Discredited psychologists spread lies about willpower

By Matt Perryman

Back around 2011 or so psychologists began screaming at the top of their lungs that “willpower is a limited resource!”

They cited all this research showing that making decisions is tiring. And the more tired a person got, the harder it got to make choices and stick to them.

Check mate, willpower.

Ten plus years on, that science is hardly settled. The “replication crisis” plowed through like the grim reaper with his scythe, claiming the souls of hundreds of bad papers.

Much of what came out of pop psychology and TED Talks over the last 20 years is now discredited.

Willpower was never something to be measured and deboonked by The Science anyway.

The Will, if there is such a thing, won’t be a material power with a biological battery.

What the psychologists called “willpower” was something different.

First of all, you should notice the analogy with a physical muscle. Willpower can get “weak”, go flabby, run out of energy, exhaust itself, and even get stronger with practice.

Socrates once said that nobody ever acts against their best judgment. We always do exactly what we will. The only catch is, what we will isn’t always the best-informed decision. People are stupid and believe stupid things.

What did they mean that willpower is limited?

Making choices is hard, that much is true. The analogy with a muscle makes for an easy comparison. The point of willpower is to overcome resistance. It’s a contest between you and some external temptation.

Think of situations where this is relevant. Deciding to exercise when you’d rather watch TV. Deciding to keep to your diet when there’s tasty foods around. Day drinking when you have things to do.

It all revolves around making the better choice against temptation.

Pause for 10 seconds and think of how contrived that is.

What “willpower” resists is, by and large, problems of your own making.

The fact is, using your will is easy and effortless.

Don’t believe me? Try this:

Take the index finger of your non-dominant hand. Lefties, use your right. Righties, use your left.

With the tip of that finger, tap eight times on the nearest hard surface.

Did you do it?

If so, you just used your will.

You made a choice, for no reason but your own decision, and you acted on that decision.

For most people this won’t involve any angst, second-guessing, or emotional struggle-sessions. Using your will is an effortless and immediate act of the mind.

Choosing to eat right, exercise, and stay sober is no different. These can feel different because there’s so much emotional baggage wrapped up in our habits. We perceive high stakes in these cases, and so the will becomes engaged in a high-stakes contest.

Notice, though, that even here you’re fighting against your own habits… and those habits didn’t just happen to you out of the blue.

You built them from — you guessed it — your past choices and behaviors.

That’s the bad news. It is indeed difficult to fight against a lifetime of unconscious, thoughtless programming.

The good news is, what you made, you can unmake — and rebuild.

Willpower feels limited because people insist on fighting their impulses and drives. If you live in permanent war against yourself, no wonder things don’t go well.

The real power of the will isn’t to fight against your temptations — it’s to help you move past them and transform your desires.

Don’t combat your cravings for cheesecake… make the cheesecake irrelevant next to your true goals.

Matt Perryman

You know what?

This article was sent to my faithful readers as an artisanal hand-crafted email. If you enjoyed this article and want more like it, you should sign up for this newsletter.