Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Willpower Depletion vs Willpower Distraction

66 Academian 15 June 2014 06:29PM

I once asked a room full of about 100 neuroscientists whether willpower depletion was a thing, and there was widespread disagreement with the idea. (A propos, this is a great way to quickly gauge consensus in a field.) Basically, for a while some researchers believed that willpower depletion "is" glucose depletion in the prefrontal cortex, but some more recent experiments have failed to replicate this, e.g. by finding that the mere taste of sugar is enough to "replenish" willpower faster than the time it takes blood to move from the mouth to the brain:

Carbohydrate mouth-rinses activate dopaminergic pathways in the striatum–a region of the brain associated with responses to reward (Kringelbach, 2004)–whereas artificially-sweetened non-carbohydrate mouth-rinses do not (Chambers et al., 2009). Thus, the sensing of carbohydrates in the mouth appears to signal the possibility of reward (i.e., the future availability of additional energy), which could motivate rather than fuel physical effort.

-- Molden, D. C. et al, The Motivational versus Metabolic Effects of Carbohydrates on Self-Control. Psychological Science.

Stanford's Carol Dweck and Greg Walden even found that hinting to people that using willpower is energizing might actually make them less depletable:

When we had people read statements that reminded them of the power of willpower like, “Sometimes, working on a strenuous mental task can make you feel energized for further challenging activities,” they kept on working and performing well with no sign of depletion. They made half as many mistakes on a difficult cognitive task as people who read statements about limited willpower. In another study, they scored 15 percent better on I.Q. problems.

-- Dweck and Walden, Willpower: It’s in Your Head? New York Times.

While these are all interesting empirical findings, there’s a very similar phenomenon that’s much less debated and which could explain many of these observations, but I think gets too little popular attention in these discussions:

Willpower is distractible.

Indeed, willpower and working memory are both strongly mediated by the dorsolateral prefontal cortex, so “distraction” could just be the two functions funging against one another. To use the terms of Stanovich popularized by Kahneman in Thinking: Fast and Slow, "System 2" can only override so many "System 1" defaults at any given moment.

So what’s going on when people say "willpower depletion"? I’m not sure, but even if willpower depletion is not a thing, the following distracting phenomena clearly are:

  • Thirst
  • Hunger
  • Sleepiness
  • Physical fatigue (like from running)
  • Physical discomfort (like from sitting)
  • That specific-other-thing you want to do
  • Anxiety about willpower depletion
  • Indignation at being asked for too much by bosses, partners, or experimenters...

... and "willpower depletion" might be nothing more than mental distraction by one of these processes. Perhaps it really is better to think of willpower as power (a rate) than energy (a resource).

If that’s true, then figuring out what processes might be distracting us might be much more useful than saying “I’m out of willpower” and giving up. Maybe try having a sip of water or a bit of food if your diet permits it. Maybe try reading lying down to see if you get nap-ish. Maybe set a timer to remind you to call that friend you keep thinking about.

The last two bullets,

  • Anxiety about willpower depletion
  • Indignation at being asked for too much by bosses, partners, or experimenters...

are also enough to explain why being told willpower depletion isn’t a thing might reduce the effects typically attributed to it: we might simply be less distracted by anxiety or indignation about doing “too much” willpower-intensive work in a short period of time.

Of course, any speculation about how human minds work in general is prone to the "typical mind fallacy". Maybe my willpower is depletable and yours isn’t. But then that wouldn’t explain why you can cause people to exhibit less willpower depletion by suggesting otherwise. But then again, most published research findings are false. But then again the research on the DLPFC and working memory seems relatively old and well established, and distraction is clearly a thing...

All in all, more of my chips are falling on the hypothesis that willpower “depletion” is often just willpower distraction, and that finding and addressing those distractions is probably a better a strategy than avoiding activities altogether in order to "conserve willpower".

Thoughts on designing policies for oneself

74 John_Maxwell_IV 28 November 2012 01:27AM

Note: This was originally written in relation to this rather scary comment of lukeprog's on value drift.  I'm now less certain that operant conditioning is a significant cause of value drift (leaning towards near/far type explanations), but I decided to share my thoughts on the topic of policy design anyway.

Several years ago, I had a reddit problem.  I'd check reddit instead of working on important stuff.  The more I browsed the site, the shorter my attention span got.  The shorter my attention span got, the harder it was for me to find things that were enjoyable to read.  Instead of being rejuvenating, I found reddit to be addictive, unsatisfying, and frustrating.  Every time I thought to myself that I really should stop, there was always just one more thing to click on.

So I installed LeechBlock and blocked reddit at all hours.  That worked really well... for a while.

Occasionally I wanted to dig up something I remembered seeing on reddit.  (This wasn't always bad--in some cases I was looking up something related to stuff I was working on.)  I tried a few different policies for dealing with this.  All of them basically amounted to inconveniencing myself in some way or another whenever I wanted to dig something up.

After a few weeks, I no longer felt the urge to check reddit compulsively.  And after a few months, I hardly even remembered what it was like to be an addict.

However, my inconvenience barriers were still present, and they were, well, inconvenient.  It really was pretty annoying to make an entry in my notebook describing what I was visiting for and start up a different browser just to check something.  I figured I could always turn LeechBlock on again if necessary, so I removed my self-imposed barriers.  And slid back in to addiction.

After a while, I got sick of being addicted again and decided to do something about it (again).  Interestingly, I forgot my earlier thought that I could just turn LeechBlock on again easily.  Instead, thinking about LeechBlock made me feel hopeless because it seemed like it ultimately hadn't worked.  But I did try it again, and the entire cycle then finished repeating itself: I got un-addicted, I removed LeechBlock, I got re-addicted.

This may seem like a surprising lack of self-awareness.  All I can say is: Every second my brain gathers tons of sensory data and discards the vast majority of it.  Narratives like the one you're reading right now don't get constructed on the fly automatically.  Maybe if I had been following orthonormal's advice of keeping and monitoring a record of life changes attempted, I would've thought to try something different.

continue reading »

Action and habit

90 Swimmer963 02 June 2011 02:59PM

I remember a poster that hung on the wall of my seventh grade classroom. It went like this:

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become your character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

It was as a competitive swimmer that these words were the most meaningful to me. Most sports are ultimately about the practice, about repeating an action over and over and over again, so that actions become habits and habits become character. The fleeting thought that I really hate getting up at 5:00 am for swim practice is just that: a fleeting thought. But if I justified it with words, speaking it aloud to my parents or siblings or friends, it became a fact that others knew about me, much realer than just a wispy thought. The action of forgetting-on-purpose to set my alarm, or faking sick, was a logical next step. And one missed practice might not be huge, in the long run, but it led easily to a habit of missing practice, say, once a week. A year of this, and I would start to think of myself as the kind of person who missed practice once a week, because after all, isn’t it silly of anyone to expect a twelve-year-old to get up at 5:00 three times a week? And that attitude could very easily have led, over a couple of years, to quitting the team. 

continue reading »

The Cognitive Costs to Doing Things

39 lionhearted 02 May 2011 09:13AM

What's the mental burden of trying to do something? What's it cost? What price are you going to pay if you try to do something out in the world.

I think that by figuring out what the usual costs to doing things are, we can reduce the costs and otherwise structure our lives so that it's easier to reach our goals.

When I sat down to identify cognitive costs, I found seven. There might be more. Let's get started -

Activation Energy - As covered in more detail in this post, starting an activity seems to take a larger of willpower and other resources than keeping going with it. Required activation energy can be adjusted over time - making something into a routine lowers the activation energy to do it. Things like having poorly defined next steps increases activation energy required to get started. This is a major hurdle for a lot of people in a lot of disciplines - just getting started.

Opportunity cost - We're all familiar with general opportunity cost. When you're doing one thing, you're not doing something else. You have limited time. But there also seems to be a cognitive cost to this - a natural second guessing of choices by taking one path and not another. This is the sort of thing covered by Barry Schwartz in his Paradox of Choice work (there's some faulty thought/omissions in PoC, but it's overall valuable). It's also why basically every significant military work ever has said you don't want to put the enemy in a position where their only way out is through you - Sun Tzu argued always leaving a way for the enemy to escape, which splits their focus and options. Hernan Cortes famously burned the boats behind him. When you're doing something, your mind is subtly aware and bothered by the other things you're not doing. This is a significant cost.

Inertia - Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote that humans are "Adaptation-Executers, not Fitness-Maximizers." He was speaking in terms of large scale evolution, but this is also true of our day to day affairs. Whatever personal adaptations and routines we've gotten into, we tend to perpetuate. Usually people do not break these routines unless a drastic event happens. Very few people self-scrutinize and do drastic things without an external event happening.

The difference between activation energy and inertia is that you can want to do something, but be having a hard time getting started - that's activation energy. Whereas inertia suggests you'll keep doing what you've been doing, and largely turn your mind off. Breaking out of inertia takes serious energy and tends to make people uncomfortable. They usually only do it if something else makes them more uncomfortable (or, very rarely, when they get incredibly inspired).

Ego/willpower depletion - The Wikipedia article on ego depletion is pretty good. Basically, a lot of recent research shows that by doing something that takes significant willpower your "battery" of willpower gets drained some, and it becomes harder to do other high-will-required tasks. From Wikipedia: " In an illustrative experiment on ego depletion, participants who controlled themselves by trying not to laugh while watching a comedian did worse on a later task that required self-control compared to participants who did not have to control their laughter while watching the video." I'd strongly recommend you do some reading on this topic if you haven't - Roy Baumeister has written some excellent papers on it. The pattern holds pretty firm - when someone resists, say, eating a snack they want, it makes it harder for them to focus and persist doing rote work later.

Neurosis/fear/etc - Almost all humans are naturally more risk averse than gain-inclined. This seems to have been selected for evolutionarily. We also tend to become afraid far in excess of what we should for certain kinds of activities - especially ones that risk social embarrassment.

I never realized how strong these forces were until I tried to break free of them - whenever I got a strong negative reaction from someone to my writing, it made it considerably harder to write pieces that I thought would be popular later. Basic things like writing titles that would make a post spread, or polishing the first paragraph and last sentence - it's like my mind was weighing on the "con" side of pro/con that it would generate criticism, and it was... frightening's not quite the right word, but something like that.

Some tasks can be legitimately said to be "neurosis-inducing" - that means, you start getting more neurotic when you ponder and start doing them. Things that are almost guaranteed to generate criticism or risk rejection frequently do this. Anything that risks compromising a person's self image can be neurosis inducing too.

Altering of hormonal balance - A far too frequently ignored cost. A lot of activities will change your hormonal balance for the better or worse. Entering into conflict-like situations can and does increase adrenalin and cortisol and other stress hormones. Then you face adrenalin withdrawal and crash later. Of course, we basically are biochemistry, so significant changing of hormonal balance affects a lot of our body - immune system, respiration, digestion, etc. A lot of people are aware of this kind of peripherally, but there hasn't been much discussion about the hormonal-altering costs of a lot of activities.

Maintenance costs from the idea re-emerging in your thoughts - Another under-appreciated cognitive cost is maintenance costs in your thoughts from an idea recurring, especially when the full cycle isn't complete. In Getting Things Done, David Allen talks about how "open loops" are "anything that's not where it's supposed to be." These re-emerge in our thoughts periodically, often at inopportune times, consuming thought and energy. That's fine if the topic is exceedingly pleasant, but if it's not, it can wear you out. Completing an activity seems to reduce the maintenance cost (though not completely). An example would be not having filled your taxes out yet - it emerges in your thoughts at random times, derailing other thought. And it's usually not pleasant.

Taking on any project, initiative, business, or change can generate these maintenance costs from thoughts re-emerging.

Conclusion I identified these seven as the mental/cognitive costs to trying to do something -


  1. Activation Energy
  2. Opportunity cost
  3. Inertia
  4. Ego/willpower depletion
  5. Neurosis/fear/etc
  6. Altering of hormonal balance
  7. Maintenance costs from the idea re-emerging in your thoughts


I think we can reduce some of these costs by planning our tasks, work lives, social lives, and environment intelligently. Others of them it's good to just be aware of so we know when we start to drag or are having a hard time. Thoughts on other costs, or ways to reduce these are very welcome.

How I Lost 100 Pounds Using TDT

71 Zvi 14 March 2011 03:50PM

Background Information: Ingredients of Timeless Decision Theory

Alternate Approaches Include: Self-empathy as a source of “willpower”, Applied Picoeconomics, Akrasia, hyperbolic discounting, and picoeconomics, Akrasia Tactics Review

Standard Disclaimer: Beware of Other-Optimizing

Timeless Decision Theory (or TDT) allowed me to succeed in gaining control over when and how much I ate in a way that previous attempts at precommitment had repeatedly failed to do. I did so well before I was formally exposed to the concept of TDT, but once I clicked on TDT I understood that I had effectively been using it. That click came from reading Eliezer’s shortest summary of TDT, which was:

The one-sentence version is:  Choose as though controlling the logical output of the abstract computation you implement, including the output of all other instantiations and simulations of that computation

You can find more here but my recommendation at least at first is to stick with the one sentence version. It is as simple as it can be, but no simpler. 

Utilizing TDT gave me several key abilities that I previously lacked. The most important was realizing that what I chose now would be the same choice I would make at other times under the same circumstances. This allowed me to compare having the benefits now to paying the costs now, as opposed to paying costs now for future benefits later. This ability allowed me to overcome hyperbolic discounting. The other key ability was that it freed me from the need to explicitly stop in advance to make precommitements each time I wanted to alter my instinctive behavior. Instead, it became automatic to make decisions in terms of which rules would be best to follow.

continue reading »

Anti-Akrasia Reprise

5 dreeves 16 November 2010 11:16AM

A year and a half ago I wrote a LessWrong post on anti-akrasia that generated some great discussion. Here's an extended version of that post:  messymatters.com/akrasia

And here's an abstract:

The key to beating akrasia (i.e., procrastination, addiction, and other self-defeating behavior) is constraining your future self -- removing your ability to make decisions under the influence of immediate consequences. When a decision involves some consequences that are immediate and some that are distant, humans irrationally (no amount of future discounting can account for it) over-weight the immediate consequences. To be rational you need to make the decision at a time when all the consequences are distant. And to make your future self actually stick to that decision, you need to enter into a binding commitment. Ironically, you can do that by imposing an immediate penalty, by making the distant consequences immediate. Now your impulsive future self will make the decision with all the consequences immediate and presumably make the same decision as your dispassionate current self who makes the decision when all the consequences are distant. I argue that real-world commitment devices, even the popular stickK.com, don't fully achieve this and I introduce Beeminder as a tool that does.

(Also related is this LessWrong post from last month, though I disagree with the second half of it.)

My new claim is that akrasia is simply irrationality in the face of immediate consequences.  It's not about willpower nor is it about a compromise between multiple selves.  Your true self is the one that is deciding what to do when all the consequences are distant.  To beat akrasia, make sure that's the self that's calling the shots.

And although I'm using the multiple selves / sub-agents terminology, I think it's really just a rhetorical device.  There are not multiple selves in any real sense.  It's just the one true you whose decision-making is sometimes distorted in the presence of immediate consequences, which act like a drug.

Self-empathy as a source of "willpower"

51 Academian 26 October 2010 02:20PM

tl:dr; Dynamic consistency is a better term for "willpower" because its meaning is robust to changes in how we think constistent behavior actually manages to happen. One can boost consistency by fostering interactions between mutually inconsistent sub-agents to help them better empathize with each other.

Despite the common use of the term, I don't think of my "willpower" as an expendable resource, and mostly it just doesn't feel like one. Let's imagine Bob, who is somewhat overweight, likes to eat cake, and wants to lose weight to be more generically attractive and healthy. Bob often plans not to eat cake, but changes his mind, and then regrets it, and then decides he should indulge himself sometimes, and then decides that's just an excuse-meme, etc. Economists and veteran LessWrong readers know this oscillation between value systems is called dynamic inconsistency (q.v. Wikipedia). We can think of Bob as oscillating between being two different idealized agents living in the same body: a WorthIt agent, and a NotWorthIt agent.

The feeling of NotWorthIt-Bob's (in)ability to control WorthIt-Bob is likely to be called "(lack of) willpower", at least by NotWorthIt-Bob, and maybe even by WorthIt-Bob. But I find the framing and langauge of "willpower" fairly unhelpful. Instead, I think NotWorthIt-Bob and WorthIt-Bob just aren't communicating well enough. They try to ignore each other's relevance, but if they could both be present at the same time and actually talk about it, like two people in a healthy relationship, maybe they'd figure something out. I'm talking about self-empathy here, which is opposite to self-sympathy: relating to emotions of yours that you are not immediately feeling. Haven't you noticed you're better at convincing people to change their minds when you actually empathize with their position during the conversation? The same applies to convincing yourself.

Don't ask "Do I have willpower?", but "Am I a dynamically consistent team?"

continue reading »

Willpower: not a limited resource?

26 Jess_Riedel 25 October 2010 12:06PM

Stanford Report has a university public press release about a recent paper [subscription required] in Psychological Science.  The paper is available for free from a website of one of the authors.

The gist is that they find evidence against the (currently fashionable) hypothesis that willpower is an expendable resource.  Here is the leader:

Veronika Job, Carol S. Dweck, and Gregory M. Walton
Stanford University


Much recent research suggests that willpower—the capacity to exert self-control—is a limited resource that is depleted after exertion. We propose that whether depletion takes place or not depends on a person’s belief about whether willpower is a limited resource. Study 1 found that individual differences in lay theories about willpower moderate ego-depletion effects: People who viewed the capacity for self-control as not limited did not show diminished self-control after a depleting experience. Study 2 replicated the effect, manipulating lay theories about willpower. Study 3 addressed questions about the mechanism underlying the effect. Study 4, a longitudinal field study, found that theories about willpower predict change in eating behavior, procrastination, and self-regulated goal striving in depleting circumstances. Taken together, the findings suggest that reduced self-control after a depleting task or during demanding periods may reflect people’s beliefs about the availability of willpower rather than true resource depletion.

(HT: Brashman, as posted on HackerNews.)

Applying Behavioral Psychology on Myself

53 John_Maxwell_IV 20 June 2010 06:25AM

In which I attempt to apply findings from behavioral psychology to my own life.

Behavioral Psychology Finding #1: Habituation

The psychological process of "extinction" or "habituation" occurs when a stimulus is administered repeatedly to an animal, causing the animal's response to gradually diminish.  You can imagine that if you were to eat your favorite food for breakfast every morning, it wouldn't be your favorite food after a while.  Habituation tends to happen the fastest when the following three conditions are met:

  • The stimulus is delivered frequently
  • The stimulus is delivered in small doses
  • The stimulus is delivered at regular intervals

Source is here.

Applied Habituation

I had a project I was working on that was really important to me, but whenever I started working on it I would get demoralized.  So I habituated myself to the project: I alternated 2 minutes of work with 2 minutes of sitting in the yard for about 20 minutes.  This worked.

continue reading »

Diseased thinking: dissolving questions about disease

236 Yvain 30 May 2010 09:16PM

Related to: Disguised Queries, Words as Hidden Inferences, Dissolving the Question, Eight Short Studies on Excuses

Today's therapeutic ethos, which celebrates curing and disparages judging, expresses the liberal disposition to assume that crime and other problematic behaviors reflect social or biological causation. While this absolves the individual of responsibility, it also strips the individual of personhood, and moral dignity

             -- George Will, townhall.com

Sandy is a morbidly obese woman looking for advice.

Her husband has no sympathy for her, and tells her she obviously needs to stop eating like a pig, and would it kill her to go to the gym once in a while?

Her doctor tells her that obesity is primarily genetic, and recommends the diet pill orlistat and a consultation with a surgeon about gastric bypass.

Her sister tells her that obesity is a perfectly valid lifestyle choice, and that fat-ism, equivalent to racism, is society's way of keeping her down.

When she tells each of her friends about the opinions of the others, things really start to heat up.

Her husband accuses her doctor and sister of absolving her of personal responsibility with feel-good platitudes that in the end will only prevent her from getting the willpower she needs to start a real diet.

Her doctor accuses her husband of ignorance of the real causes of obesity and of the most effective treatments, and accuses her sister of legitimizing a dangerous health risk that could end with Sandy in hospital or even dead.

Her sister accuses her husband of being a jerk, and her doctor of trying to medicalize her behavior in order to turn it into a "condition" that will keep her on pills for life and make lots of money for Big Pharma.

Sandy is fictional, but similar conversations happen every day, not only about obesity but about a host of other marginal conditions that some consider character flaws, others diseases, and still others normal variation in the human condition. Attention deficit disorder, internet addiction, social anxiety disorder (as one skeptic said, didn't we used to call this "shyness"?), alcoholism, chronic fatigue, oppositional defiant disorder ("didn't we used to call this being a teenager?"), compulsive gambling, homosexuality, Aspergers' syndrome, antisocial personality, even depression have all been placed in two or more of these categories by different people.

Sandy's sister may have a point, but this post will concentrate on the debate between her husband and her doctor, with the understanding that the same techniques will apply to evaluating her sister's opinion. The disagreement between Sandy's husband and doctor centers around the idea of "disease". If obesity, depression, alcoholism, and the like are diseases, most people default to the doctor's point of view; if they are not diseases, they tend to agree with the husband.

The debate over such marginal conditions is in many ways a debate over whether or not they are "real" diseases. The usual surface level arguments trotted out in favor of or against the proposition are generally inconclusive, but this post will apply a host of techniques previously discussed on Less Wrong to illuminate the issue.

continue reading »

View more: Next