good deal easier to resist temptation if you think about it in advance and mentally prepare yourself. Does this count as "willpower"?

I would say "yes" with a caveat, which is that willpower seems to be more effective if it's exercised in advance. Or perhaps the brain generates a certain amount of willpower per unit time and planning allows you to bring more willpower to bear on a temptation.

Comment author: joaolkf 21 March 2015 03:54:15PM 2 points [-]

I am not sure how much that counts as willpower. Willpower, often, has to do with the ability to revert preference reversal caused by hyperbolic discounting. When both the rewards are far away, we use a more abstract, rational, far-mode or system 2 reasoning. You have rationally evaluated both options (eating vs. not eating the cake) and decided not to eat. Also, I would suspect that if you merely decide this one day before and do nothing about it, you will eat the cake with more or less the same probability if you haven't decided. However, if you decide not to eat but take measures to not eat the cake, for instance, telling your co-worker you will not eat it, then it might be more effective and count as willpower.

Comment author: brazil84 21 March 2015 08:57:02PM *  1 point [-]

I am not sure how much that counts as willpower.

Well it's just a matter of semantics; what is the best way to define "willpower" for purposes of discussion?

Also, I would suspect that if you merely decide this one day before and do nothing about it, you will eat the cake with more or less the same probability if you haven't decided.

I highly disagree with this based on self-experimentation and general observations.

Comment author: peterward 15 March 2015 04:01:37PM 2 points [-]

"He predicts that unconscious signals of a stable environment will increase self-control, which helps explains why high social-economic status correlates strongly with self-control."

What evidence is there that this is true? For what anecdotage is worth (which is probably the only evidence there is on the matter), some of the most out-of-control people I've met have been rich kids. Showing up to a 10-hour shift at a low-wage retail job every day with a smile on your face even though you have medical bills you can't pay--that's real self control. Meanwhile it's rich customer who's the first to go ballistic because their latte came out cold.

Obviously people are going to behave worse in a less stable environment. But I'd wager those who have had to deal with real hardship function better than the socio-economic well off in a crisis.

Comment author: joaolkf 15 March 2015 05:12:41PM 2 points [-]

There's good evidence that socioeconomic status correlates positively with Self-Control. There is also good evidence that people with high socioeconomic status live in a more stable environment during childhood. The signals of a stable environment correlating with Self-Control is his speculation as far as I'm aware, but in light of the data it seems plausible.

I agree they would function better in a crisis, but a crisis is a situation where fast response matters more than self-control. In a crisis you will take actions that are probably wrong during stable periods. I would go on to say, as my own speculation, that hardship - as else being equal - make people worse.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 13 March 2015 02:54:30AM 2 points [-]

Lectures on Self-Control (and willpower's relative irrelevancy)

Self-management is the ability of not having to use will-power.

So willpower isn't "irrelevant" - self management is about managing your will power through limiting the use of it.

Comment author: joaolkf 13 March 2015 04:50:44PM *  2 points [-]

You are right, willpower is not irrelevant, perhaps this was not the best phrasing. I meant that willpower is irrelevant relative to other self-control techniques, but perhaps I should have said less relevant. I have changed the title to "the myth of willpower".

It's important to be made clear he argues that the use of willpower and self-control are inversely correlated, after that minimal amount of willpower it takes to deploy self-management techiniques. It would be incorrect to assume he is defending a view where willpower is as central as in any of the other views (or as intuitively seems to be).

Comment author: buybuydandavis 13 March 2015 07:42:52PM *  0 points [-]

after that minimal amount of willpower it takes to deploy self-management techniques.

Is that your experience in life? It's not mine. It's not what I observe in other people's lives either.

It would be incorrect to assume he is defending a view where willpower is as central as in any of the other views

From your summary, it looks to me like he is an academic selling an old idea with a new label, and insisting it is shiny and new, never before seen. That's what academics do.

I just finished reading Willpower by Baumeister (which I think has been referenced by a few people here previously). A point there, as well, was that willpower is a finite resource, and success comes from adopting strategies which conserve it's usage.

Not that it's unique to him either.

I suggest that we often fail successfully to navigate these problems because of our commitment to a conception of ourselves as rational agents who answer questions about ourselves by looking to the world. ...I suggest we think of self-control as a problem of self-management, whereby we manipulate ourselves.

Isn't this the whole "man riding an elephant" business?

the myth that willpower equals Self-Control prevents the prescription of policies that would use these managerial techniques to increase people's Self-Control.

People have been suggesting "managerial techniques to increase people's Self-Control" since at least Benjamin Franklin.

EDIT: I'm trying to see the value here. The one point that looked interesting is the "resource availability". Also, stability (which really isn't the same thing as being high status). Are there specific techniques of self management that his "new" way of looking at the problem imply?

Comment author: joaolkf 13 March 2015 08:22:59PM 2 points [-]

Neil's theory has different empirical predictions than Baumeister's, for example, it predicts high Self-Control correlates with low direct resistance to temptations. On the second Lecture he mentions several experiments that would tell them apart. They are different theoretically, there's a difference in the importance they give to willpower. Saying you should save water on the Sahara is different from saying you shouldn't lose your canteen's cover.

It is surely my experience in life that people highly overestimate their causal effectiveness in the world, and Neil's lectures convinced me willpower is another of those instances.

Evolutionary signals of environmental stability in childhood (that set the levels of future discounting, mating strategy and so on later in life) are more frequent in wealthier families. For instance, there's research on cortisol levels in earlier childhood, frequency of parent's fighting, wealth and adult life criminality, mating strategy and so on. In evolutionary terms, the correlation between status and stability is pretty high.

Comment author: [deleted] 15 March 2015 05:57:58PM *  0 points [-]

he mentions Facebook nanny, Beeminder, commitment devices and so on.

I'll bite. Those things, for me, instinctually suck. Why? Because they can't use a fucking schedule, or make a checklist (I believe there's a pot on checklists here) and write (hell, use a computer and type) some of their goals or look for them. I do wonder what people were tested or what he bases his info on. Have you ever read an article, or watched a video, or even just flipping a page, and thought to yourself "Wow, that was REALLY stupid"? That's how this looks for me.

On the other hand - humans are not perfect, having a "do this" list is quite handy in case you forget. On reflection, though, your summary does not mention people forgetting, but rather, not having enough "willpower", which means they know what they must do, but for whatever reason they chose not to do it. With a lion's fury, I'll say that they need to get off their lazy ass and start doing the stuff that needs to be done.

I'm also quite confused as there seems to be some clutter around. I'll keep it simple:

Would it not be possible to have a good amount of willpower, have a reasonable amount of self-control, and have a thoughtful amount of planning?

Could we instead of answerring the question above we should just roll over to decision theory and be done with it?

One last thing: is a lack of willpower/self-control or a combination of the two be what is commonly referred to as akrasia here?

(All of this is to your summary. I have not listened to the lectures because I prefer a transcript.)

Comment author: joaolkf 11 March 2016 07:42:11PM 0 points [-]