24 August 2010

Understanding Willpower: Urban Myth or Social Construct?

The amount of research associated with substance use disorders—a.k.a. “addiction,” “substance abuse,” “alcoholism,” etc.--is staggering; this is a good thing. Our understanding of this disorder seems to change almost monthly. From recognizing it as a biopsychosocial disorder to realizing that effective treatment necessitates a collaboration with the individual in treatment to affect change, it would seem that the 21st century will see prevention and treatment of this disorder advance at an even faster pace. Again, this is the good news...The less than good news, however, is that some remnants of the early days of the “addictions treatment industry” persistent; the advent of addiction being a function of an absence of willpower being a case in point.

“Willpower” is viewed as if its existence--or absence--is a discernable fact, something that can be measured and therefore quantified...he has no willpower, she has some willpower, etc. In other words, we act as though we can tell who “has it” and who does not simply by observing individual behavior. Those with willpower work hard in the face of adversity, overcome temptations, and remain faithful to goals and commitments while those without it are perceived as weak, unmotivated, untrustworthy, and unfortunately, lack the innate ability to see a task through to completion. But this supposed bedrock of Western character values neglects to recognize that “willpower” is not a “thing” but simply a word coined to describe a social construction we, as a cul
ture, view as socially desirable and productive behavior. In short, one either has willpower or is devoid of it and depending on which side of that line in the dirt one stands, so is that individual’s worth as an individual determined by others.

If this were true, however, we should see this same absence of willpower when it comes to an individual following through with any behavior? For example, if I cannot seem to “stop smoking” because of my absence of willpower, I should also be incapable of remaining monogamous in my relationship with my spouse, correct? Yet there are countless example of individuals who have difficulty making certain changes in behavior attributed to a lack of willpower who are highly successful in making changes in other areas of their lives, often with relative ease...the former cigarette smoker who cannot seem to follow through with efforts to increase physical exercise or the individual who has successfully negotiated 12 challenging years of college and medical school to become a physician yet is unable to shed 15-pounds.

Willpower appears to be “situational” not because it is something tangible that one either has or does not, but rather it is a skill—or more correctly, a set of skills—that enable one to act in a particular way in a given situation. In those situations where this skill set is present...I have the requisite “willpower” to affect change; where the skills are absent, so is the “willpower." These life skills are learned, intentionally or coincidentally as I live my life, in the same way all life skills are acquired, the result of choices made and consequences realized.

All behavior is preceded by an antecedent, that is, something that comes immediately before the behavior is displayed...the “itch before the scratch.” Likewise, all behavior is followed by a consequence...the relief I feel after having scratched said itch. The consequence can be pleasant and therefore desirable or it can be unpleasant andtherefore undesirable...it m
ust be one or the other.  is this “A – B – C” continuum that explains the acquisition of various skills, be they socially desirable or not. It is also attending to this continuum that enables one to understand behavior and, consequently, affect changes in that behavior—even changes in one’s own behavior—by understanding this simple equation and its impact on “why I do the things I do.”

This particular post does not present the time nor space to thoroughly explore this simple fact, so suffice it to say that I tend to repeat those behaviors that tend to result in a desirable consequence. An excellent book on the topic of self-directed change is, Self-Directed Behavior, 9th edition, by Watson & Tharp (Wadsworth Cengage Learning – see http://amzn.to/ajyv3L to read reviews at Amazon). The problem is that if I do not step back and look at the big picture, I may not recognize that the reinforcing consequence I am realizing are actually denying me the opportunity to perfect a skill that can change the behavior that I continue to repeat in spite of my wishes to the contrary. Allow me to explain with an example.

I want to lose 10 pounds. I know I have to eat less and exercise more to accomplish this objective. However, when I attempt to eat less I am overcome by the compulsion to eat. I tell myself that I cannot bear this discomfort, and dwell on how I will never be able to repeatedly resist this craving and tell myself this over and over until I give in and eat. When I eat, I feel better and even though I know that I caved and broke my vow, the consequence that followed my eating behavior is that I feel satiated. The “A” is the craving (or the stress or the depression or the “whatever”); the “B” is my eating, and the “C” is feeling satiated—or the passing of the craving, assuaging the stress/depression. Society looks at me and thinks, “Robert has no willpower” and it is a very short distance from that belief to being pitied or viewed as a weak an ineffectual person.

On the other hand, what if when I feel the urge to eat (or the stress, depression, “whatever”) that is the antecedent to my eating, and I was to engage in a different behavior? What if I “changed the ‘B’” and went for a walk or spoke with a friend or “did something else”? As I became distracted and the craving passed/depression/stress were assuaged, the consequence for this behavior would increase the likelihood that I would have learned a competing skill, one that would enable me to avoid eating, exercise more, and eventually drop the 10-pounds and keep it off.

So I end this post as I began...suggesting that there is no such thing as “willpower”; rather it is a social construction created to simply explain socially desirable behavior. The problem is that we have accepted that this social construction is a measurable personality trait. The problem with this is that if I buy into this belief personally and define myself as someone with little or no willpower, I unnecessarily stack the deck against myself when it comes to identifying the role I can play in making desired changes in my personal behavior. This is not to suggest that I can “do whatever I put my mind to alone” or that addicted individuals can “learn to use responsibly.” It does suggest, however, that diffiulty in making personal changes in behavior is less the function of personal weakness or a lack of so-called willpower than it has to do with an absence of a particular skill set necessary to make the desired change.

What do you think?

Dr. Robert


  1. Robert, I liked your essay very much for two reasons. First, it emphasizes that "willpower" is situation specific. Second, "lack of willpower" that has such a socially pejorative connotation is in essence a complex set of behaviors, feelings, and attitudes related to specific changes that a person wishes to undertake. Nicely said, Robert.

  2. Great points--as usual, Robert. I see willpower as a purely idiographic (i.e. N of 1) phenomenon too. Just as some individuals respond favorably to chemotherapy and others do not, the same logic can be applied to individuals with addictions--why some can quit cold turkey (willpower?) and others cannot. Society needs to stop looking for one-size-fits-all interventions and conceptualizations and instead explore the contextual realities facing clients today. My $.02.



Thoughtful comments, alternate points of view, and/or questions are welcomed.