Where There's a Will, There's a . . .

Mistaken beliefs about brain and will

Posted May 08, 2008

. . . human being. The recent emphasis about will being merely an illusion is another example of the "baby being thrown out with the bath water." At the least, it's a misunderstanding of the definition of conscious will. Two roads diverged in a wood, and I . . .

A recent graduate from our psychology program, emailed me the other day to say that he'd been reading my blogs, and although he agreed with the various perspectives about why we might procrastinate, he wanted to remind me that procrastination can also be understood as a habit. He's right, of course. Certainly John Bargh would agree. As Bargh and his colleagues argue clearly in their work, we don't need conscious processing to act or make choices. If we make the same decisions or choices in the same circumstances, the process becomes routinized and signaled by the circumstances. In fact, we depend on this process as part of learning. All skills develop this way, as less conscious attention is required for action to be carried out successfully. I depend on this unconscious process now as I type. I don't look at the keyboard, as long hours of practice at a typewriter in high school (and many years since on the computer keyboard) has provided me with an unconscious ability to process thoughts into keystrokes. I also depend on this type of automatic process on the highway every day (perhaps too often at times!).

Bargh, and others (for a review see Chartrand & Bargh, 2002 referenced below), have also argued that this automatic activation is related to goal pursuit. Nonconscious goal pursuit is typical and has the same qualities as conscious goal pursuit in terms of the tendency (or not) of resuming and completing interrupted goals, the mood effects of goal pursuit (e.g., happiness on the successful pursuit), etc., even when we're not really aware of having the goal. Again, we depend on these processes. We're cognitive misers, and our brains are adapted to finding patterns, making meaning and making things automatic. This frees up the limited resources of attention for other tasks.

In this sense, yes, procrastination can be a habit associated with our goal pursuit. Given that this notion of habit is the unconscious routinized behavior signaled by the circumstances (certainly the behaviorists have argued this for years), what does it take to break the procrastination habit? (as popular book titles admonish) Conscious attention and will. But wait, isn't will an illusion? It's certainly a notion that was first rejected in the early 1900's as psychology began its slow birth as a science, and it has been again rejected most vehemently as the remnants of dualistic thought.

Daniel Wegner and colleagues argue that conscious will is an illusion (see references below). In short, neuroscientific evidence (by Benjamin Libet and others) demonstrates that the brain sends signals for action (a "readiness potential") before the individual is conscious of the action that is about to take place. Hence, the later conscious activation is an "effort after meaning" that explains the event in terms of the mental event and will. We can be fooled like this, and in many other ways, all of the time it seems.

But all of this assumes that we define "will" with the notion that our thought is the cause of our action. This is problematic given the unconscious processes of learning that I presented above, and it sets up any notion of will to collapse under the weight of such a definition. Instead, I agree with Richard Ryan & Edward Deci who suggest instead that ". . . the exercise of will and autonomy is different from being an initial cause or stimulus to action. It rather concerns the capacity to effectively evaluate the meaning and fit of potential actions with one's overarching values, needs, and interests" (2004, p. 468).

Will is bringing conscious attention to our action or potential action and taking stock of it in relation to our values, needs and interests. It is facilitated by being mindful, being aware of what is occurring in the moment (see my earlier blog on Mindfulness and procrastination). Bargh agrees, in principle, arguing that becoming aware of the automatic cognitions that trigger or prompt action can be a first step in gaining control over automatic processes. Automatic processes are habitual, efficient and adaptive, but they are not immutable.

Mindful attention is the first step to gaining control, to exercising one's will per se. Baumeister and Heatherton argue the same thing in relation to self-control processes. The self-regulatory processes provide the potential for transcending the immediate situation to make a conscious choice as opposed to enacting the habitual, unconscious choice. Transcending the momentary desire to eat dessert is possible, for example, if one takes a moment to reflect on the consumption of dessert in relation to the goal of weight control or a healthy diet. Without this transcendence, which lies at the heart of the existential definition of the will, we certainly act out automatic processes programmed by a long evolutionary history ("sweet foods are best"), personal history ("this is my comfort food") and automatic processes ("I always eat dessert").

Ah, this is a blog and not a philosophical treatise, so my treatment of these important ideas is a little "light fingered" and cursory, I know, but my comments are true to the basic ideas of the arguments. My point is, conscious will is an essence of being human. Some argue that is it THE essence, but I need not limit myself to this narrower definition in order to underscore the importance of understanding will as the application of conscious attention to my decisions, choices and actions.

Certainly it can be easier to remain on automatic pilot with learned behaviors and scripts for our lives. However, for many of us, these unconscious processes get us into trouble. Any athlete knows this. Practice makes permanent, not perfect. So, to improve our performance, we have to consciously make changes to our stroke or approach, whatever the game entails.

For procrastination, it's the same thing. We can, as my student noted, follow our habits. Alternatively, we can bring conscious attention to our choice to needlessly delay a task and examine this honestly in relation to our values, needs and goals.

Unfortunately, conscious attention is not a panacea, because self-deception looms large. That's why I wrote "honest" examination of our choices in relation to our values. It's quite easy to rationalize our current choice, to make what existentialists call an inauthentic choice, because change of an automatic process is difficult, even scary. Our learned behaviour has served us well in a variety of ways so far, hasn't it?

Again, much like changing your approach to a backhand on the tennis court or your golf swing, old habits die hard, change is difficult, and conscious attentive practice is required. That also means work, and faith in the efficacy of the change. This is part of the human condition, our existence. Not only does it take conscious attention, it takes the courage to follow your values and work for change.

Where there's a will, there's a way. Corny? Perhaps, but true.

Here's another, perhaps corny, way to think of it.

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference." Robert Frost (1874-1963).

Your guess as to what I think is the road less traveled. Habits make deep ruts in the trail, that's for sure.

Baumeister, R.F,, & Heatherton, T.F. (1996). Self-regulation failure: An overview. Psychological Inquiry, 7, 1-15.

Chartrand, T.L., & Bargh, J.A. (2002). Nonconscious motivations: Their activation, operation, and consequences. In A. Tesser, D.A. Stapel, & J.V. Wood (Eds.), Self and motivation; Emerging psychological perspectives (pp. 13-41). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2004). Autonomy is no illusion: Self-determination theory and the empirical study of authenticity, awareness and will. In J. Greenberg, S.L. Koole, & T. Pyszczynski (Eds.), Handbook of experimental existential psychology (pp. 449-479). New York: The Guilford Press.

Wegner, D.M. (2002). The illusion of conscious will. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wegner, D.M., & Wheatley, T. (1999). Apparent mental causation: Sources of the experience of will. American Psychologist, 54, 480-491.