Willpower is a dangerous, old idea that needs to be scrapped.
By Carl Erik Fisher
Thomas1 was a highly successful and mild-mannered lawyer who was worried about his drinking. When he came to see me at my psychotherapy practice, his wine intake had crept up to six or seven glasses a night, and he was starting to hide it from his family and to feel the effects at work. We discussed treatment strategies and made an appointment to meet again. But when he returned two weeks later, he was despondent: His drinking was totally unchanged.
“I just couldn’t cut back. I guess I just don’t have the willpower.”
Another patient of mine, John, also initially came to me for help with drinking. At our first meeting, we talked about moderation-based approaches and setting a healthier limit. But one month later, he came back to my office declaring that he had changed his mind and made peace with his drinking habits. Sure, his wife wasn’t always thrilled with how much he drank, he told me, and occasionally the hangovers were pretty bad, but his relationship was still fairly solid and drinking didn’t cause any truly significant problems in his life.
In the abstract, John and Thomas are similar: They both succumbed to short-term temptations, and both didn’t keep their long-term goals. But while Thomas attributed that outcome to problems with willpower, John came to reframe his behavior from a perspective that sidestepped the concept of willpower altogether. Both John and Thomas would resolve their issues, but in very different ways.
Most people feel more comfortable with Thomas’ narrative. They would agree with his self-diagnosis (that he lacked willpower), and might even call it clear-eyed and courageous. Many people might also suspect that John’s reframing of his problem was an act of self-deception, serving to hide a real problem. But Thomas’ approach deserves just as much skepticism as John’s. It’s entirely possible that Thomas was seduced by the near-mystical status that modern culture has assigned to the idea of willpower itself—an idea that, ultimately, was working against him.
Ignoring the idea of willpower will sound absurd to most patients and therapists, but, as a practicing addiction psychiatrist and an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry, I’ve become increasingly skeptical about the very concept of willpower, and concerned by the self-help obsession that surrounds it. Countless books and blogs offer ways to “boost self-control,” or even to “meditate your way to more willpower,” but what’s not widely recognized is that new research has shown some of the ideas underlying these messages to be inaccurate.
More fundamentally, the common, monolithic definition of willpower distracts us from finer-grained dimensions of self-control and runs the danger of magnifying harmful myths—like the idea that willpower is finite and exhaustible. To borrow a phrase from the philosopher Ned Block, willpower is a mongrel concept, one that connotes a wide and often inconsistent range of cognitive functions. The closer we look, the more it appears to unravel. It’s time to get rid of it altogether.
Ideas about willpower and self-control have deep roots in western culture, stretching back at least to early Christianity, when theologians like Augustine of Hippo used the idea of free will to explain how sin could be compatible with an omnipotent deity. Later, when philosophers turned their focus away from religion, Enlightenment-era thinkers, particularly David Hume, labored to reconcile free will with the ascendant idea of scientific determinism.
The specific conception of “willpower,” however, didn’t emerge until the Victorian Era, as described by contemporary psychology researcher Roy Baumeister in his book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. During the 19th century, the continued waning of religion, huge population increases, and widespread poverty led to social anxieties about whether the growing underclass would uphold proper moral standards. Self-control became a Victorian obsession, promoted by publications like the immensely popular 1859 book Self-Help, which preached the values of “self-denial” and untiring perseverance. The Victorians took an idea directly from the Industrial Revolution and described willpower as a tangible force driving the engine of our self-control. The willpower-deficient were to be held in contempt. The earliest use of the word, in 1874 according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was in reference to moralistic worries about substance use: “The drunkard … whose will-power and whose moral force have been conquered by degraded appetite.”
In the early 20th century, when psychiatry was striving to establish itself as a legitimate, scientifically based field, Freud developed the idea of a “superego.” The superego is the closest psychoanalytic cousin to willpower, representing the critical and moralizing part of the mind internalized from parents and society. It has a role in basic self-control functions—it expends psychic energy to oppose the id—but it is also bound up in wider ethical and value-based judgments. Even though Freud is commonly credited with discarding Victorian mores, the superego represented a quasi-scientific continuation of the Victorian ideal. By mid-century, B.F. Skinner was proposing that there is no internally based freedom to control behavior. Academic psychology turned more toward behaviorism, and willpower was largely discarded by the profession…