I’ve started to read the book Willpower by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. It’s a pretty interesting book so far and it got me thinking about willpower.
One interesting experiment discussed early in the book is quite interesting. In the 1960s, Walter Mischel was studying how a child learns to resist immediate gratification, and performed an experiment in which a four-year-old would be brought into a room, shown a marshmallow, and told that the experimenter would be leaving for a while (15 minutes) and that they could eat the marshmallow any time they wanted, but if they held off until the experimenter returned, they would get a second marshmallow. Some children couldn’t wait at all; some tried to resist but eventually failed; others managed to hold off until the 15 minutes were up. What is particularly interesting about this experiment wasn’t discovered until much later, when Mischel discovered that those who had held off eating the marshmallow went on to get better grades and test scores, become more popular with their peers and teachers, earn more money, live a healthier lifestyle, and so on.
Now, Willpower cites this as an example of the benefits of willpower. But what does this experiment illustrate? Let’s change the experiment a bit. Say that the child can eat the marshmallow whenever the child wants, but there’s no reward for waiting 15 minutes. Does the new experiment still demonstrate willpower? I don’t think a lot of people would; here it’s just a personal preference when you eat the marshmallow; it isn’t better or worse to eat it earlier or later.
So, in my opinion, the quality demonstrated in this experiment isn’t “willpower” in any traditional definition of the term (e.g. some sort of great power summoned from within to enable one to achieve some goal or another) but just an ability to weigh both the present and future consequences of an action in some manner that we would consider appropriate. Actually, a lot of problems in life seem to centre around not weighing future consequences properly. The authors give a long list of problems that are attributed to low self-control: “compulsive spending and borrowing, impulsive violence, underachievement in school, procrastination at work, alcohol and drug abuse, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, chronic anxiety, explosive anger”. However, all of these problems relate to doing what feels good now and not what will feel good later. Compulsive spending and borrowing? It’s nice to get what you want. Violence and anger? It’s a great release. Underachievement in school? Partying’s a lot more fun. Poor eating habits? Sweets and salty snacks just taste so good. Alcohol and drug abuse? Using these substances makes you feel awesome.
Now let’s take another twist on the marshmallow experiment. Say that the child can eat the marshmallow whenever the child wants and if the marshmallow is still there when the experimenter comes back, the child gets a second one, but now the room is full of hungry, marshmallow-loving dogs that would love to snatch the marshmallow at the first possible moment. In this case, waiting 15 minutes to eat the marshmallow wouldn’t demonstrate willpower as much as it would demonstrate idiocy.
Actually, the last scenario probably best represents the way things have been for people throughout most of humanity’s history. Say you’re one of our cave-dwelling ancestors and you come across a few apples growing on a tree. If you were to come back a few days later, they might be somewhat larger and somewhat better tasting; however, if you don’t take the apples now, it’s just as likely that in a few days another animal has eaten the apples, or you’ve starved to death, or you’ve moved on and won’t be back again.
However, our modern world has brought a degree of stability to our lives, making it expedient to value future consequences of our actions. We can be fairly confident that if we sow in spring, we will reap in fall. However, in times of stability, the future goes out the window. If you know that some invading army or another is going to burn or plunder your crop, there’s no point in bothering. If your country is enduring hyper-inflation, such as in Germany after World War I, it’s a good thing to spend everything you have right away and, if at all possible, borrow more money and spend that right away. However, for most people, it probably is a good idea to think for the future.
Anyway, getting back to what I was talking about, I think that these examples suggest that what we call “willpower” isn’t some sort of magical force or great power, but just the ability to evaluate future consequences of actions. Looking at the examples that the authors give in the book above, this seems to make sense; the things that the authors suggest that people are able to control relatively easily, such as sexual urges, are ones where the negative consequences are easily fathomed, while ones that people don’t do such a good job at, such as watching TV or using Facebook or otherwise procrastinating when they need to work or study, are ones in which it isn’t as easy to imagine the future negative consequences.
I would even suggest that “willpower”, using the traditional definition of the word, doesn’t really exist. Furthermore, this ability to evaluate future consequences may not always be useful; there may be circumstances where thinking for the future is best, and circumstances when doing what feels good now is best.
That doesn’t mean that having whatever people have called “willpower” isn’t a good thing; it just means that its nature is different. So, perhaps what we need to do if we want to be successful is to practice looking at the future consequences of our actions and determining what is the best course of action with both present and future consequences in mind. But I think it’s important to call a spade a spade.