Steven Pinker reviews a new book titled Willpower:
What is this mysterious thing called self-control? When we fight an urge, it feels like a strenuous effort, as if there were a homunculus in the head that physically impinged on a persistent antagonist. We speak of exerting will power, of forcing ourselves to go to work, of restraining ourselves and of controlling our temper, as if it were an unruly dog.
First, let me say that I don’t believe addiction is a problem of willpower, I believe the problem lies on the other side—urge. Still, I wonder if this kind of research has the potential to be very helpful to recovering people. More in a minute.
In experiments first reported in 1998, Baumeister and his collaborators discovered that the will, like a muscle, can be fatigued. Immediately after students engage in a task that requires them to control their impulses — resisting cookies while hungry, tracking a boring display while ignoring a comedy video, writing down their thoughts without thinking about a polar bear or suppressing their emotions while watching the scene in “Terms of Endearment” in which a dying Debra Winger says goodbye to her children — they show lapses in a subsequent task that also requires an exercise of willpower, like solving difficult puzzles, squeezing a handgrip, stifling sexual or violent thoughts and keeping their payment for participating in the study rather than immediately blowing it on Doritos. Baumeister tagged the effect “ego depletion,” using Freud’s sense of “ego” as the mental entity that controls the passions.
If willpower can be depleted and addicts deal with urges that are particularly chronic and particularly powerful, are addicts living in a state of chronic depletion of willpower? Might functioning in this state for extended periods of time have long term consequences? The development of “bad” habits that are difficult to break from having lived with diminished willpower? Could this this chronic willpower depletion extend into recovery? Could this make it more difficult to engage in the behaviors associated with stable recovery?
Good news though. Willpower can be cultivated:
Baumeister then pushed the muscle metaphor even further by showing that a depleted ego can be invigorated by a sugary pick-me-up (though not an indistinguishable beverage containing diet sweetener). And he showed that self-control, though almost certainly heritable in part, can be toned up by exercising it. He enrolled students in regimens that required them to keep track of their eating, exercise regularly, use a mouse with their weaker hand or (one that really gave them a workout) speak in complete sentences and without swearing. After several weeks, the students were more resistant to ego depletion in the lab and showed greater self-control in their lives. They smoked, drank and snacked less, watched less television, studied more and washed more dishes.
Build up its strength, the authors suggest, with small but regular exercises, like tidiness and good posture. Don’t try to tame every bad habit at once. Watch for symptoms of ego fatigue, because in that recovery period you are especially likely to blow your stack, your budget and your diet. For that matter, don’t diet in the first place, since it starves the very system that implements self-control. Learn from Ulysses and tie yourself to the mast or fill your ears with wax so temptations are blocked out or you are unable to act on them. The authors also recommend Web sites and software that can audit, broadcast, punish or pre-empt lapses of will — a godsend, in particular, to Internet junkies and other infomaniacs.
Finally, to drive home the importance of this quality, the authors argue that
Together with intelligence, self-control turns out to be the best predictor of a successful and satisfying life.
The same point has been made about executive function, which is clearly plays an important role in addiction.