Carl Erik Fisher
Originally published February 2, 2017
Here is an excerpt:
These hidden dimensions of willpower call into question the whole scholarly conception of the term, and put us into a lose-lose situation. Either our definition of willpower is narrowed and simplified to the point of uselessness (in both research and casual contexts), or it is allowed to continue as an imprecise term, standing in for an inconsistent hodgepodge of various mental functions. Willpower may simply be a pre-scientific idea—one that was born from social attitudes and philosophical speculation rather than research, and enshrined before rigorous experimental evaluation of it became possible. The term has persisted into modern psychology because it has a strong intuitive hold on our imagination: Seeing willpower as a muscle-like force does seem to match up with some limited examples, such as resisting cravings, and the analogy is reinforced by social expectations stretching back to Victorian moralizing. But these ideas also have a pernicious effect, distracting us from more accurate ways of understanding human psychology and even detracting from our efforts toward meaningful self-control. The best way forward may be to let go of “willpower” altogether.
Doing so would rid us of some considerable moral baggage. Notions of willpower are easily stigmatizing: It becomes OK to dismantle social safety nets if poverty is a problem of financial discipline, or if health is one of personal discipline. An extreme example is the punitive approach of our endless drug war, which dismisses substance use problems as primarily the result of individual choices. Unhealthy moralizing creeps into the most quotidian corners of society, too. When the United States started to get concerned about litter in the 1950s, the American Can Company and other corporations financed a “Keep America Beautiful” campaign to divert attention from the fact that they were manufacturing enormous quantities of cheap, disposable, and profitable packaging, putting the blame instead on individuals for being litterbugs. Willpower-based moral accusations are among the easiest to sling.
The article is here.