Triumph of the will

by Rob Horning

4 April 2008


I found this NYT op-ed, by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, about strengthening one’s willpower incredibly creepy. Mainly, the experiments used to test willpower seem strange, obliquely laden with all sorts of ideological assumptions about what takes will and what doesn’t:

In one pioneering study, some people were asked to eat radishes while others received freshly baked chocolate chip cookies before trying to solve an impossible puzzle. The radish-eaters abandoned the puzzle in eight minutes on average, working less than half as long as people who got cookies or those who were excused from eating radishes. Similarly, people who were asked to circle every “e” on a page of text then showed less persistence in watching a video of an unchanging table and wall.

Who is signing up for these studies? Can they be considered representative if they volunteer for this sort of thing? Does it require willpower to do a pointless task a scientist demands of you? Isn’t personal incentive important in this context, or is the thrust of the study to suggest that willpower is most needed when a person is unmotivated, indifferent—that will has precisely to do with doing the tasks society demands?

That seems backward to me; I lack will precisely with the things that are important to me and threaten the possibility of deep-rooted failure, at the core level of my aspirations. If I failed to circle some e’s, what difference would that make? Willpower seems to me something that can’t be observed in a laboratory and could probably only be studied through a proxy, something like completing a dissertation or running marathons. But even then, the definition of willpower is problematic. Is it the will to resist temptation, or the will to complete unpleasant tasks, or the will to overcome obstacles presented by the wills of other people?

This semantic confusion leads to crazy sounding recommendations like this, where incomparable goals are all jumbled together as if they are all notions to be plugged into an algebraic equation: “In the short term, you should spend your limited willpower budget wisely. For example, if you do not want to drink too much at a party, then on the way to the festivities, you should not deplete your willpower by window shopping for items you cannot afford. Taking an alternative route to avoid passing the store would be a better strategy. On the other hand, if you need to study for a big exam, it might be smart to let the housecleaning slide to conserve your willpower for the more important job. Similarly, it can be counterproductive to work toward multiple goals at the same time if your willpower cannot cover all the efforts that are required. Concentrating your effort on one or at most a few goals at a time increases the odds of success.”

Making goals into arbitrary variables is perhaps the purpose of framing philosophical ideas in this cryptoscientific fashion. The quotation reveals what seems to be the underlying consequence of research like this, to reify willpower, to change it from an active mental process to a commodity, something you stockpile and count. Only then can it be seen as an activity rather than an inert substance. It is troped as fitness, which is the biochemical correlative of consumerism: “Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use. The idea of exercising willpower is seen in military boot camp, where recruits are trained to overcome one challenge after another.”

How long will it be before someone monetizes this particular finding? “Weak-kneed and irresolute? Send your brain to boot camp! 50 Willpower Exercises to Transform Your Life and Bring Out the Determined YOU!”
1. Circle every e in the metro section of The New York Times. Why? To concentrate, silly!
2. Eat nothing but radishes for lunch. Yes, it’s icky, but how else will you develop the mental fortitude you need for the important tasks in life, like dieting?
3. Force yourself to look at page after page of shoes on Zappos, but wait, here’s the thing: Don’t buy any! It’s weird, I know, but then you will have the determination to buy only the shoes you really need.
4. Brush your teeth with your left hand (or your right if you’re a southpaw!). That will teach you to be determined about the really important things.

You get the idea. Maybe they can have mental gymnasiums where you can pay for the privilege of doing pointless things for a few hours. Make into an exclusive status product (make it expensive and have eligibility requirements) and it can really take off.

The will was once regarded as the essence of a person’s soul—“free will” reputedly had a lot of theological import at one time. One’s will was valuable for its own sake, as the mark of someone who had achieved some kind of self-determination, a purpose in life. Now, apparently, the will is to be regarded as just another resource, to be hoarded for special occasions—a big exam or when you need to turn down chocolate. Now I am going to see if I can muster up the determination to read the rest of the paper. Too bad all the e‘s are blotted out.


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