Tag Archives: impulse control

The myth of willpower

Same thing happens every year; I completely forget just how quiet the intertubes go when our American friends are sleeping off the Thanksgiving indulgences. Well, for those of you who’re still reading (and those of you not in the US, of course), here’s a tenuously topical link: do those who manage to push away that last few slices of turkey have more willpower than those who scoff the lot? Or is willpower one of those words we have for something that doesn’t really exist in the way we think it does? [via BigThink]

Think of it this way: Our ancestors didn’t need willpower to go for a run because the only time they ran was when they were chasing something or something was chasing them. When we run today, it’s usually to stay in shape. We don’t have that motivating factor of trying to catch our dinner as it hops away, or the fear of death as a polar bear nips at our heels. We use willpower instead—a more modern and, in some ways, unnatural notion.

Which is why willpower, says Hirsch, is weak. Compared to these basic, primitive drives, it has trouble holding up. In fact, willpower may be so weak that it is not even “a meaningful idea,” says Hirsch, when it comes to understanding how to make change in our lives.

Instead, current neuroscience holds that “impulse control” is more accurate than willpower—a slight but important distinction. The idea of impulse control is a much more specific vision of what’s happening in the brain when we experience the tug of old habits, whether it’s food or sex or drugs or booze. It’s the ability to mitigate any stimulus that sets off the brain’s reward circuitry. Unlike willpower, impulse control is not a judgment about the strength of one’s character. This is not just a politically correct revision. The concept of impulse control comes from a better understanding of the brain mechanisms that underlie self-restraint.

The idea here is that framing one’s attempts to change one’s habitual behaviours as ‘impulse control’ is psychologically beneficial, because framing it as a willpower issue implies a character flaw as opposed to a mastering of momentary drives. Whether that will make it any easier to haul my Seasonal Affective Disorder’d carcass out of bed on these cold dark nearly-winter mornings remains to be seen.