What Is Willpower?

Monday, March 21, 2016
By dreeves

A kid grabbing a marshmallow off a plate

Our previous post, “Ego Depletion Depletion,” generated a lot of discussion and I found I was contradicting myself on the question of what willpower is exactly.

First a recap, hopefully in plainer English, about what all the fuss is about.

A big finding in psychology is that “willpower is like a muscle”. For example, exerting willpower to not eat pie for breakfast will “deplete your ego” and make it harder to resist watching youtube videos instead of working in the afternoon. That spawned lots of advice about picking your willpower battles in the course of a day. The willpower-as-muscle analogy also led to advice about building up the strength of your willpower by exercising it.

All that advice was built on a lie. The evidence for it now appears to be bogus.

This is a massively big deal for the whole field of psychology because Ego Depletion was a very well-established result — dozens of studies all agreeing — and if it’s wrong then can we really believe any results from the psychology literature? This is psychology’s replication crisis and to the field’s credit they’ve taken it dead seriously, like by launching the Reproducibility Project.

Donuts vs dessert

“But willpower-as-muscle matches my experience!” said multiple people I’ve debated this with, like Scott Alexander. “I can resist donuts at work in the morning much more easily than I can resist dessert after a long, stressful day.”

Well let me ask you this, partially hypothetical people: is it possible you simply value dessert more after a hard day than you do donuts in the morning? That’s what Occam’s razor might suggest. No difference in willpower, just a difference in circumstances/preferences. Maybe it makes sense to reward yourself after hard work, or to relax or indulge when you’re wiped out.

(Mark Forster offered another simple explanation for the donuts-vs-dessert example: you have more stable routines in the morning.)

But I’m not actually taking the hard line that willpower is constant. Maybe hyperbolic discounting gets noticeably more or less severe depending on your level of mental fatigue.

“Willpower = overcoming akrasia by pure introspection”

Let’s define willpower as overcoming akrasia by pure introspection. If we agree on that definition then I have two different claims:

  1. Willpower isn’t any more depletable than, say, ability to do mental arithmetic.
  2. If you align your short and long term preferences then no akrasia and no need for willpower.

I’m not that wedded to #1. I think the donuts/dessert example is more elegantly explained by a simple reassessment of priorities in light of a hard day. But disagreements on #1 may be hair-splitting.

Beeminder’s big claim is that it’s possible to route around willpower altogether.

No need for that hypothesis

Here’s what I mean when I say there’s no such thing as willpower, despite having just defined it. Paraphrasing Laplace, I can explain all behavior simply in terms of responding to incentives. You want this whole pie in your body right now, and also you want to be two sizes smaller by next summer. Conflicting preferences are normally no big deal. You just, y’know, weigh them, make your tradeoffs, and reach a decision. But when the preferences apply at different timescales (pie now, thinner later) humans suffer from a massive irrationality which philosophers call akrasia and economists call dynamic inconsistency and normal people call … being stupidly short-sighted, or in the case of time management: procrastination.

Commitment devices are a way to change your own incentives so that willpower is a non-issue. They make your short-term and long-term incentives line up. There are many less drastic things you can do as well.

Does it take willpower to set up a Beeminder goal?

That may be Beeminder’s Achilles heel. I think it’s similar to starting up any new productivity system, or making a new year’s resolution or whatnot. We often have these little bursts of motivation and the hard part is the follow through. So if you can seize on your next motivation burst to get a Beeminder goal set up then — if Beeminder works as advertised (and please, please talk to us if you feel it doesn’t!) — the follow-through will be in the bag.

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