Understanding Weakness of Will

One of my favorite philosophers has just published a new book. Alfred Mele (William H. and Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy, Florida State University) has just published his eighth book, Backsliding: Understanding Weakness of Will (Oxford University Press, March 2012). I should note that he has, in fact, more than eight books if you count 5 edited books, each excellent in its own right. This new book is a must read for anyone interested in procrastination, I think. I’m awaiting my copy, as this book only became available a few weeks ago.

I’m a fan of this philosopher. Alfred Mele is brilliant, as his long list of accolades and publications attest. Beginning with his book Irrationality: An Essay on Akrasia, Self-Deception and Self-Control in 1987, Professor Mele’s work on free will, intentionality and human autonomy have tackled key issues that inform psychological research on procrastination (although far too many of his provocative and important ideas remain empirically untested).

Today, I’m drawing on Professor Mele’s 1987 book, Irrationality, to discuss a too often neglected aspect of self-control—skill. With the recent attention to the metaphor that depicts willpower like a muscle, I think we’ve forgotten that self-control is not simply a matter of strength. Of course, brute resistance is an element of self-control. If I’m tempted to abandon an intention in favor of some other pursuit, I may simply force myself through an effort of will to maintain my focus on the initial intention. However, skilled resistance is also important. To explain this difference, Professor Mele uses a wrestling analogy.

A wrestler could, we might imagine, simply use strength alone to defeat an opponent. When we wrestle with our children this is quite obvious. It’s also quite apparent that strength only takes us so far. When our opponents have equal or even greater strength (much as some competing intentions might in our lives), we need to employ our skills; and, we need to employ them strategically and appropriately. I’ll let Professor Mele explain:

"One can conceive of a wrestler who is familiar with a number of holds and other maneuvers and can execute them well but who is a very bad tactician. He lacks a talent for selecting appropriate holds or moves for particular situations. Such a person lacks the ability to wrestle well. Similarly, someone who has learned, and can successfully execute, a number of self-control techniques, but who generally is unable to identify an appropriate technique when he needs to employ one, would be possessed at most of a rather distant approximation of self-control [to a first approximation] . . . [self-control] involves an ability to see when self-control is called for and to identify expedient measures of self-control in particular situations" (pp. 58-59, emphasis added).

What I think is important in this focus on applying particular self-control skills in particular situations is the variety of ways that this is relevant. For example, Mele (p. 53) explains that some modes of self-control belong to the non-immediate future while others belong to the here and now. Similarly, some modes of self-control involve us altering our environment, while others are wholly internal. A concrete example might help here.

Consider someone who is struggling with quitting smoking or eating less (or more healthily). These are examples that are not only common but certainly evoke a wrestling analogy on their own. We feel this internal wrestling match between various desires and intentions. For the sake of this example, I’ll just consider quitting smoking. In the here and now, the smoker might alter the immediate environment by destroying the remaining cigarettes to avoid temptation. In terms of the nonimmediate future, the smoker may also be making strategic implementation intentions as pre-decisions to pre-empt future temptation. For example, he or she might think, “When we’re having pre-dinner drinks before that dinner meeting tonight, I will not join the others when they go out for a smoke.” Of course, while this latter intention is primarily cognitive when made ahead of time, later that evening the strategy will also involve a conative component as the individual will need to draw on “brute resistance” to follow through on the intention because of temptation by habit and/or craving.

What I like about Alfred Mele’s thinking about free will, motivation, agency and weakness of will is the complexity with which he considers these necessarily complex issues. Too often, we seem to reduce problems of human motivation and self-control to a list of tips. Yes, I am guilty of this too, here in this blog and elsewhere, as journalists in particular seek “sound bites” to offer up to readers. I don’t think these tips are incorrect, it’s just that the application of a limited number of tips misses the rich interplay between our thinking, emotions and desires in relation to our volitional skills as they unfold over time. These tips don't help us assess whether we wrestle well, whether or not we're good tacticians when it comes to self-control. This is essential to addressing procrastination if it's a problem in your life.

There are complex issues to consider when we think about the psychology of action, and an investment in time reflecting on these is well worth the intellectual effort. I’m sure you’ll find it rewarding. I certainly have, and I look forward to reading about “backsliding” in Alfred Mele’s newest book.


The quickest way to access a list of Alfred Mele’s books and to learn more about this philosopher is to visit his website at Florida State University.

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