Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

Forget Willpower! Think Social Engineering for Behavior Change

Depending on your willpower is surely a lost cause for impulse control

After conducting psychotherapy for 30 years I must admit that I now believe that social engineering is a better way to manage the "willpower problem" for behavior change. Sadly, many people get so down on themselves for not having adequate willpower and impulse control. While they intend to eat and drink less, work or study harder, exercise more, save money, and so forth they find that they just can’t change their behaviors once habits have formed. For example, research reports that 2/3 of Americans are overweight and about 2/3 of those who start an exercise program drop out within several months. Once established, behavior is hard to change….really really hard!

To make matters worse, often many lose confidence, esteem, and desire to change and fault their lack of willpower. I’d like to suggest that folks take a very different perspective on their inability to change their habits.  After all, if you have trouble controlling your eating yet have access to all sorts of problematic and tempting foods whenever you want them how can you avoid the indulge? Additionally, if you have troubles with exercise adherence yet have so many modern conveniences to avoid exercise then how can you expect to get fit?

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Perhaps one of the secrets to changing behavior and to the “willpower problem" is social engineering. In a nutshell, social engineering involves altering your environment to maximize behavior change in the desired direction. For example, if you have an exercise buddy who shows up at your house early in the morning to exercise with you then you likely won’t just roll over in bed, shut off the alarm, and skip your exercise session. If you have trouble with certain food items but don’t have them in the house then it is harder to indulge without the hassles of going out to get it. One of the reasons why we wear seatbelts is because our cars make annoying noises if we don’t. One reason why we stop smoking is because it is expensive with cigarette or “sin” taxes and because we can’t smoke in so many public and even private locations.

After conducting psychotherapy for three decades working with thousands of patients trying to change their behavior I've given up on the whole willpower thing entirely. Rather, I have found that social engineering tends to work much better than trying to get people to significantly alter their behavior based on impulse control and willpower alone.  

So, forget about willpower and try to design your life and your environment in a way to support behaviors that you want to change. After all, an alcoholic shouldn’t work as a bartender and a bulimic shouldn’t work in an ice crème store. Manage your environment and socially engineer yourself into desired behavior.  Consider just letting go of the idea of willpower completely.

So, what do you think? 

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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