Why is our will weak?

The Shrink

You have really thought about it and it is quite clear that the only course of action is to go on that diet, stop smoking or begin writing your novel. And you do make a start, full of enthusiasm. But it’s not long before you fall back into your sweet old ways. Perhaps you conclude the time isn’t right and that you just don’t have the willpower. There’s nothing you can do about that, right?

Wrong. Thinking of “willpower” as an inner power that we either do or don’t have is misleading and counterproductive. The truth is that we do genuinely want to be slimmer, healthier or produce creative work, but we also want something else – be it pleasure, comfort or simply not having to make the effort to fight old habits. Our inclinations and desires can be at odds with each other, some aimed at securing what we want right now and others focused on our longer-term wellbeing. In the ensuing battles, the former often win.

In my years of working with addictions I came to see that there are two main gremlins we should guard against. One is acting quickly and without reflection: you have a sudden urge while you are passing by the cupcakes and immediately buy one, devouring it straight away. The other is deceiving yourself into thinking you can make an exception just for today (it’s your birthday, or you’re particularly stressed). Get ready for this inner game-playing. You can outsmart yourself only if you look ahead and prepare.

An often-quoted example is that of Ulysses, who asked his sailors to tie him to the ship’s mast in order to avoid succumbing to the lure of the sirens. Ulysses knew he couldn’t do it just by gritting his teeth. His willpower consisted of enlisting outside help to stop him acting on what he realised he would feel like doing in the future. In more ordinary circumstances, that may mean we put the temptation out of reach, or make a binding commitment that we can’t escape from. For us, as for classical heroes, the most effective form of willpower is being able to tie ourselves to the sturdiest mast.

The Sage

The weak-willed are usually portrayed as irrational creatures who allow their hot desires to overrule what cooler reason tells them is in their best interests. This is somewhat unfair because, as the philosopher Stephen P. Schwartz has argued, there are many times when it is strength of will, not weakness, which looks rationally puzzling.

Take giving up smoking. Say you’ve had a 20-a-day habit for decades and you want to quit. You pick the time, you pick the day, and then a paper tube stuffed with tobacco implores you to smoke it. Would it really make any difference if you heeded the call?

In the grand scheme of things, one more won’t hurt. That’s not illogical, it’s just true. And, of course, that will also be true of the next one, and the next one, and the next one ...

If you want to give up, there has to be a last smoke, of course. The problem is that there is never a good reason why any particular cigarette should be it. So it seems that it’s never irrational to have just one more. Nor is there ever any rational reason why a given cigarette should be the last one. The same is true for one more glass of wine, one last bit of cake, another day of not going to the gym.

The solution is that we sometimes have to make arbitrary choices about which particular steps we take to achieve certain goals. It doesn’t matter if this or that cigarette is the last one, as long as one of them is. Similarly, no particular piece of cake will ruin our diet but we must spurn enough of them or else we’ll never lose weight. Hence, paradoxically, we find we do have good reasons to commit to a set of actions, even when we have no good reason to do so for each individual act.

If you find that hard to get your head around, then have pity for the apparently weak-willed, who may just show that applying a limited amount of logic can sometimes prove more troublesome than using none at all.

The Shrink & The Sage live together in south-west England

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