Scott H Young

Is Willpower an Illusion?


Is willpower really that important? I’m doubting this assumption. It seems that the more I’ve learned about improvement and psychology, the less important willpower seems. Habits, energy management, and various human quirks seem to have pushed will into a smaller and smaller corner as a means to explain or plan for success.

Now I’m starting to see that willpower isn’t much more than an illusion, a quirk of the brain designed to make us feel like we have a lot more control than we actually do.

Intuitively, it feels obvious that I have willpower. I mean, what else caused me to write this article when I could be taking a nap, pulled myself to the gym when I could have watched television or finished my run yesterday on a sun parched stretch of highway where there was a strong urge to collapse and roll into the few inches of water still held in the ditch?

But just because willpower feels like it must exist, doesn’t mean it actually works that way in reality. Just because it feels like the sun must revolve around the earth doesn’t mean it does. And just because you can’t see microbes, doesn’t mean you should stop taking medicine when you get sick. Pretty much the entire sum of our knowledge is based on things our intuition gets wrong. Could it be the same with willpower?

Willpower is a Placeholder Understanding

Probably the hardest thing to do for a person is to utter the words, “I don’t know.” But it is probably impossible for most people to say, “I don’t know,” and still not try to guess. Any theory, even a wrong one, must be better than nothing, right?

I think willpower is one of those placeholder theories for what makes people tick. It is a fuzzy view of the world that says were in control and if used properly you can do anything. But in reality this doesn’t seem to be the case. There are times when we can use our willpower and other times we fail to. What gives?

In the real world, I don’t think willpower exists at all. It is just a handy, placeholder theory most people use to explain systems that they don’t understand. Although I am incredibly far from understanding the world and human behavior, I’ve found just a couple models that are better than willpower for explaining how people function:

  • Habits – This model suggests that regular behavior becomes automatic, ceasing to rely on exertion.
  • Energy Management – This model suggests that our ability to do anything is based on energy. Energy is a metaphor for the physical resources, motivation, knowledge and purpose we can devote to a task.
  • Motivation – Willpower doesn’t make things happen, but rather a strong drive will compel action.
  • Confidence – Belief that you can achieve something will move you forward with a strong enough drive.

And these are only a few models, each explaining away willpower as some magical ingredient for success. Of course those models are still simplifications, placeholders for deeper understandings.

Breaking Down Illusions is the Purpose of Life

Knowing theories like these, you can better explain and plan. Trying to use “willpower” to get myself to write might work for awhile, but I’ll be a lot more successful if I use one of the above models. Even deeper theories of those might work better to help myself understand what to do.

An unfortunate trust is that most people settle into confirmation bias. Once you have a theory, even a grossly simplified and inaccurate one of how the world works, it becomes increasingly more difficult to change your mind. You seek evidence and examples that confirm your hypothesis and discredit the contrary evidence.

I think it is useful to assume basically that everything you think you know now, is a gross simplification. Your goal is to continually refine and seek better metaphors and examples to explain the world. This has meant for me abandoning a lot of models that work a little but don’t work great.

It might sound like I’m talking about some intellectual practice that should be reserved for bearded men in old chairs smoking pipes and sipping brandy, but I feel this process of continually striving for a deeper understanding, is the core of my philosophy. Every post I try to write has been an attempt for myself to break through the placeholders and seek a model that works better, from holistic learning to vertical and lateral growth.

Know Thy System

Everything in life is a system. Although you can never get to the deepest level of understanding, I don’t believe it is a good idea to settle for the placeholder theories you come across, no matter how seductive they may be. Willpower is just one of these illusions people use to avoid deeper explanations.

What other illusions and placeholder theories do you see around you?


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26 Responses to “Is Willpower an Illusion?”

  1. Thank you for articulating so well something that had been a vague thought buzzing around in the back of my head for the last two or three years. I knew there was something wrong with this idea of willpower, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. This hits the nail on the head.

    I’ll just emphasise that not only is it an illusion, it’s also an unhelpful illusion. If you believe that it takes willpower to do something, that puts you in a helpless position. There’s nothing (or very little) you can do to increase your willpower. Habits and energy management, on the other hand, are quite straightforward to change.

    Thanks again for moving this from a vague notion in my head to a useful, definable idea.

  2. Thomas Soerensen says:

    Very very interesting. Please elaborate in future posts.

  3. Scott Young says:

    Thanks for the comments guys!

  4. Wulfen says:

    Great post, Scott. I’ll disagree with you in one thing :)

    I don’t think willpower is an illusion, at least if you narrow it down to the capacity to choose an action that can have a very benefitial long-term gratification, instead of choosing a lesser alternative that gives you a short-term gratificacion but that actually is worse for you in the long run. Some people are more prone to this than other, and I think willpower is a pretty cool name for this ability (the scientifical term is “Delay of Gratification” iirc).

    Of course, there are other things that will help you in this regard. For me, the most important one is inertia, or momentum. Once you catch momentum, putting yourself into action is way easier. You can call this an habit, if you wish, but I prefer the term inertia because I’ve found out that when I’m procrastinating, or that I don’t want to go to the gym, or that I have to do domestic chores, or whatever, if I force myself to start, once in action everything goes smoothly and it’s easier to sustain the activity.

    Regards,

    Wulfen (Lobo Feroz)

  5. Cris says:

    Since our knowledge is based on the assumption that our observations are accurate and True, it’s easy to say pretty much anything is a “placeholder theory.”

    For example, religions require a “leap of faith” and offer what some would call placeholder theories on how life began, what happens after death and what drives the in-between. It’s not a big jump from seeing lightning in the sky (which, when first observed by “Man”, must have been an unexplainable phenomenon) and ascribing it to an “angry god” to the recognition of an omnipotent being.

    As another example, sciences require a “leap of faith” in the accuracy of our instrumentation, selection of observations when testing theories and our own interpretations of those observations. Since we filter all our observations through a priori filters (time, cause & effect, etc), any scientific theory could be described as a placeholder theory for True laws of nature.

    So, I personally think identifying “useful” theories, as opposed to “real” theories, is more… well, useful. Some think willpower is real and use it to their advantage – for instance, I know people who regularly train and rely on willpower to overcome threats to their regular routine. For others, as has been pointed out, “willpower” may be a pair of cement shoes that drags the person down – I know people who claim to not have the willpower to “deny themselves food” in order to lose weight or “deny themselves cigarettes” in order to stop smoking. For those people, “willpower” is useless – they should shift to an alternative theory, such as practicing small choices that become new habits.

    So, absolutely, I agree with identifying those theories and practices that disempower you personally and changing them – if willpower doesn’t work for you, change to something else. But just like Sufism works for some and Christianty works for others, different people will find power in different “placeholder” theories. And just like religion – it’s all about the results. Whatever empowers you to practice life in a healthy manner, that’s the theory you should adopt.

  6. ZHereford says:

    I totally agree with you on willpower being an illusion.
    I’ve always felt it was a mis-used term but never really articulated it before. Thanks for doing it for me!

  7. Dave says:

    I agree with you Scott that there is not a “thing” or single item that is willpower, there is a different way I take that.

    If one was to list what makes up, indicates, or shows strong willpower you would create a very similar list of items as those you suggest as replacements. Almost like building blocks, the increase in strength of each of those matches an increase in overall willpower.

    Something that just struck me was the concept of willpower to resist change. …. The thing that springs to mind is the war on drugs advertisements. “be strong, be an individual. Do your own thing”. All of those take willpower to resist change right, which fits under the confidence listing but seems abit counter to the others.

    Anyways, my random two cents. :)

  8. David Högberg says:

    This is an interesting issue. I’ve actually been reflecting some about this as of lately I think. I always used to think that willpower alone was sufficient for being productive and accomplishing your goals, but I too have started to believe it’s really just an illusion, and something very convenient to blame your failures on. Or maybe not an illusion, but at least something of far less importance than what I’ve been thinking.

    About two months ago, I started getting up early in the mornings and going out for a jog every day, which is something I’ve been wanting to do for quite some time. Thinking back now, I realize that every time that I tried and failed before, I’ve been relying solely on willpower. I was thinking willpower was all it would take, and when failing after a couple of days, exhausted because it felt too hard, I would blame my failure on my lack of willpower. However, this last time my approach was a bit different. Instead of just trying to force myself to getting out of bed and out the door, I started to work on my motivation and on building habits instead. And this time it’s as the change has happened almost automatically, very smooth, with much less effort than I ever thought it would require.

    So maybe my failures weren’t really due to lack of willpower, but more to the lack of a good strategy. Which would reduce the importance of willpower to other things, like habits and motivation, as you point out.

  9. “Willpower doesn’t make things happen, but rather a strong drive will compel action.”

    I think this sounds like the thesis in a nutshell. Willpower if the effect of other forces in our lives, not the cause.

    The tricky part is that the misleading ideas about willpower being an end in and of itself is that it leaves people feeling powerless. I think we all have a sense that we can’t really pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, at least for an extended period of time.

    We all need transformation to our hearts, this is were true change emanates from, IMO.

    Nice material Scott.

  10. Brenton Scott says:

    Great post, really got me thinking about the subject. So now you have to deal with my thoughts of and on it :P

    I disagree on the point that the belief in willpower comes from the mistaken intuition, I think it more a thing society has taught us in the form of Common Sense.

    The so-called Common Sense, which I found is never very common nor always makes logical sense, is almost always wrong, while True Logic, on the other hand, is almost always right.

    I believe that ‘willpower’ is in fact made up of many factors, some of which you mentioned, that somehow had to be overly simplified into a single term. We love simplicity, just watch the greatest minds trying to find ‘Unified Theorms’ to explain everything.

    As for the intuition, I once read that it’s your best estimation of a subject, based on a mass computation done within milli-seconds in your sub-concious mind. Not quite sure on that fact, but would explain why mine hasn’t failed me as of yet.

  11. Kali says:

    Important post, Scott. I agree willpower is an illusion and a seductive one, at that. “Life” using sheer willpower is an uphill battle, and the funny thing is as soon as you just let life be it goes so much smoother!
    A placeholder theory I often unconsciously lock(ed) myself into is fearing I must think, do, or feel something “good enough” in order to exist. Problem is nothing is ever good enough, grief about the past clouds the present, and my ego messes life up by whirling its emotions around to the extent that I give in and listen to its ineffective past or future-oriented instruction. Thankfully, and little by little I think I am learning to let it go (but that could just be my ego speaking)! Oh well…

  12. Joel Gonzalez says:

    Great piece, this piece puts many unclear and inconclusive thoughts and ideas to rest. Simply put an epiphany, it simply clarified everything for me. It brought up many moments of “OHh, that explains it”.

  13. Scott Young says:

    Thanks for all the comments everyone!

    I’ll try to address some of the points that were brought up:

    Useful/True distinction – You’re absolutely correct. I happen to believe that a true theory is almost always more useful than a false theory if it is properly understood. The only reason that you should use a placeholder theory is that you can’t fully understand the theory that should replace it or you don’t know what theory should replace it.

    Willpower has been a dangerous theory because many people use it as the source of their perceived failure or the failure of others. If you can’t achieve your goals you lack willpower. Sometimes you lack skill or discipline (think training not will) but rarely is it a function of your willpower.

    More understanding leads to better results.

    -Scott

  14. Shereen says:

    If you can’t achieve your goals you lack willpower. Sometimes you lack skill or discipline (think training not will) but rarely is it a function of your willpower.

    But don’t we need willpower to improve our skill that we lack or to gain self discipline ?

  15. [...] Here’s an interesting article from Scott Young asserting that what we call “willpower” might really be something else: In the real world, I don’t think willpower exists at all. It is just a handy, placeholder theory most people use to explain systems that they don’t understand. Although I am incredibly far from understanding the world and human behavior, I’ve found just a couple models that are better than willpower for explaining how people function. [...]

  16. Crash says:

    Wow… you took a simple concept and repackaged it to sound more complex than it really is.

    What’s next? Are you going to talk about the things that comprise the word “Determination” how about “Motivation”. That would be so useful.

    You may not agree with my commentary, but this appears to be less about whether willpower exists and more about the factors that contribute to a specific set of behavior.

    Maybe I am overeducated but what purpose does this article serve? Is there a specific recommendation or call to action?

    Your “models” are nothing more than common sense reasons/issues that reinforce a person’s will to succeed. And in my view don’t merit a delineation from the broader umbrella of “Willpower”. They are facets of willpower, not new constructs.

  17. Crash says:

    Scott,

    A colleague of mine (Prof. Sicque) pointed out the following:

    You never define willpower for your following argument. You also suggest that the scientific method is a waste of time in the ‘placeholder’ theory. ALL SCIENTIFIC THEORIES ARE PLACEHOLDER THEORIES. If the model describes and predicts behavior, it stands. When it fails to do so it’s revised. Example: Newtonian gravitational ‘model’ replaced by ‘Relativistic model’. At the heart of it, science never claims to tell the whole ‘truth’ by a model. That is an arrogance shed long ago.

    The willpower ‘model’ stands just fine: Conduct actions based on long term goals rather than short-term pleasure. Works for me.

    Notice how nobody has given you a “digg it”? And did anyone notice how you didn’t put a “Diss It” on the page? So people can only leave positive commentary?

    I guess you can’t handle people picking apart your stuff.

    My hope is that someone gets to read an opposing view before you delete it again.

  18. JAS says:

    This is a spectacularly sloppy treatise. First, please define precisely what the ‘place holder’ theory intends to explain. You don’t do this. Secondly, EVERY scientifically based theory has the charge of only explaining the behavior of observed action. If it successfully describes and predicts physical observables, it’s doing its job as a theory. Even physics—the most rigorous of all the sciences–NEVER presumes to declare understanding of nature. It only builds models to describe what is observed.

    For example, Newton’s gravitational theory, which excludes relativity, is fine to a finite degree for predicting when the planets will be where. It works. Relativity theory refines Newtonian theory, it does not supplant it. If it did, then we scientists demand that, in the words of Carl Sagan: “remarkable claims require remarkable evidence.” In fact you evidently would say of Newtonian Mechanic Theory that

    “It is just a handy, placeholder theory most people use to explain systems that they don’t understand.”

    Yes, it’s handy. Because it works!

    WILLPOWER – is the label common society uses to describe the exercise of choice between two or more actions who’s extended outcomes are in direct conflict with the one which has been intellectually predetermined to have higher value.

    If you are defining ‘willpower’ as some other eruditic transfiguration, please clarify yourself. What you state as ‘better’ than ‘willpower’ do not demand willpower at all by the common definition that I have provided. Let me tackle them:

    HABITS – these are automatically forthcoming, there’s no conflict between courses of action in the first place.
    ENERGY MANAGEMENT – Not sure what you’re getting at. Willpower is just about making choices at moments of truth, where at least two options exist.
    MOTIVATION – You say that ‘Willpower doesn’t make things happen. [Motivation] compels action.’ I submit that motivation keeps you focused on a distant goal, but in that process are moments when you execute a choice by brute force of hand, with your mind momentarily vacant of even the motivating goal. That is willpower.
    CONFIDENCE – Again, willpower takes place in the span of a moment at the boundary between multiple choices.

    The list you provide sounds more like a general recipe for achieving something and grafting it onto the willpower term. You assail the concept on the premise that such a ‘model’ does not include electrochemical interaction so it must be dismissibly false, and offer your own genius to expose the truth of our helpless state of being. Again: remarkable claims require remarkable evidence. But let us first start with a much more remarkably clear definition of ‘willpower’. This expose’, by hijacking the term without definition, only disserves readers who might in turn be convinces that willpower, the actual and ubiquitously understood version of the term, is utterly fictitious and therefore a useless notion to draw upon. So what would you have them believe the next time they are presented with that jumbo slice of their all-time favorite triple-layer chocolate cake? They have not even access to ‘willpower’ in order to just push the plate away? Willpower occurs within a moment’s span.

    Please do not remove this comment simply because it does not resonate with your own view, like you have done to other posts of the same sort. If you have a counter argument, then please provide it. Otherwise, your sincerity in seeking a ‘deeper understanding’ of reality is a placeholder, indeed.

  19. [...] great article over at Study Hacks, Cal writes about new research that shows procrastination is less about willpower and more about energy. I couldn’t agree [...]

  20. [...] already mentioned how I feel willpower is just a placeholder theory for deeper understandings. But what I really hate is how this willpower advice gets used as a [...]

  21. mola says:

    glad i stumbled upon ur website through google .. this i’ll make sure to add to my bookmarks :)

    Thank u ..

    Also .. i wanted to reply to ur post but everything i wanted to say “Cris” already said before me

  22. Dave says:

    I appreciate the point you are making. You are saying you need to analyse yourself to really understand how you work. No problem with that.

    However, you seem to be coming at this point from a strange angle.

    The more insight you gain into yourself and the more self-aware you become, the easier it is to choose your response to situations.

    People with insight therefore, have a level of willpower. That means we can choose our response to our ‘influences’ based on chosen values which we have deeply thought about.

    If you let you influences determine you then you don’t have willpower.

    The point is that self aware people are able to have a level of wIllpower.

    To say you are totally determined takes away people’s responsibility for themselves. I don’t like the idea of promoting that.

  23. Sheri says:

    How about some insight from a recovering addict? I have over 1 year clean, and I will tell you right now, willpower wasn’t even a factor. In an addiction sense, I do believe willpower to be an illusion. Too simple of a concept to allow someone who has depended on a substance for several years to stay clean. If only it were that easy! I tried detoxing myself several times and the reason I went back to using was not a “lack of willpower.” It is so much more complicated than that, as these substances alter our brain chemicals. I dare someone who thinks all it takes is willpower to overcome a craving or an urge, to endure opiate withdrawal just once. Tell me how long your “willpower” lasts. I can almost guarantee the last thing you’ll be thinking about is that willpower will get you though this. I was able to get through a first week, the most painful and uncomfortable part of detox. How did make it through? Very deep thinking about my life, my future, and all that I have done wrong because of addiction. There was no choice in my mind because I had hit rock bottom. If I had an extreme craving during the detox, I would use a distraction technique to get through it. If willpower was used, it would make it so much worse, allowing my addictive brain to obsess over this craving, a mental war if you will, and the addictive brain would win. Sorry to all the simple thinkers, but it takes courage, strength, hope, insight, and time to get through it! Each day that goes by you gain motivation to continue this process, one minute at a time, then one day at a time. I had made it 2 weeks clean, as the depression and mental detox began! Our brains have to heal, and it takes months to repair the damage. A complicated process, leading into the stage where our brains tell us we can use! Beyond a craving, an actual belief that now we’ve detoxed we can use once in a while, we can control this! I hear it now! “This is where willpower comes in” My mind convinced me it was would be ok, that I would be careful! So what would I need willpower for? The definition I just looked up is this; control of one’s impulses and actions; self-control. In addiction, we have no control over our lives at this point, so It’s impossible to have self-control or willpower when control doesn’t exist. In outpatient we are taught that we will never have control over our addictions, for the rest of our lives. The second we think we do? Relapse. No, we found other, meaningful ways to stay clean, learned skills, and tools, as well as learning to become self-aware, and experience self-realization. There is a bit of my opinion on my regarding addiction.

    I find it very interesting that searching the word willpower came back with so many different definitions. I thought willpower was a simple concept? Then why the complicated definitions on some sites? Self-control seems to fit the simple concept.

    I agree with Scott on his observation that people who don’t understand things like addiction/obesity(usually an addiction to food) like to be ignorant and say that we just don’t have the willpower to stop. Willpower/self-control. Now, as far as an illusion, yea in addiction and other complicated situations. Where one didn’t ever have control to begin with. Scott I can’t help but wonder if that was the focus for this article, to explore the more complicated and unknown issues that ignorant people continue to pass judgements and think that these people are just weak, and without any willpower to survive. Not so much focus on the simple things like “Willpower to not text an ex boyfriend”

    Why is the definition self control? Why don’t we just use that word instead of willpower? I think I may have an idea, the word self requires personal responsibility… self explanatory!
    I like the simple things in life, that make you smile and life just fun! But when it comes to making myself better as a person, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, I will go to any length to learn what I can, no matter how complicated it is I love the things people aren’t very into, or aware of! I’m a believer in the unexplained, what a dull like I would live without the unknowns. I can’t live life “simply”, and I have a difficult time with the simple belief that willpower is what got me out of bed this morning. I got out of bed because I wanted too. It was time to get up and go to work. Isn’t that called just being responsible or motivated to begin your day? I suppose if there are people out there who are able to do everything in their lives with just what they call willpower, then more power to you! Keep it simple!

    At the risk of sounding redundant, I will finish this. I believe there is more to life that meets the eye! Simple things in life are great, but sometimes a belief is too simple. Too simple causes too much room for interpretation, which people are now confusing it with things like motivation and determination. Why not just stick with those words? Those hold their own meaning. I will pray the people who are insistent on this subject, are able to muster up enough “willpower” to do whatever it is you do with it!

  24. tomp says:

    I got this erie feeling that I was reading the writing and observing the life of an older version of myself. I found that a lot of your writing echo’d almost my own exact thoughts. I would enjoy some conversation, please send me an email!

    In any case – I think the other prevalent illusion is the concept of genius and IQ. Not only to we grossly overestimate the capacity of scientists and inventors, but we create such a gulf that people lose the confidence and motivation to achieve in their likeness. They become untouchable gods, like newton or einstein. If we instead didn’t give them superficial omniscient recognition and god status, you would see a lot more newtons now a day. In addition to this, this mentality has allowed many to scapegoat in the notion that they shouldn’t have guilt for not achieving great things because of “luck” or “innate capacity”. If we dispelled this illusion, took responsibility for ourselves, and espoused ideas that weren’t about being gifted but about having spirit and determination, we would be teeming with what you would call “geniuses”.
    Its that child like enthusiasm and unfettered confidence that propels people to success, not the cynic and archaic impulsive conservatism that prevents us from allocating time and energy into pursuits that would well become fulfilling passions. Part of me dies whenever I read about somebody being dissuaded to do what he wants to do because “the competition is too hard”, “the chances of you being x are so small”, and worst of all “being realistic” which is just a euphemism for aim low and avoid any risk no matter what return on investment it may have.

    Combine this with schools and culture championing the philosophy that life is only a sensual opportunity, and that anything that doesn’t involve fulfilling basal survival impulses is to be avoided. This manifests as an imposition upon all kids and young adults to scapegoat, avoid opportunity and exciting possibilities, and to hedge your bets fulfilling fleeting sensual rapture that dies before you’re even half aware of yourself.

    We need to get over the fact that there is no will power, no arbitrary determinism acting on us externally, just ourselves. Once full responsibility is taking, once our minds our made up to achieve and pursue what we want to do untainted by society’s imposed stimuli, we are destined to achieve success. Its then a quest, as you said, of learning to know ourselves, who we feel that we are, so that we can better guide our thoughts and behavior to the point of never feeling angst or regret about anything in life. This I believe is only achieved by retreating from society’s crude imposition, reading into various philosophies and religions to gain perspective, and ultimately never letting others dictate your life.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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