Why willpower is overrated
January 20, 2018
People with a lot of self-control — people who, when they happen upon a delicious food they don’t think they should eat, seemingly grin and bear the temptation until it passes — have it easy.
But why? For a long time, the thinking was that these people are good at inhibiting their impulses. That they have a lot of willpower and they know how to use it.
People who are bad at resisting temptation, meanwhile, supposedly have insufficient or underexploited willpower, a view with deep cultural and moral roots. (Think Adam and Eve and the original sin.) It’s also deeply embedded in the pop psychology of reaching goals and self-improvement. “People are happiest and healthiest when there is an optimal fit between self and environment, and this fit can be substantially improved by altering the self to fit the world,” argued an influential 2004 paper that proposed a questionnaire to rate people on self-control.
But this idea, that people have self-control because they’re good at willpower, is looking more and more like a myth. It turns out that self-control, and all the benefits from it, may not be related to inhibiting impulses at all. And once we cast aside the idea of willpower, we can better understand what actually works to accomplish goals, and hit those New Year’s resolutions.