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The Science Of Willpower

The science of willpower. How to build it. What it can and cannot do.

In this book cover "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength," by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, is shown. (AP) 

The world is an unpredictable place. It’s comforting to think we at least have some self-control. Willpower.

But willpower itself is slippery. Some days, some times we may have it. Some days, some times we may not. To eat or not eat the doughnut. Study the extra hour. My guests today have studied what willpower is. What bolsters it. What cuts it down. What influence it has in lives when starting places and circumstances can be so wildly different.

This hour On Point: we’re looking at the science and circumstances of willpower.

-Tom Ashbrook


John Tierney, New York Times columnist and co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

Roy Baumeister, psychology professor at Florida State University and co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

From Tom’s Reading List

The New York Times “Ever since Adam and Eve ate the apple, Ulysses had himself tied to the mast, the grasshopper sang while the ant stored food and St. Augustine prayed “Lord make me chaste — but not yet,” individuals have struggled with self-control. In today’s world this virtue is all the more vital, because now that we have largely tamed the scourges of nature, most of our troubles are self-inflicted. We eat, drink, smoke and gamble too much, max out our credit cards, fall into dangerous liaisons and become addicted to heroin, cocaine and e-mail.”


You can find a PDF excerpt here.


“You Can Get It If You Really Want” by Jimmy Cliff
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones

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  • Wm.James from Missouri

    Some people with damage to a part of the brain called the insula have been able to give up cigarettes instantly, according to researchers.—————-Might your guest comment on the Brain’s Insula and Von Economo neurons often called, “VENS” , the large cigar-shaped cells tapered at each end, and they are found exclusively in the frontal insula and anterior cingulate cortex, a type of cell found in only humans, great apes, whales and possibly elephants ( as far as I have read ).

  • Wm.James from Missouri

    Talis Bachmann at the University of Tartu in Estonia has shown that is is possible to reduce a persons ability to lie by dampening the brains activity in the Dorso-lateral Prefrontal Cortex (DLPFC) by using Tran cranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).—————————————–See  the Sept. 6, 2011 article at:—http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21128284.400-powerful-magnets-hamper-our-ability-to-lie.html —————————————————————————————-Finally we have a method that will be used someday to prevent politicians from doing us wrong !

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      This is frightening.

  • Yar

    I know this hour is dedicated to will power of the individual, but what about the willpower of a community.  What keeps communities working together?  What happens when that erodes?  Last hour was about the EU, is USA stronger because of deficit funded Federal Safety-net programs?  It seems we are in the same boat! What happens as those programs are threatened?  I contend the lightening bolt of anarchy strikes when the gap between rich and poor becomes too wide.  How do communities become violent?  What happens when the poor no longer have the willpower to tolerate their current level of exploitation?  In other word can you predict and explain mob behavior?

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      In America, the basic unit is the individual, not the community.

      • Yar

        I disagree, the basic unit is the family, you create free radicals as individuals.  Communities are built by family units, prisons are populated by individuals.

        • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

          America was founded on the principle of individual liberty.  Those “free radicals” are necessary to our kind of society.

          • Yar

            Yes, and we have destroyed the family in the process, parents leave their children because they can cash out their marriage and leave their spouse to raise the kids on their own.  Our hormonal feedback system is designed to support family,  the modern workplace interferes with that feedback system, we then self medicate to ‘feel right’ swinging the pendulum of hormones with a result of mood swings.  We are a slave to the biology we create in our body.

          • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

            Societies that value family or society as a whole over the individual are stagnant.  Societies that value the individual advance.  Feel free to go back to a mud hut in a rigid village.

          • SusannnB

            I’d rather be happy in a mud hut than alone and trusting no one.

          • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

            Nothing in what I wrote suggests paranoia or living the life of a hermit.  My point is that when a society values the collective over the individual, it becomes a totalitarian state.

          • SusannnB

            There’s a big difference between valuing “the collective” and valuing the family or valuing humanness.  I agree that valuing the *state* above valuing the individual will lead to totalitarianism, but I don’t agree that valuing the relationship between people above the individual leads to totalitarianism.

            The original “unit” of human society was the tribe, usually probably about 150 members strong. To me, that type of society seems more natural than either a state-centered view, or an individual-centered view.  And it’s even more natural than a delineated “family”, which ignores most bonds that aren’t genetic.

            But, er, we’re getting pretty off topic. Sorry….

          • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

            I’ve lived in several small Southern towns in which conformity to the family and the village was the highest virtue.  That life is constricting, stifling.  The family or the village creates a basic level of survival, but advancement is the act of an individual.

          • nj

            Nothing is really possible solely as an individual. You have the “liberty” to do as you please, but every single thing one needs in a modern society relies on the collective.

          • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

            Certainly, a society provides a surplus of resources that allow individual choice.  What I’m saying is that the emphasis, in a society that values liberty, is on the individual.

  • NowillPower

    Ah…This subject is too much effort.

  • Gregg

    Will power is a choice and a lack of it is not a valid excuse for anything.

    • Cory

      Thanks for bringing a heaping helping of conservative American ugliness to the discussion table.

      Let me complete the circle for you.  Personal responsibility and the failed Obama presidency.

      • nj

        Stop yer whining! Americka’s the land of Rugged Individuals, doncha know! Yee ha!!

    • Ellen Dibble

      There are scientific studies showing that people come with various size helpings of willpower, and that to a large extent determines how far they get in achieving certain aims.  I believe it is called the marshmallow experiment.  Something like that.  Leave the child with the sweets and see who makes it through the waiting game.

  • Rational

    Will power arises from having a viable goal. If the goal cannot be achieved, then will power looks like insanity.

    • AC

      what if the goal itself is insanity?

  • Cabmanjohnny

    This subject triggers two thoughts in my mind, Nietzsche and sales modivation tapes from the 1980′s. Always been suspicious of such and anything with “power” attached. The only will that concerns me is “will I get paid” when I finish my job? If not, then I need to attach some power.

  • Stillin

    When I hear the word willpower, I think of the many, many alcoholics /drug addicts, who would stop, if they could. I have witnessed so many people fail at a sober life on their own, trying to will their own healing. I have also seen many get their lives back through groups. Is willpower more effective through numbers together? Jimmy Cliff’s song, which is on the playlist for this subject, is so appropriate…he is awesome even in his 60′s if you get a chance to catch him, do, he’s great.

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      The addicts made a choice to enter into addiction, something that erodes will.

      • Stillin

        Not everyone becomes addicted. I personally don’t believe anyone would “choose” the life of an addict, on that Mr. Camp, we disagree.

        • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

          We choose whether to start using the substance in the first place.

          • Stillin

            Some people try something and decide it’s not for them, including alochol, and some become addicted. I don’t believe people become addicted every time they try something. Some substances are more addictive than others. I wouldn’t be a member of the camp of you tried it so now you get what you deserve.

          • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

            Many of us can drink alcohol with no bad (and possibly some good) effects.  The bad choice comes when a person uses a substance to achieve something that he should achieve on his own.

          • Stillin

            I personally wouldn’t link the word achievement as a motivating factor when trying alcohol/drugs.

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      Ah, there’s a suggestion:  AA is an outsourcing of willpower.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Humans are a complex mix of genetic determinism, psychological software, and free will.  The trend of the last century has been to deny the latter, but without free will, we’re nothing more than other animals.

    • nj

      Don’t forget influence/conditioning/brainwashing/distraction, etc. from the prevailing socio-cultural environment.

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

        Right–I try to forget the excuses that people make.

        • nj

          It’s hardly an “excuse.” It’s the environment we live in, largely invisible, unexamined, or unrecognized, as water is to a fish.

          • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

            You haven’t had to listen to teenagers whine, I take it.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    The better song for the break would have been “Free Will” by Rush:

    “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

  • Ellen Dibble

    I made a case for willpower being genetic.  Could it be that various kinds of illness interfere with the exploitation of that?

  • http://www.vickiarkens.com Vicki Arkens

    Self control is one of the “fruits of the spirit” which are listed in the New Testament. When human willpower fails, as it often does, we need to be lifted up and over the conflict. 

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      I’m a humanist.  We may get help from the gods or from each other, but ultimately, it’s orur responsibility to raise ourselves.

      • Guest-22

        Ultimately, it’s our responsibility to raise each other. We are how “the gods” or “God” do/does that work. Help for one another, when we fail or falter, with compassion, is how we regain willpower, to keep going in the face of our inevitable death, which levels us all and spares no one. Despite will power. Possible exception = Jesus of Nazareth, but the jury’s still out on that for many. But in the instance of the all-too-human Jesus, he attained “God-ness” the moment he surrendered all his will power. That’s the message. Resurrection from nihilism happens by obliterating the individual will out of compassion for all. As in Buddhism.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Is willpower coupled with bribery (religion is very good at that, what with heaven and all) — is that the same as, um, confidence?  Faith?

  • Lucian Nicholson

    I think will power has to have a reason or initiative to work. I quit smoking by using my option to simplify my life. I looked at smoking as “clutter” in my life.

  • Yar

    What about the hormone feedback system.  What we think affects how we feel, how we feel affects what we think.

  • Bill

    I find the ones that go on and on about about will power (more the lack of it) are the ones that have never really had to use it to get to their station in life.

    People that have been challenged by willpower (and the lack of it) tend to be more compassionate on the issue whether they succeed or not.

  • Ellen Dibble

    The philosopher said, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Maybe that’s appropriate at a certain point.  What point?  When we’re being cheated and lied to left, right, and center?

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      Actually, Epicurus would like today’s discussion, since his message was about self control.  The quotation that you gave was a parody made by his critics.

      • Ellen Dibble

        How so?  Self-control in what?

        • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

          In everything.  Epicurus was more of an ascetic, rather than an epicure, in the modern sense of the word.

          • Ellen Dibble

            By ascetic, do you mean he predetermined that if he felt a desire, he would squelch it, per se?  

          • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

            His asceticism came from the idea that the senses distracted us from learning the higher truths that the mind can perceive.  (These terms aren’t used in the modern sense.)  He actually lived a simple life to restrain the senses.

        • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

          On of his key points was humanism–we can’t blame anyone else for what we do.

  • Yar

    There are plenty of smart people who are exploited to the point they lose their will.  Don’t compare willpower outside of a predatory work environment.  If you are not white and wealthy in the US you have a whole different experience on a daily basis. 

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      I’ve taught inner city teenagers in the past, and they made plenty of choices–bad choices, but choices nonetheless.

  • Dayvkay

    Your guest is missing the difference between self control and external control. When parents tell their children to sit up straight self control does not come into it.

    Self control is taught to children by helping them shape their own goals and then helping them measure their own progress or achievement.

    The habit of conforming to others goals erodes self control.

    • Brett

      Dayvkay, I thought the guest glossed over this, as well. I was the sort of child who rebelled against external forces exerting control and sometimes appeared undisciplined and impulsive. When I imposed self control, I found I could easily accept challenges and control impulses, etc. Any “intervention” with a child should include some kind of self-monitoring component.

  • Ellen Dibble

    The doctor is in:  Too much deployment of willpower leads direct to migraine headaches.  (Remind you of any certain rigidly controlled political candidate?)

  • john

    the AA view of will-power:
    “Our whole trouble

    had been the misuse of willpower. We had tried to bombard

    our problems with it instead of attempting to bring it into

    agreement with God’s intention for us.”

    • Anonymous

      There is no god. 

      • Yar

        Is that the gospel according to @J__o__h__n:disqus ?

        • Anonymous

          No, prove I’m wrong though. 

          • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

            Belief in a god is a narrative choice, not a scientific determination.

          • Heaviest Cat

            I never thought ,I would agree with you anything Greg

          • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

            Shocking, ain’t it?  Others have had the same moment.  ;)

    • john

      replace the term then with the “howling tao” and see how that works… I suspect it will similarly 

  • Anonymous

    I’m about 2/3 into this book.  I plan to finish it today, it’s a good book, and I recommend it!

  • Robert Dente

    What is the objective of your book?  I’m somewhat confused; is your book a self-help book—with exercises and hints for increasing your willpower? 

    Or, is it a book that analyzes the anatomy of willpower and is meant to inform the reader about the benefits willpower?  

    • Anonymous

      I’m about 100 pages away from completing this book.  So maybe I can help here.  It’s not a self help book.  It’s a science book with some helpful suggestions.

      The book presents the science of Willpower, from experimentation and the results.  It also presents the history of it, and shows some colorful and illustrative examples.By showing the results of their experiments, they also give some suggestions on how to increase it that follow naturally from their findings.  

  • Ellen Dibble

    I think a lot of people find themselves with a weak link to willpower might be those whose “leaders” and “teachers” manage to mislead them, impose targets and goals that happen to be inappropriate.  At a point, someone seriously misled learns to ditch all that, go to ground, and start to rebuild the bones of what matters.  No small task that.

  • Bill

    In meditation, willpower is not about staying present, it’s about blamelessly bringing yourself back every time you find you’re not.

  • Tina

    The time when my total welfare — and that of my family — was most at risk, was when I called upon my history of Willpower to pull me (and us) through in a very direct way.  Unfortunately, that “ridge of willpower” that I walked upon to accomplish this was so “defined”, so “evident”, that in came Greedy, Evil people who knew that THEY would gain if they “helped” me, by escorting me in my own Self Control and Directedness.  That is to say, my Willpower at this one point was so “clear” and I was so articulate about it, that I was EASILY exploited, to the long-term detriment of my family and me!  

    I do NOT speak against Willpower because of this experience; I only state this as a warning — who would think that at one of your strongest points in life, that you would be identified as “prey”?  That is what happened to me!  

    As always, I love your show and gain so much from listening to it!  Thanks!

    • Ellen Dibble

      This sounds like the way religious sects or cults can take advantage of people who want to be devoted to something, to be totally controlled and part of something bigger than themselves.

  • jean chapin smith

    Could you please make reference to connection,learnings, relationship between will power and ADD ( or ADHD)

    • Tina

      Thank you for asking this!!!  Earlier, Ellen Dibble asked something generally like your question, also!  Our family includes some individuals with ADD and others without, and your question is in need of MAJOR STUDY and understanding!   Thanks!

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      I’ve seen too many children use a diagnosis of such as an excuse for failing.

  • Jean chapin smith

    Could you please make reference to connection/ relationship between will power and ADD (ADHD)….how is it useful etc.   I just tuned in but suspect it hasn’t come up yet Thank you

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000548153595 Imogen Spencer

    I am trying to start my kids off with better self control than I have. Here’s a great summary of a program that teaches kids will power. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=76838288

  • Ellen Dibble

    I think you can focus and control to extraordinary degrees, but if there are issues of emotional conflict that play into the situation, the exercise of that focus/control will affect the brain negatively, probably partly genetic, partly environmental (what have you been exposed to since the year one).  Addiction would play into this saying that the brain perpetrates its own dysfunction.  But besides that, look at unemployment, divorce, illness, the falling apart of all sorts of things we try to keep together much more successfully if things are proceeding in an orderly fashion.   
        I end up focusing mostly on criminal behavior, and looking at the choice to ignore the norms and values around me in favor of an alternate set.  Then you sort of splice it on.  See Agatha Christie.

  • Yar

    What about the willpower of a diabetic?

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      Just keep snacks around.  I’ve earned a Master’s degree, taught college for twelve years, had stories published, and so forth.

    • Brett

      I may not be able to “will” my pancreas to more efficiently produce insulin, but I can take my insulin, monitor (and respond to) changes in blood sugar levels, and so on…  

  • Dennismorgan

    how do you differentiate between will power and a non functioning executive management function in the brain
    some people such as me with ADD HA fry my brain with something as easy as throwing my socks into the hamper; discipline can be instilled Paris Island and the Marine Corps that one can subjugate their willfulness to preserve themselves  The executive functions are often invoked when it is necessary to
    override responses that might otherwise be automatically elicited by
    stimuli in the external environment. For example, on being presented
    with a potentially rewarding stimulus, such as a tasty piece of chocolate cake,
    a person might have the automatic response to take a bite. However,
    where such behavior conflicts with internal plans (such as having
    decided not to eat chocolate cake while on a diet), the executive
    functions might be engaged to inhibit that response

    • Anonymous

      Dennis, if you have ADD, look up ‘dual-n-back’ test.  This is a program that has been shown -scientifically- to increase your working memory, and your IQ.  

      Your working memory is directly related to attention span.  So, if you increase it, your attention span will increase.

      The ‘dual-n-back’ programs are available on iPhone and on the internet.  Good luck solving your problem.

    • Brett

      One person’s reinforcer is another’s consequence! 

  • Sksbh

    “Will power” as being discussed on your show is based on an Euro-American conception of self and identity. Will Power is defined as self-contained, autonomous, and a trait. In other cultures/religion, such as Buddhism, suffering is the basis of all human life and  will power alone is not going to reduce human suffering. We need a wholesome, aware and spiritual basis for living life that is based in the idea of ethics and compassion. 

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      And the West conquered the East; the West reached the Moon; the West has conquered many diseases.  I’ll take the Western approach.

      • Ron O

        I suppose if you threw a man into a cage with a lion and you returned an hour later to see the aftermath, you would have to conclude that the lion was more valuable than the man and would take the primitive “approach” any day. Technological superiority is not the only factor that determines the value of a society. Who looks happier, a NASA astronaut or the Dali Lama?

    • Ron O

      It goes even further than this. In Buddhism, the Self is regarded as an illusion and clinging to it is the single greatest obstacle to spiritual integrity. The point of meditation is to concentrate on something else (the breath, for example) to shut off the internal dialog that always lives in the past or the future, but seldom in the present where it belongs. The purpose is to subdue the self or ego. Will power is a super manifestation of the Self. 

  • Ellen Dibble

    I think our culture tries to encourage risk-taking, which may be planful, but it is not the same kind of willpower that leads you on the straight and narrow.  It says to go out on a limb and leap, even if you fall, fail, dramatically.

  • Heaviest Cat

    I don’t know anything about this subject and I’m weak-willed when it comes to food but aren’t there brain studies that show the futility of “will power’ becuase such cravings are ingrained into your brain? THis doesn’t justify or excuse self-indulgence but it seems that there are more effective ways to deal with cravings  than mere “will power”. Incidentally what is a right wing ideologue like JohnTierney doing in the science section of the new York Times?

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      Science is apolitical.

      • Anonymous

        I use to think that, but not any more.  In general it is true, but it is not always the case, so your statement, unqualified, is wrong.

        In fact if you read Scientific American has had a few articles over the decades on this subject.  Many industries hire scientist to publish papers to confuse earlier findings and add more doubt in social policies so that the ‘right thing’ will be delayed or never done, especially in the realm of the environment.

        In fact, even mathematics is not immune.  If you want to know more, just read Great Feuds in Mathematics (you don’t need to read the whole book.).  As for the articles, I’d have to dig through 30 years worth of the stuff to find it.  I’m not about to do that, but there is a term for it in science, something like ‘confusion industry’. 

        Anyways, if you agree that science is a social activity, then it can fall prey to human folly just like anything else.

        • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

          Oh, I agree that scientists are human.  I wrote that science is apolitical.  When politics gets injected, what happens then isn’t science anymore.

          • Anonymous

            If you want to get more philosophical, then I must say that science is really just a study of inter-subjectivity, and so politics is always a part of science.  You can’t separate the two.  And having written a few papers, and worked in a few research labs, there is a ton of politics that take place behind the scenes.  I know of a few stories of how different research labs teamed up to get their papers published in Nature which if they didn’t coordinate, may not have gotten their papers published.

            In addition to Great Feud of Mathematics, a book on chemistry called Same Not the Same also talks about this.

            Science is a human activity so it falls prey to all the vices, and the science you mention is just an censored version of it, and actually, not how science is done.  As an analogy, what your saying is like saying math is about theorems followed by proof and *that* is math, but in actuality, that’s 1% of it.  To me, it’s not even the most interesting part of math (or science).

          • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

            Sorry–science is an objective study of reality, independent of our opinions or politics.  We may fail to do science, but science itself is not to blame.

            Please don’t refer to Heisenberg here, since that’s not relevant.

          • Anonymous

            Take the environmental papers that are part of the ‘doubt industry’.  The science in the papers are legitimate and they have been published using valid scientific methods and peer reviewed, yet they just confuse the larger picture.  This happens not only in environmental science but in the pharmaceutical industry as well.  Is it science?  Of course it is, is it political?  Yes.

            That you believe science is apolitical, yes that is how I conceive of it in principal, but I know it’s an overly simplistic view.

            Finally, I wouldn’t bring up Heisenberg, I’d bring up the letter between Newton and Leibniz.  Quantum physics is just a more recent version of this ancient debate.  But that’s another thread.  

            Anyways I am  glad you think about these things even if we don’t agree.  You really should read the books I recommended.  I’d love to debate this longer, but unfortunately, I’d be “Off Point”.  :)

      • Heaviest Cat

        theoretically yes, but JOhn Tierney is not. That’s why he doesn’t belong on the Science page. UNless ,fo ciourse, he’s countered by ,say, a voice from “Science in the Public Interest”, which he is not.

        • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

          He can’t make valid statements about some aspect of science?    Of course, psychology doesn’t belong on the science page, either.

          • Heaviest Cat

            yes, he can, Greg but why does he enjoy exclusive exposure?

    • Guest-22

      Conservatives are all about so-called will power. E.g., the jobless should just WILL themselves to work, get a job or start a business to get off welfare. If on welfare, they must use will power not to: have sex, create more babies, eat cheap high-calorie foods, drink too much, gamble, use drugs, have accidents, get sick and need health care, get depressed, get old, let their house fall apart, etc. Anything that costs society “too much” money. And society needs will power to “rein in spending” and “cut taxes.” According to them we have all these problems because True Americans lack True Will Power. It is the Norman Vincent Peale ideal of the power of positive thinking run amok.

      The fallacy of this whole train of thought is that no one can be successful without the assistance of other people. Will power is strengthened by the power of community backing and working together. When people are told to be “rugged individualists” and they inevitably fail, because they’re only human and because of advertising and other ploys DESIGNED to break down people’s will power, it’s because the community backing to bolster their will power is lacking.

  • withheld

    I was wondering what the guests have to say about people who are mentally challenged. I have problems with anxiety and depression and  have been on antidepressants for 16 years, and have always wondered whether I will be able to survive without antidepressants just by training my mind and self control. I have been trying different cognitive techniques, though not very diligently over the past few years but have not been too successful. I have survived through graduate school and also currently doing research in one of the top universities in Boston but day by day I feel that I am losing out in this competitive field. I am not being productive but I still feel optimistic that if I can control my mind in the right manner it will be possible to move forward.  I would appreciate any feedback. 

    • Ellen Dibble

      I didn’t hear about depression on the show, but I’ve been thinking about your post.  I have heard for years that long-distance walking creates the balance of hormones that effectively supplants any tendency to depression.  I don’t know how often one needs to stir the hormones like that to get the effect.  But another bit of medical lore seems related, and that is the way a body can be untrained from allergic responses by being presented with a titrated amount of the offending substance until the body relearns the way to skip the allergic response.  It reminds me a little of homeopathy, and I have a body that can be trained very quickly with certain homeopathic nudges.  And it seems to me I have achieved shifts in physiological disposition through concerted  long-distance walking.  I’ve thought it was because I was on vacation and I liked exploring Paris or London, but be that as it may.  
           I can imagine clinical depression as counterproductive over-training in willpower to the extent that the personality no longer thinks it’s okay to bubble up; it starts with an iron bar that suppresses the kind of light that keeps our psychological chlorophyll churning into our “leaves.”  I can imagine that.  I’m not saying it’s so.  But for a fair proportion of us, the command, “Uncork yourself; let your light shine,” might be the bit of childhood training that was missed, not the consistent training in obedience and in holding impulse is abeyance.  Quite the reverse.

    • Brett

      By developing strategies to assist us in areas where a mental or physical challenge might interfere with our ability to fully realize ourselves, we can learn to compensate for some so-called limitation. This requires creativity, humor, “attending to data” (which is to find some way to measure whether the developed strategies work), patience and being able to recognize success.

      A person with paraplegia, say, will probably never be able to walk, no matter how strong his/her resolve, but he/she can find the right assisted technology to meet his/her mobility needs.

      Sounds as though you are on the right track in exploring different cognitive techniques. As an adjunct to that, keeping those activities which promote feelings of contentment/pleasure/fulfillment in balance, and consistently participating in them, is important to a sense of well being.    

    • Lori C

      Regarding the mentally challenged… I work with the developmentally disabled and they are as individualized as anyone else.  There are are some who excell at changing negative behaviors, improving their diet, exercising, and trying new challenges.  There are also those who will not change their regimented routine despite any enticement or encouragement.  For the later, at least one individual has acknowledged that they feel “safe” and they do not want to be judged if they attempt to change and then fail.    

      That last sentiment fails to explain why I try not to eat high-caloric foods every day, but by noon I have had a brownie or other snack! 

  • Ellen Dibble

    I dispute the idea that willpower is a quantity that can be depleted or used up.  I don’t know why, but I’ve got to think about that.  Maybe it’s like IQ where the nerve connections might be helped out by diet and exercise.  Maybe not.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    It is gratifying to hear a psychologist on this side.  As I wrote the other day, psychology is a kind of philosophy, and these philosophers are sound.

    • Anonymous

      Definitely read the book.  It’s worth it.  But, it raises a ton of questions, and none of it addressed in the book.  I will be emailing the authors soon on it.

  • Brett

    I found the talk about practicing little exercises to instill self-discipline, like using one’s non-dominant hand to do tasks ordinarily assigned to one’s dominant hand, interesting; discussion didn’t really do much of an examination in this realm, though…

    I’m left handed but have worked consistently throughout my life to develop strength and fine-motor coordination in my right hand. I play all my musical instruments right handed. I play some sports right handed. I’ve also re-trained myself to do most of my gardening activities (e.g., pruning and weeding) using my right hand as the dominant one. I never really thought about how those little challenges might strengthen the “willpower” muscle (I’ve done so to promote balance, increase fine-motor coordination and save precious tendons in my dominant hand) , but I have found that, in general, trying/developing activities that are not particularly natural to me has helped me enormously in my life. 

    I don’t much care for the term “willpower,” there’s too much wrapped up in that expression. To “possess” “willpower” connotes having a strong, disciplined mind; to lack “willpower” means to be flawed/weak in some way. Neither quite rings true for me. Then there are the inevitable nature vs. nurture/free will vs. determinism arguments, which I find tiresome; both concepts come into play in shaping our “traits.”

    As psychology goes, I am more of a behaviorist than anything, not so much a Skinnerian sort, though…Those external forces which are  reinforcing or present consequences, that we can recognize and assist in shaping how we navigate through the world, are complex and very individual to the person. We can reshape the way we think about the external world (cognitive behavioral). We can also “re-program” ourselves to respond more favorably to stimuli, etc., through increasing activities (behavior modification) that either serve to promote desirable behavior or reduce undesirable behavior. 


  • Marie Isenburg

    I posted this comment and more at the Sunday NPR interview on will power. I want to answer the comments on AA here where they belong.

    I would also be very
    careful about discounting the value of AA by discrediting its basic
    premise.  Even if it’s not the whole answer, AA often saves people’s
    lives. The guests, and perhaps current scientific studies, do not capture the
    essence of how AA releases people from the need take that drink or other
    substance. Assuming that will power is the strongest factor in deciding
    to take a drink is not justified by your research.

  • http://www.thehouseofsixdoors.com Patricia Selbert

    Very interesting converstation this
    morning. In my opinion it is much more difficult to have willpower when there
    is chaos or confusion. In order for will power to work it needs a framework. A
    long term goal with a clear path to that goal is essential. Wether its buying a
    house, getting a degree in college, or going to the olympics a set path has to
    be layed out. It is much more difficult to have willpower in the spur of the
    momment and unexpectedly. It is like driving to an unknown destination without
    a map. It seems to me that when willpower is in line with one’s goals, we are
    able to achieve those goals.

  • Gary2

    I was able to quit a 2 pack a day cigarette habit on will power.  I was not able to quit a narcotic/alcohol/cocaine addiction with will power alone.  Thankfully AA works if you follow their simple directions.

    For the record-people who say quitting smoking cigarettes is as hard as quitting narcotics/cocaine do not have a clue.  I have done both and cigaretts were an easy walk in the park compared to narcotics etc.  not even close as far as hard to quit.  I really wish people would quit comparing cigarette quitting to narcotic quitting.  They have no idea what they are talking about.  I would rather quit tobacco 100 times than go through the narcotic/alcohol quitting process.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Addicts that smoked have said that!   Argue with them!

  • Gary2

    PS-hard to avoid triggers to using if your trigger is being awake!

  • lee

    how does this fact when dealing with faith as a christian

  • Brennan511

    There’s NOT? a “twins study”? [adopted seperated identicals twins].
    So this deductively means there is a strong {discernable} “nuture” effect, and this is [a] contentiously “inner-political” evidence.
    All cultures/peoples have temptation [sex, drugs, thoughts], but in some regions, nations “simply care” and in other geographic areas they simply don’t, this gives those people [and persons] the WILL POWER TO RESIST foreign cultures that may be quite treacherous, even if they don’t…
     and THERE! is the weakness!, that knowingly smiles,
    What if your survival depends on your will….. to cross no-man’s land, and INSPIRE your own doubting culture.

    I ate loads of sugar as a teen, but normal local-cultural self esteem is your/ones guiding light.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brennan-Moriarty/100000655771831 Brennan Moriarty

    I’v been to more-traditional societies such as,Europe, Germany, UK, Ireland and NZ-   australia , mexico and indonesia… and almost NEVER do you see kids freaking out over some shiny object or such as you do in America [dos mundos], And I don’t just “see it” I feel like I inspire! it with my alpha-helplessness (yeah…). I remember one kid demanding candy [in my own ancestral SW Ireland] but I was SURE he was developemental .

    • Jpeters

      That is total nonsense.  I have travelled all over, and haved lived in SE Asia for 12 years  Kids are kids.

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  • your listener

    Haven’t listened to this show yet, from reading “Tom’s Reading List”, another Chinese expression for this:  “Rich men’s disease”.  xD

  • JLF

    The committment to 12 step AA program saved my life.  Like all addicts my compulsion was all consumming.  Not scientific, but some sort of intervention, from outside my self, removed the compulsion and then I was able to gain strength and learn sobriety.  One day at a time for 25 years.

  • your listener

    **** because now that we have largely tamed the scourges of nature ****
    What a tricky thing to say…..

  • Slipstream

    Wow – the return of good old willpower.    This sounds very much like 19th century, pre-Freudian thinking.  Is it possible that psychology is taking a new, shallow turn?

    I don’t mean to say that willpower is meaningless.  Of course we all need it to accomplish our goals.  And maybe it is a good thing that there are books that come out extolling its virtues.  But motivation, ability, personal tendencies, success at school and on the job, good relations with others, et cetera are complex things.  You cannot reduce it all to willpower.  Peoples’ motivations run deep and are connected to many things in their histories, psychologies, and biologies.

    Oh yeah, and those studies that were referred to that show 10 year-olds who show superior willpower are always more successful later in life – that sounds highly questionable to me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Islomane Shaun Campbell

    So if “willpower” is truly a valid concept of human volition, where does one go to get “more willpower” if one is lacking it?  I think this notion is a bankrupt theory of human motivation. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.ikudaisi Stephen Ikudaisi

      @facebook-541768161:disqus why?

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