The Will, generally, is that faculty of the mind which selects, at the moment of decision, the strongest desire from among the various desires present. Will does not refer to any particular desire, but rather to the capacity to act decisively on one's desires. Within philosophy the will is important as one of the distinct parts of the mind, along with reason and understanding. It is considered important in ethics because of its central role in enabling a person to act deliberately.
One of the recurring questions discussed in the Western philosophical tradition is that of free will - and the related but more general notion of fate - which asks how the will can be truly free if a person's actions have natural or divine causes which determine them. This in turn is directly connected to discussions on the nature of freedom itself and also the problem of evil.
The classical treatment of the ethical importance of will is to be found in the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, in Books III (chapters 1-5), and Book VII (chapters 1-10). These discussions have been a major influence in the development of ethical and legal thinking in western civilization.
In Book III Aristotle divided actions into three categories instead of two:
- Voluntary (ekousion) acts.
- Involuntary or unwilling (akousion) acts, which are in the simplest case where people do not praise or blame. In such cases a person does not choose the wrong thing, for example if the wind carries a person off, or if a person has a wrong understanding of the particular facts of a situation. Note that ignorance of what aims are good and bad, such as people of bad character always have, is not something people typically excuse as ignorance in this sense. "Acting on account of ignorance seems different from acting while being ignorant".
- "Non-voluntary" or "non willing" actions (ouk ekousion) which are bad actions done by choice, or more generally (as in the case of animals and children when desire or spirit causes an action) whenever "the source of the moving of the parts that are instrumental in such actions is in oneself" and anything "up to oneself either to do or not". However, these actions are not taken because they are preferred in their own right, but rather because all options available are worse.
It is concerning this third class of actions that there is doubt about whether they should be praised or blamed or condoned in different cases.
Virtue and vice according to Aristotle are "up to us". This means that although no one is willingly unhappy, vice by definition always involves actions which were decided upon willingly. Vice comes from bad habits and aiming at the wrong things, not deliberately aiming to be unhappy. The vices then, are voluntary just as the virtues are. He states that people would have to be unconscious not to realize the importance of allowing themselves to live badly, and he dismisses any idea that different people have different innate visions of what is good.
In Book VII, Aristotle discusses self-mastery, or the difference between what people decide to do, and what they actually do. For Aristotle, akrasia, "unrestraint", is distinct from animal-like behavior because it is specific to humans and involves conscious rational thinking about what to do, even though the conclusions of this thinking are not put into practice. When someone behaves in a purely animal-like way, then for better or worse they are not acting based upon any conscious choice.
Aristotle also addresses a few questions raised earlier, on the basis of what he has explained:
- Not everyone who stands firm on the basis of a rational and even correct decision has self-mastery. Stubborn people are actually more like a person without self-mastery, because they are partly led by the pleasure coming from victory.
- A person with practical wisdom (phronesis) can not have akrasia. Instead it might sometimes seem so, because mere cleverness can sometimes recite words which might make them sound wise, like an actor or a drunk person reciting poetry. A person lacking self-mastery can have knowledge, but not an active knowledge that they are paying attention to. For example, when someone is in a state such as being drunk or enraged, people may have knowledge, and even show that they have that knowledge, like an actor, but not be using it.
Many people believe they could improve their lives if only they had more of that mysterious thing called willpower. With more self-control we would all eat right, exercise regularly, avoid drugs and alcohol, save for retirement, stop procrastinating, and achieve all sorts of noble goals. Take, for example, the results of the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America Survey. The survey asks, among other things, about participants’ abilities to make healthy lifestyle changes. Survey participants regularly cite lack of willpower as the No. 1 reason for not following through with such changes.
In 2011, 27 percent of Stress in America survey respondents reported that lack of willpower was the most significant barrier to change. Yet although many people blame faulty willpower for their imperfect choices, it’s clear they haven’t given up hope. A majority of respondents believe that willpower is something that can be learned. Those respondents are on to something. Recent research suggests some ways in which willpower can in fact be strengthened with practice. On the other hand, many survey participants reported that having more time for themselves would help them overcome their lack of willpower. Yet willpower doesn’t automatically grow when you have extra time on your hands. So how can individuals resist in the face of temptation? In recent years, scientists have made some compelling discoveries about the ways that willpower works. This report will explore our current understanding of self-control.
Lack of willpower isn’t the only reason you might fail to reach your goals. Willpower researcher Roy Baumeister, PhD, a psychologist at Florida State University, describes three necessary components for achieving objectives: First, he says, you need to establish the motivation for change and set a clear goal. Second, you need to monitor your behavior toward that goal. The third component is willpower. Whether your goal is to lose weight, kick a smoking habit, study more, or spend less time on Facebook, willpower is a critical step to achieving that outcome.
At its essence, willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals. And there are good reasons to do so. University of Pennsylvania psychologists Angela Duckworth, PhD, and Martin Seligman, PhD, explored self-control in eighth-graders over the course of the school year. The researchers first gauged the students’ self-discipline (their term for self-control) by having teachers, parents and the students themselves complete questionnaires. They also gave students a task in which they had the option of receiving $1 immediately or waiting a week to receive $2. They found students who ranked high on self-discipline had better grades, better school attendance, and higher standardized-test scores, and were more likely to be admitted to a competitive high school program. Self-discipline, the researchers found, was more important than IQ in predicting academic success. Other studies have uncovered similar patterns. June Tangney, PhD, of George Mason University, and colleagues compared willpower by asking undergraduate students to complete questionnaires designed to measure their self-control. The scientists also created a scale to score the student’s relative willpower strength. They found the students’ self-control scores correlated with higher grade-point averages, higher self-esteem, less binge eating and alcohol abuse, and better relationship skills.
The benefits of willpower seem to extend well beyond the college years. Terrie Moffitt, PhD, of Duke University, and colleagues studied self-control in a group of 1,000 individuals who were tracked from birth to age 32 as part of a long-term health study in Dunedin, New Zealand. Moffitt and her colleagues found that individuals with high self-control in childhood (as reported by teachers, parents and the children themselves) grew into adults with greater physical and mental health, fewer substance-abuse problems and criminal convictions, and better savings behavior and financial security. Those patterns held even after the researchers controlled for the children’s socioeconomic status, home lives and general intelligence. Such findings underscore the importance of willpower in nearly all areas of life.
We have many common names for willpower: determination, drive, resolve, self-discipline, self-control. But psychologists characterize willpower, or self-control, in more specific ways. According to most psychological scientists, willpower can be defined as:
- The ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.
- The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling or impulse.
- The ability to employ a “cool” cognitive system of behavior rather than a “hot” emotional system.
- Conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self.
- A limited resource capable of being depleted.
What is Willpower?
What is will? What is willpower? To be able to manage it, you must first understand what the word means.
'Will' is the ability to make conscious choice. We all have free will and make our own choices, even if these are to obey the commands of others.
Flowers do not have will. Animals have a degree of will. Humans have more, simply because they are better at thinking and can make informed choices.
When something can be done 'at will' means one can act at any time of choosing without hindrance. Greater will is needed when there are obstructions.
A person may be described as 'wilful' if they do not easily submit to the requests or commands of others. They do what they like, breaking rules and laws without concern for what others may think (other, perhaps, than to delight in the sense of control this brings).
Will is related to desire. If you do not want something very much, then the will to succeed is likely to be weak. This is reflected in the saying 'A faint heart never won a fair lady.' On the other hand if you have a strong desire, then you will be more likely to persist. Another saying is 'Where there's a will, there's a way.'
Exertion of will as self-control may be viewed as a conflict of desires, for example where we both want to get angry and know that we should not. From a psychoanalytic position this looks like a conflict between id and superego.
There is a scientific argument that our unconscious mind is actually in charge and that conscious thought is just the perceived surface of the total unconscious. Whether this is true or not, we still have what we call choice. The alternative is to be fatalistic and be blown by the winds of the world.
Willpower is the motivation to exercise will. A person with strong willpower will assert decisions even in the face of strong opposition or other contradictory indicators. A person with little willpower will give in easily.
Getting what you want takes willpower, whether it means you doing something or others doing things for you. To succeed, this means first you must know what you want. Then you must be determined to get it, even in the face of extreme difficulties.
Will and power are closely related, as using will is exercising power. Powerful people often exercise what seems to be a strong will, although this often comes from the confidence that having power creates rather than directly from having the power. In a reversal, people who have strong a strong increase their power as a result.
5 Surprising Facts About Willpower
If only you had more willpower, you would easily stick to your diet or exercise program, right? Nope.
It turns out you need a lot more than willpower to do things like that. It's not just about self-control. In fact, willpower might be the most misunderstood of virtues.
Once you get wise to how willpower works, you'll know how to use it, why it can go off the rails, and how to get it back on track.
What Is Willpower?
The American Psychological Association calls willpower "the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals."
Using willpower sometimes means not doing something, like skipping that second slice of cake you really want.
“Many people think you’re either born with willpower or you’re not. But it’s actually like a muscle you can strengthen over time.” -- Marina Chaparro, RD
Or it may call for a delay, like having a cooling-off period before you buy something that wasn't in your budget.
Willpower can also be about taking positive action, like working out as you had planned, though you really don't feel like it.
These five truths about willpower will change how you think about and use this inner resource to help meet your goals.
1. Your willpower is like a piggy bank.
Just like dollars in your bank account, your willpower is in limited supply. On any given day, you should budget your willpower so you have it when it counts.
For example, if you plan to hit the gym after work, pack a lunch. You may not have the wherewithal to resist pizza for lunch and also work out on your way home.
One thing can lead to another -- in a good way. One of the best things about willpower, according to Marina Chaparro, RD, is that growing self-control in one area of your life leads to other positive changes.
“It changes the way you think. Once someone gets back to the gym, they may also start eating better,” Chaparro says.
2. Your willpower is like a muscle.
“Many people think you’re either born with willpower or you’re not,” Chaparro says. “But that’s not true. It’s actually like a muscle you can strengthen over time.”
You work out your willpower a little differently than you exercise your abs, but both routines require doing it over and over.
Setting small, incremental goals that you regularly meet is the best way to boost your willpower. Much like with your body, if you overdo it by taking on a bigger challenge than you’re ready for, you won’t get stronger. You’ll just be sore.
3. Your feelings affect your willpower.
The connection between your emotions and your ability to turn down a cookie is not obvious, but it’s is definitely there.
A hard day at work can limit your ability to meet goals later in the day.
It's not just feelings that affect willpower. Anything that involves a lot of thinking and decision-making will make you more vulnerable to temptation later on.
4. You need more than willpower.
Willpower matters, but you’ll also need other strategies to help you keep on track.
By its very nature, willpower is something that comes and goes. And it can be gone when you need it most.
One of the most effective tools you can have is known as “precommitting.” It’s a technique that takes willpower out of the equation. You scrub your environment of temptations you know are likely to test you.
An example of precommitting is getting rid of all your junk food and not buying any more when you are at the grocery store. A shopping list you stick to is another good habit that can supplement your willpower.
5. Willpower is a renewable resource.
You're human. Just like everyone else, there will be times your willpower runs out. But it is possible to restore your supply.
Take time out for yourself as a way to recharge your willpower batteries. “If you get stressed, take a short walk,” Chaparro says.
She finds that the most rejuvenating “me time” is unstructured and offers freedom from your routine. Listening to music is another proven way to help restore your willpower.
5 Tips for Boosting Your Willpower
April 23, 2012 | The Main Dish
Good habits are foundational for happiness--but to create them, you need willpower.
Who among us has not made a plan to get up in the morning and exercise, but then hit snooze one time too many, sleeping through our morning jog?
We may have been super-inspired by the incredible brain-boosting properties of exercise. We may have had every intention to start an exercise plan and stick to it. But then… we didn’t. Our warm bed sucked us in. We’ll exercise tomorrow.
What we need is willpower. Once we get in the habit of exercising—or of staying calm in the face of a toddler meltdown, of not checking our email after five o’clock, or of doing anything else we want to have the resolve to do—we don’t need to try so hard. But for now, because we are in the habit of pushing snooze—or yelling, or checking email compulsively all evening—we need self-discipline.
Here are five tips for strengthening your willpower.
1.Get enough sleep.That’s seven to eight hours for adults, at least nine for teens, or 10 to 12 for elementary and middle school kids.
Sleep deprivation makes us susceptible to temptations, like Facebook and that chocolate covered cookie over there, for physiological reasons. Self-control takes a ton of brain power, and when we are tired, our bodies don’t tend to deliver enough glucose to our brain for it to get the willpower engine going.
2. Meditate for five minutes a day. Sit up straight and focus your attention on your breath. When your mind wanders, as it will, you’ll be building willpower when you simply notice that your mind has wandered and you bring your attention back to your breath.
As Kelly McGonigal notes in her awesome book The Willpower Instinct, the worse you are at meditation, the better it is as an exercise for building self-control. Here’s why: In order to check your impulsive tendency to snag that donut off the counter, you need to build self-awareness.
When you are aware of what you are doing (e.g., “I’m feeling tempted to scarf that down.”), you’re actually engaging the part of your brain you need for willpower, rather than letting your impulses take over. Meditation gives you practice at engaging your self-awareness; as a bonus, deep slow breathing also helps strengthen your self-control.
3.Lay off the cocktails. Science of the blazingly obvious, I know, but face it: We often have a glass of wine right before we need willpower to make healthy choices at dinner. Alcohol lowers your blood glucose, which a series of studies shows can dramatically weaken your willpower. (You’d be better off drinking sugary soda before testing your will, although I’m not actually recommending that.)
Alcohol also reduces self-awareness, and it is self-awareness that we need most to bring us back to our goals (see #2 and #5).
4. Make a plan for dealing with the temptations you will face. What will you do when things go wrong? Don’t leave your answer to chance or your whims; instead, write out a plan, however simple.
If you are trying to stop snapping at your children when they’re running late, make a plan for what you’ll do when the’re dawdling and you are in a big, big hurry. Write out what you’ll do instead of yelling—e.g., take deep breaths, walk away from the car, etc.
If you do blow it? Forgive yourself and move on. You are only human, and judging yourself as a bad parent or lazy slob will make you less likely to meet your goals, and more likely to give into your impulses.
5. Remind yourself WHY you are doing what you are doing, and what you will lose if you give up. Why are you trying to start your new habit or quit your old one? Be honest as you do this; remind yourself what you really want, rather than what you think you should want.
For example, I could tell myself, or my neighbors, that I’m exercising more because I want to be a good role model for my children (what I should want). But what I really want even more than that is to fit into my jeans and feel healthy. Research suggests that these less moralistic motives tend to be more effective.
So ask yourself, frequently: How do you want to feel? Then visualize what you will lose if you give in to temptation.
I’ve mined literally dozens more tips for improving willpower and forming habits from the four amazing, research-based books listed below. If you want a concrete plan for strengthening your willpower and you have time to read only one, I recommend McGonigal’s book.
What Is Willpower?
Our previous post, “Ego Depletion Depletion,” generated a lot of discussion and I found I was contradicting myself on the question of what willpower is exactly.
First a recap, hopefully in plainer English, about what all the fuss is about.
A big finding in psychology is that “willpower is like a muscle”. For example, exerting willpower to not eat pie for breakfast will “deplete your ego” and make it harder to resist watching youtube videos instead of working in the afternoon. That spawned lots of advice about picking your willpower battles in the course of a day. The willpower-as-muscle analogy also led to advice about building up the strength of your willpower by exercising it.
All that advice was built on a lie. The evidence for it now appears to be bogus.
This is a massively big deal for the whole field of psychology because Ego Depletion was a very well-established result — dozens of studies all agreeing — and if it’s wrong then can we really believe any results from the psychology literature? This is psychology’s replication crisis and to the field’s credit they’ve taken it dead seriously, like by launching the Reproducibility Project.
Donuts vs dessert
“But willpower-as-muscle matches my experience!” said multiple people I’ve debated this with, like Scott Alexander. “I can resist donuts at work in the morning much more easily than I can resist dessert after a long, stressful day.”
Well let me ask you this, partially hypothetical people: is it possible you simply value dessert more after a hard day than you do donuts in the morning? That’s what Occam’s razor might suggest. No difference in willpower, just a difference in circumstances/preferences. Maybe it makes sense to reward yourself after hard work, or to relax or indulge when you’re wiped out.
(Mark Forster offered another simple explanation for the donuts-vs-dessert example: you have more stable routines in the morning.)
But I’m not actually taking the hard line that willpower is constant. Maybe hyperbolic discounting gets noticeably more or less severe depending on your level of mental fatigue.
“Willpower = overcoming akrasia by pure introspection”
Let’s define willpower as overcoming akrasia by pure introspection. If we agree on that definition then I have two different claims:
- Willpower isn’t any more depletable than, say, ability to do mental arithmetic.
- If you align your short and long term preferences then no akrasia and no need for willpower.
I’m not that wedded to #1. I think the donuts/dessert example is more elegantly explained by a simple reassessment of priorities in light of a hard day. But disagreements on #1 may be hair-splitting.
Beeminder’s big claim is that it’s possible to route around willpower altogether.
No need for that hypothesis
Here’s what I mean when I say there’s no such thing as willpower, despite having just defined it. Paraphrasing Laplace, I can explain all behavior simply in terms of responding to incentives. You want this whole pie in your body right now, and also you want to be two sizes smaller by next summer. Conflicting preferences are normally no big deal. You just, y’know, weigh them, make your tradeoffs, and reach a decision. But when the preferences apply at different timescales (pie now, thinner later) humans suffer from a massive irrationality which philosophers call akrasia and economists call dynamic inconsistency and normal people call … being stupidly short-sighted, or in the case of time management: procrastination.
Commitment devices are a way to change your own incentives so that willpower is a non-issue. They make your short-term and long-term incentives line up. There are many less drastic things you can do as well.
Does it take willpower to set up a Beeminder goal?
That may be Beeminder’s Achilles heel. I think it’s similar to starting up any new productivity system, or making a new year’s resolution or whatnot. We often have these little bursts of motivation and the hard part is the follow through. So if you can seize on your next motivation burst to get a Beeminder goal set up then — if Beeminder works as advertised (and please, please talk to us if you feel it doesn’t!) — the follow-through will be in the bag.