The strange, mutating story of "willpower" and what we think it might be as of right now

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I’ve come to think of consciousness as a special, privileged type of narrative. The very idea that we are conscious at all, is emotionally expensive to question or test.

Free will may be a useful delusion, a struggle to stay in the center of the narrative, despite many other competing heroes in our story.

In this sense, “willpower” has to do with how stubbornly the subject clings to the notion of free will, before giving up to let programming take over.


Or, the paradox might be that the notion of free will IS ITSELF the pre-programmed behavior.

I disagree, probably because I find it too interesting. But I can attest that it is socially expensive. Many people are not quite aware of the extent to which they require certain beliefs to be shared with others, or the sanctions they impose upon those who do not. Even (especially?) when one points it out in simple, methodical, step-by-step fashion why they think the evidence points elsewhere.

If one thinks that disillusioning people about belief if their god gets weirdly testy, that’s nothing compared to challenging - even indirectly - people’s sense of self and identity. Even of self-professed rational people. Some can handle it as an interesting intellectual abstraction, but even most of them break down when organizing their typical daily interactions this way.


The willpower-as-depletable-battery schema is troubling. When I began to think of it like that, I found myself becoming permissive of behavioral lapses after a period of discipline. “I abstained from sugar all day, and I’m exhausted… I just can’t stop myself from eating this box of cookies!”


That’s a very interesting way to look at it, I’ll have to come back to this.

Willpower is what powers Green Lantern Corps power rings:

Or so they say. Judging by the comics, “willpower” is synonymous with extreme grimacing.

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There’s also the fact that decision-making can be altered by exhaustion, among other things*.

Anyway, based on the blog post and the snippets of articles, it seems to me that intrapersonal intelligence as defined by Howard Gardner is a key component of willpower as it’s viewed nowadays.

(*) I recommend playing a realistic racing video-game, or any such unforgiving game, while sober, then after drinking just one glass of alcoholic beverage. It’s pretty enlightening.


It’s interesting to look at the role will plays in Nietzsche’s philosophy, and how influential he was on people like Aleister Crowley and Adolf Hitler.

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I think John Byrne in the 80s attributed Superman’s ability to fly to “force of will.”

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The writer here makes what is either a sloppy mistake or a sleight of hand. He or she says that Mischel’s results have failed to replicate, and provides a link. But the link does not show a failure to replicate. It shows an explanation for why some people might act impulsively, namely that they come from unstable environments where promises are not trustworthy. In such cases, impulsivity may be rational. But this does not refute Mischel in the least. If the person who disbelieves the offer of delayed reward is actually offered a delayed reward, and acts impulsively because they don’t trust it, they will still have a lesser outcome than their counterpart who delays. Thus, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Far from contradicting Mischel, the linked piece makes it more poignant and urgent. Come on people. This isn’t rocket science. Read carefully. Think.

Update: It dawns on me now that the writer may have meant that the willpower depletion studies failed to replicate. But the link provided on the Mischel (Marshmallow) question was to someone who offered no refute at all, just a lot of excuses for why some people might not trust the delayed offer. Sloppy.

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