November 26, 2010

THIS TOO SHALL PASS:

Where's Your Willpower? (Casey Schwartz, 11/25/10, Daily Beast)

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.

For anyone facing the challenge of changing their habits, thinking in terms of impulse control is much more likely to lead to success than thinking about willpower, because impulses are temporary, whereas lack of willpower is a character flaw. Many psychotherapists encourage patients to think of the urge they are feeling—whether it is to reach for the chocolate cake or race to the corner store to buy a pack of cigarettes—as an impulse, a biological event in the brain that will pass.

Real change comes from reframing the issue, not from white-knuckling your way through every temptation. No one has more or less willpower than anyone else—the people who seem to have more of it have simply learned that impulses are temporary and treat them as such.


The other evolutionary problem is how easy it is to instantly gratify every impulse.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 26, 2010 8:32 AM
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