Against Willpower


Carl Erik Fisher in Nautilus:

Thomas was a highly successful and mild-mannered lawyer who was worried about his drinking. When he came to see me at my psychotherapy practice, his wine intake had crept up to six or seven glasses a night, and he was starting to hide it from his family and to feel the effects at work. We discussed treatment strategies and made an appointment to meet again. But when he returned two weeks later, he was despondent: His drinking was totally unchanged.

“I just couldn’t cut back. I guess I just don’t have the willpower.”

Another patient of mine, John, also initially came to me for help with drinking. At our first meeting, we talked about moderation-based approaches and setting a healthier limit. But one month later, he came back to my office declaring that he had changed his mind and made peace with his drinking habits. Sure, his wife wasn’t always thrilled with how much he drank, he told me, and occasionally the hangovers were pretty bad, but his relationship was still fairly solid and drinking didn’t cause any truly significant problems in his life.

In the abstract, John and Thomas are similar: They both succumbed to short-term temptations, and both didn’t keep their long-term goals. But while Thomas attributed that outcome to problems with willpower, John came to reframe his behavior from a perspective that sidestepped the concept of willpower altogether. Both John and Thomas would resolve their issues, but in very different ways.

Most people feel more comfortable with Thomas’ narrative. They would agree with his self-diagnosis (that he lacked willpower), and might even call it clear-eyed and courageous. Many people might also suspect that John’s reframing of his problem was an act of self-deception, serving to hide a real problem. But Thomas’ approach deserves just as much skepticism as John’s. It’s entirely possible that Thomas was seduced by the near-mystical status that modern culture has assigned to the idea of willpower itself—an idea that, ultimately, was working against him.