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[Link] Is Willpower a Finite Resource, or a Myth?

1 Post author: Bitnotri 14 February 2017 02:02PM

Comments (7)

Comment author: Pimgd 14 February 2017 05:04:37PM 1 point [-]

The important parts, for me:

Research subjects who believe in ego depletion (that willpower is a limited resource) show diminishing self-control over the course of an experiment, while people who don’t believe in ego depletion are steady throughout. What’s more, when subjects are manipulated into believing in ego depletion through subtly biased questionnaires at the outset of a study, their performance suffers as well.

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.


Okay so I'm halfway through the article, right, and I get the feeling that this author has a point. Maybe "Willpower" as a term is too broad.

But then I think about Akrasia and how adjusting your situation so that you do not need to expend willpower to take actions which help advance long term goals is helpful for discussing things. And these are... seemlingly in conflict, but both true.

... So is this community using the same definition of willpower as the author?

The author describes his version of willpower as "finite and exhaustible", as something books say you can increase, and the modern definition of willpower, "the capacity for immediate self-control".

I think that adjusting a situation so that you don't need to restrain yourself on a daily basis is a good strategy. One of the reasons for that is that restraining yourself uses resources. The author seems to say that there is no such resource to consume, there is no willpower. Or, more specifically, if you believe that there is such a resource, then there is, and if you don't believe that there is such a resource, then there isn't.

... Then the author concludes that since willpower can only hold you back, humanity as a species should let go of the whole idea. Sure, we'll lose a term to describe this ... "thing", but the advantages will be all the greater.

I'm left confused, though.

Say you erase the idea of willpower from the general population. People still lapse in self-control, but muuuuch less than they do right now. How would you go about explaining your friend (who is having more trouble with self-control than others) that, you know, maybe if he did his groceries shopping earlier in the day, he wouldn't be so hungry during the groceries shopping and thus would be making less impulse buys? Without the concept of willpower, lest you unleash that demon on civilization.

(That's a poor argument though, because I'm saying "but wait, even if everyone is better off, what about this one guy")

Maybe a stronger version; how do you explain to people that forcing everything is bad? That you shouldn't put yourself through life in a way where you have to fight yourself every step of the way?

I think my POV on this is "if what you're saying is true, then yes, we should scrap it. Before we do that, though, I have this one thing I'm worried about..."

Comment author: Wes_W 14 February 2017 06:48:40PM 1 point [-]

"Willpower is not exhaustible" is not necessarily the same claim as "willpower is infallible". If, for example, you have a flat 75% chance of turning down sweets, then avoiding sweets still makes you more likely to not eat them. You're not spending willpower, it's just inherently unreliable.

Comment author: Viliam 15 February 2017 01:07:35PM *  0 points [-]

Similar to the idea "willpower is limited only if you believe that willpower is limited" is this TED talk by Kelly McGonigal who seems to say that "stress damages your health only if you believe that stress damages your health". I would be interested in you opinions.

My current model (based purely on speculation) is that in similar situations at least two different aspects are involved. That there is something that is a limited resource, but that the way how your mind frames the situation can influence how quickly this resource is consumed. For example, the same activity done voluntarily will consume less of the scarce resource that if you do it against your will; or doing an activity for a reward will consume less of the scarce resource than doing the same activity to avoid puishment. That the scarce resource is related to the internal conflict, and a different perception of the situation can reduce the internal conflict. -- But as I said, this is just speculation.

Comment author: sleepingthinker 17 February 2017 10:05:57PM 0 points [-]

My opinion is that you body has a limited capacity to do anything. For example if you are weight training, you might improve year by year, but eventually you will hit a limit of what is humanly possible and won't be able to make any gains.

Willpower is probably similar (but in a much shorter timespan). Willpower has to be a limited resource, since by doing different activities you consume energy and thereby have less energy available to do other things. The fact that you have less energy impacts your willpower.

However on the other hand, the human body is capable of much more than you think. That's where the effect of the second wind comes in. At some points you are able to muster up your last amounts of energy and push through, right at the time you thought you were done.

Comment author: ChristianKl 20 February 2017 10:13:24AM 0 points [-]

What exactly do you mean with "energy"? Something along the lines of chi or more like something measured in calories?

Comment author: Viliam 20 February 2017 09:14:53AM 0 points [-]

There are also examples in the opposite direction. Heartbeat and breathing are active 24 hours a day. People can keep playing for hours. So it's not like any human activity is necessarily limited to short intervals. I guess the proper question would be: "Why is willpower (sometimes) spent so fast?"

Which I guess cannot be answered until we look into details of what constitutes "willpower". (And we may find that actually different forms of "willpower" consist of different components -- maybe even that different people use different mental activities for dealing with the same kind of problem -- so using a single word for all these meanings is confusing.)

Comment author: g_pepper 14 February 2017 09:15:33PM *  0 points [-]

This is a duplicate link; Kaj_Sotala liked to this article here.