The Greater Good

Philosophy, psychology, and policy.

A Healthy Substitute for Willpower

Can we do better than relying on simple willpower?

I have always loved bourbon, and as a graduate student, I loved it regularly. Back then, I drank with friends routinely. But most of us also value a life free from nagging temptation. What to do?

Shot glass of bourbonIf you change the person's environment, you can break the connection between a potent cue, and an entrenched response. Change the environment in the right way, and you can break the bond between the bar and the bourbon, the corral and cussing, the oven and overeating.

It certainly worked on college students. A study by Wendy Wood and her colleagues looked at the habitual behaviors of transfer students as they moved to a new university. Their habits of exercising, reading the paper, and watching TV-even when strong-did not survive the transfer when the move destabilized or disrupted the living circumstances that supported their habits. The disruption in their behavioral surroundings apparently blocked automatic cues, which then required intention to carry the action through.

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Before leaving for vacation one year, I removed the bourbon from the cabinet. When I returned, it was more than an arm's length away. And now that bars prohibit smoking, it is easy to stay away from cigarettes as well!

My example has modest beginnings, but the psychology of habit-change may carry unexpected and lucrative lessons for public policy. After all, so many costly behaviors stem from habits; maybe there is a general lesson to learn about the relation between situations and desires. Because people are most likely to break habits when they are in new environments, institutions (like local governments) can use similarly smart policies when people are moving to a new home, city, or job, when they are experiencing changes in their personal relationships, coping with the death of a loved one, or recovering from a serious illness. For example, it is a lot easier to convert new residents of a community into habitual users of public transit than long-time residents. And this is why some communities offer new residents free passes on public transportation.

In public health, for example, at least four of the leading health risks in the U.S. emerge from everyday repetition of action, eased by contingencies of the environment-substance abuse, obesity, tobacco use, and inadequate exercise. These ultimate costs of these health risks are enormous. Substance abuse alone in 2002 cost the U.S. over 180 billion dollars, and is increasing steeply. In that same year, medical expenditures for overweight- and obesity-attributable conditions were $92.6 billion dollars. Tobacco use is a similar bane. In the U.S. alone, excess medical expenditures owing to tobacco use averaged $75.5 billion dollars from 1995-1999, and if we add that to the death-related losses in productivity, the figure increases to over $150 billion dollars. Inadequate exercise, or "lack of leisure-time physical activity," as a habitual part of daily life, cost $24 billion in 1995. Its health effects amounted to about 2.4% of all U.S. health care expenditures. In today's dollars, these four habit-based health risks together amount to about one-half trillion dollars annually. And none of these costs is decreasing.

It's not that, among our faculties, intention is a weakling; it's just that habit is bigger, quicker, has a longer reach, and finishes strong. But policy is a patient, powerful, and healthy substitute for a weak will.

J.D. Trout is a professor of philosophy at the Loyola University of Chicago, and his book, The Empathy Gap: Building Bridges to the Good Life and the Good Society, recently appeared with Viking/Penguin.

J.D. Trout is a philosopher of science and a speech perception researcher at Loyola University in Chicago. His most recent book is The Empathy Gap.

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