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.
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.