Q&A: Willpower – fact or fiction?

 

The Question:

I had such an interesting discussion about willpower with a friend last week. She started out saying it’s well known and scientifically proven that willpower does not exist and later on argued that it’s equally well known and scientifically proven that willpower is limited, that it runs out very quickly, so you can only use it a few times and then it’s worn out.

In your books (I’ve read them all, including the one called “Willpower”) you seem to take it for granted, so I’m curious about what you might have to say.

My Answer:

Good question. Yes, these ideas do seem to be common, and it’s often the case that a bit of research about something gets out into the culture, and there it stays.

The first part of your friend’s argument comes from a collection of studies by Benjamin Libet. Using a real-time brain scan, he observed brain activity related to a particular decision before his subjects became aware of their decision. (1)

This gave rise to the idea that free will is an illusion because our brains determine every single thing we do. This is completely hidden from our conscious awareness, and we incorrectly assume that we are making our own free choices.

We all know this happens sometimes; we think of it as being on automatic. Many of our more familiar behaviours occur this way, and it’s very important for us that they do. If we needed to be aware of every single thing we ever did, this would slow us down so much as to seriously impair our lives. So the process of learning any new behaviour – walking, talking, driving, playing a musical instrument – is the process of making enough of the action automatic so that we can use our conscious attention for other things, simultaneously.

However, Libet proposed that it was impossible for us to make any deliberate, conscious decisions. This has now been challenged by a number of people, including philosopher Alfred Mele, who gave a presentation on this at a conference on willpower I attended last summer.

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Comments

  1. Gillian

    I’ve found it helpful to just to forget about the notion of “willpower” and whether I have it or not! The best thing for me is that in following your method of the Outline, I’m able to exercise genuine choice and make decisions which feel increasingly effortless. I’ve moved quite naturally to an Intermittent fasting approach since attending the seminar, and to the outside world it might well look as if I’m exercising massive willpower not to eat breakfast after an evening meal at 6pm but it certainly doesn’t feel like it! And I used to feel all the time that I had no possibility of controlling food choices or amounts and there was quite literally not a split second when I could make conscious intervention. Now I’ve experienced that’s just not the case: I’m no longer operating on autopilot. But maybe the other thing that has helped with this business of “willpower” is that now I’m prioritising my nutritional needs I’m just not ever ravenous enough where I need to dive into crap. If the food available isn’t what I need I genuinely now prefer to wait until I can get what I need. I remind myself no one ever died of starvation between meals!

    • Brilliant to read this. I’d say you are now able to access the power of your free will. What most people think of as willpower, really isn’t, and creates frustration and big effort.

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