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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