Social Brain, Social Mind

The mysteries of social cognition

The Hidden Doublespeak of Willpower and Self-control

Who do we control the self for?

It is suddenly in vogue to talk scientifically about willpower.  The funny thing is that psychologists have been talking about something like willpower scientifically for decades.  With the exception of Walter Mischel (the mastermind behind the marshmallow test of willpower in five year olds), the rest of us have been calling it self-control as long as I can remember.  Although willpower and self-control both refer to the same mental process, the nuance implied by each is difference.  Willpower is a muscular Nietzschean word for our ability to overcome whatever gets in our way through sheer personal force of mind.  Self-control has more Orwellian doublespeak connotations.  Self-control can be read as the ‘the self that is in control’ but it can also be read as ‘that which brings the self under control’ which begs the question ‘for whose sake is the self brought under control?’  To answer this question, lets consider two scenarios.

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Alien abduction #1

You’ve been abducted by an alien race that is conducting neuroscience experiments on the human mind.  The alien neurosurgeon is kind enough to give you a choice: permanently lose your capacity for impulses, urges, and desires or permanently lose your capacity to overcome your impulses, urges, and desires.  It’s the classic battle between self-control and emotion, between Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk, between business man and burning man.  If you had to give up one of these forever, which would you choose?

If you are at all well-read in psychology over the past twenty years you might protest that this is a false dichotomy.  Self-control and emotion are not always at odds with one another.  We have learned from Antonio Damasio and a myriad of other researchers that emotions commonly facilitate adaptive decisions and behavior.  Emotions are not things that are always better off controlled and minimized.  No argument here.  There are lots of times when you would not want to regulate your emotional reactions.  Granted.  You might even get nuanced and suggest that Mr. Spock isn’t lacking impulses but is rather supremely skilled in his ability to regulate them so that he appears unemotional and his decisions are free from impulse.  But you probably wouldn’t because that would reveal how big of a Star Trek nerd you are (oops, did I reveal too much there).

These protests are irrelevant.  We can hypothetically imagine losing one or the other capacity and I want you to choose which to lose and which to keep.  Most of us would prefer to keep both, but you can’t.  In the end, most of us are likely to keep our impulses, urges, and desires.  Losing our capacity for self-control will create lots of problems in our lives and more than a few embarrassing moments.  But our impulses, urges, and desires are what give life its meaning and direction – they are the impetus to do or not do each of the infinite things we could choose.  By the way, not all of these remaining urges have to be craven – this surgery will allow altruistic prosocial urges to remain in place, not to mention the urge to enjoy a mountaintop view, or the urge to hug one’s child.  Most of us would take the bad urges with the good, because without these we literally might not do anything at all.

Alien abduction #2

Let’s imagine a second alien abduction.  This time, your entire town or city has been abducted (except your family and closest friends who happened to have all taken a short vacation to Hawaii together and missed the abducting).  You appear to have won the abduction lottery as the alien neurosurgeon tells you that of all the people abducted, you are the only one who will not lose either their urges or their ability to control them.  However, you will have to decide which choice is made for the rest of the people in your town.  Based on what you decide, they will either all lose their impulses, urges, and desires or they will lose their capacity to overcome these.  One choice for all them.  In other towns, other choices will be implemented, so there will be impulse towns and self-control towns.  Remember that these are not the people closest to you in your life.  What do you choose for all the people in your neighborhood?

My hunch is that even if you are conflicted about this choice, your first response is to deprive others of their impulses – the opposite choice you probably made for yourself.  Who wants to live in a town full of crazy people who act on every single impulse they have.  That town sounds ridiculously dangerous.

Who is self-control for?

How odd that we would make opposite choices for other people and ourselves?  If everyone else has self-control they should be able to deal with our pure impulsiveness (isn’t this what parents do for years?).  But a world of pure impulsives are unpredictable and a threat to all (including to themselves).  Let’s put one more wrinkle in this thought experiment.  Given that you would quite possibly choose for those around you to keep self-control, what do you think the people around you would choose for you?  No doubt, most of them would want you to sacrifice your impulses in favor of staying in control. 

This line of questioning suggests that your self-control might be more important to others than it is to you.  When you stay under control it might benefit you, but it almost always benefits others.  Our engagement of self-control makes us palatable and predictable and allows society to operate efficiently – yet self-control often makes us stressed out, unhappy, and ruminating over unmet impulses.  Society always benefits from undergraduates who control their impulses long enough to study organic chemistry, so they can get into med school and control their impulses even more to become doctors.  Society needs informed and disciplined physicians.  Yet some of those undergraduates who grow up to become doctors will not be happy with their career.  Sometimes our self-control efforts turn out to be personal sacrifices that benefit others far more than ourselves. 

Mind you, I’m not suggesting a return to the 70s when everyone let down their hair and did whatever they wanted (or so I’m told).  But I think there is at least a little sleight of hand at work when we stop calling it self-control and start calling it willpower.  At least self-control hints at the fact that it is part of the self, a part we identify with, that is being controlled.  Willpower just sounds so empowering and hides the true beneficiary of so much of our effortful self-control.  This subterfuge works so well because we aren’t built to realize that self-control may support society’s interests more than our own.  Anyone else reading Murakami’s new book 1Q84?

Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect - now available from Amazon http://amzn.to/ZlYMP3

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Matthew D. Lieberman, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Social.

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