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Limitations of willpower

  1. Jan 18, 2013 #1
    I've read recently that, contrary to common sense, willpower is a limited resource and can only get you so far. Running out of willpower is called "ego depletion."

    How much does this limit us as human beings? If I were a heavy heroine user for several years, and hadn't used in 18 hours, might it be physically impossible for me to resist a readily available supply in certain circumstances?

    Or are humans just beings of unlimited potential? Is it true that you can accomplish ANYTHING as long as you're smart enough and physically capable? Or is that just an unrealistic fantasy?

    This may or may not be synonymous with the question "is there free will?"
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 18, 2013 #2


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    Torture science, psychological warfare, focus groups, MMORPG reward systems. Those are a few things explicitly designed to wear out and/or bypass willpower.
  4. Jan 18, 2013 #3
    In reference to Pythagorean. Can anyone think of historical instances where willpower has prevailed amidst an "attack"?
  5. Jan 18, 2013 #4


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  6. Jan 18, 2013 #5


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    As far as I'm aware ego depletion is still largely unconfirmed. Having said that it still would seem impossible to say whether or not someone was in such a state of ego depletion that they could not have done anything else. Everyone is different and the huge variety of variables that go into determining mood makes it difficult to determine just what exactly let to an action. For example: one might come to the conclusion that as there is a gym round the corner that opens tomorrow it's acceptable to eat the chocolate one had been resisting for a while. This isn't the erosion of willpower but a rethink of the situation based on new observations.

    Personally I'm skeptical of trying to measure mood in in a qualitative way liken this, not because it isn't useful but that there is a lot of scope for misuse by applying it to situations that are superficially explained this way but in reality are more complex.
    Human beings are obviously limited. No matter how much willpower I have I can't be the King of England, or fly unaided, or be downstairs and upstairs at once, or jump to the moon etc etc. Similarly being strong willed, able bodied and intelligent does not give you the ability to do anything. A lot of life decisions are made for you by events outside of your control.
    It's not synonymous but related.
  7. Jan 18, 2013 #6


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    will power is generally thought of as the ability for an organism to use long-term reasoning to resist gratification or short-term rewards. Hypothetically, you might measure inhibitory dampening on primitive drives in the brain (or something...). It's theoretically a measurable quantity.

    free will is the idea that some independent entity (like a soul) exists that makes decisions independent of causation. It's not measurable or falsifiable, but lots of evidence suggests no such entity exists.
  8. Jan 18, 2013 #7

    "In the learned helplessness experiment an animal is repeatedly hurt by an adverse stimulus which it cannot escape.
    Eventually the animal will stop trying to avoid the pain and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation.
    Finally, when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness prevents any action. The only coping mechanism the animal uses is to be stoical and put up with the discomfort, not expending energy getting worked up about the adverse stimulus.
  9. Jan 18, 2013 #8
    Haha, by "anything," I of course meant anything that your body is capable of. Perhaps I should've been more clear.

    A lot of people have fantasies of just becoming a new person. We've all seen new years resolutions. "I'm gonna go to the gym every day, eat healthy, stop smoking cigarettes, quit masturbating..."

    And it just seems like it really doesn't matter how hard people try, it's just not gonna happen. Is this because it's impossible or they're just not trying hard enough?
  10. Jan 18, 2013 #9


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    It's impossible to generalise and if you try you're in danger of getting an overly simplistic idea of how people behave. Take quiting smoking, some people find it quite easy even if they've been smoking a long time, others don't. Some have very stressful lives that drive them to keep smoking whereas others don't. Some have a peer group that predominately smokes making it harder. You see what I'm getting at? It's not sensible to try and frame such situations as general tasks that only require a set amount of willpower.
  11. Jan 18, 2013 #10
    Of course, I'm not trying to generalize. Rather I'm just wondering if the assumptions 99% of people make ("I can do anything I set my mind to") are imaginary or not.
  12. Jan 18, 2013 #11
    I'm not sure if anyone posseses that much will-power :approve:

    So as to not render my post as merely a joke, I will now express my opinion:

    I'm with Ryan on this one; any study like this would ultimately fall into the self-proclaimed scientific field of psychology, where any experiment done would be incredibly difficult to actually implement in any real-world scenarios.

    As far as free will goes, I personally enjoyed reading Sam Harris' book Free Will (a very straight-forward title). Most of the subject is merely speculatory rambling from philosophers, so it's nice to get the opinion of a neuroscientist (who also happens to have his undergraduate degree in philosophy, but oh well...).
  13. Jan 18, 2013 #12
    Interesting that you say 99%.. I know it's a figure of speech but in my experience people are very unaware of how much of a positive effect they can have on their own lives, just by changing the way they behave and think about certain things. For example, it have been shown that sitting or standing in "powerful" poses for as little as 2 minutes can have serious effects on the testosterone and cortisol levels produced manifesting in a far more confident, less stressful, demeanour*

    * http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amy-c...7.html?utm_hp_ref=tedweekends&ir=TED+Weekends

    Simply focusing on something can have serious implications, most people that want to become more healthy will say things like "I'm not going eat chocolate" and invariably spend a lot of time thinking about the fact they are "not going to eat CHOCOLATE" i.e. they spend a lot of time thinking about chocolate. The people that say "I'm going to eat more apples" or "I'm going to eat healthy food" will generally have a greater degree of success because they are not focusing on the negative they wish to amend (There is a whole field of positive psychology, Martin Seligman being a pioneer in this field if you want to know more about the work done)

    I would say people are capable of a lot more change than they realise, it's all about changing habits, the more aware people are of how they should go about changing these habits, the more success they are likely to have. Will power is too vague (as far as I am aware) to be measured but it obviously varies in people depending on their experiences, but everyone has the ability to change who they are and the number and depth of the habits they wish to amend and how much they know about changing them will play as much of a part in this.

    By depth I mean how ingrained the behaviours are and this will be based on the groups of people they associate with, the length of time this habit has been a habit, but the biggest problem for most people is identifying the 'bad' habits. Obviously in terms of eating and smoking it's obvious (bad food and cigarettes), but habits involving general ambition to be happier or more fulfilled are a little harder to pin down. Anyway, that's my explanation for my most people that are miserable stay so and most people that eat bad food and smoke tend to continue do to so. Not so much will power as knowledge and social influences. Will power might even be a word we have developed to explain the complex art of establishing the most effective means of achieving positive change in life, more than a "measurable thing" in its own right.
  14. Jan 19, 2013 #13
    Personally, I've always gone for the lighter heroines - Wilma Deering being more my type than the stereotypical Wagnerian diva. I think it would definitely be impossible for me to resist a readily-available space heroine under virtually any circumstance. :!!)
  15. Jan 19, 2013 #14
    There is a way around this lack of willpower. It is the realization that a certain thing is a natural constraint. You will probably not be able to resist the urge to drink water after a day or two of dehydration, if there is water readily available. But you can die from thirst before trying to drink gasoline. Because gasoline is not in your category of drinkable substances. This goes for things like studying for exams or housework as well. If you have internalized that you cannot escape it, you don't need willpower to do it any more. All soldiers make their bed, fold their clothes and shine their shoes every day in the army because they cannot escape it, if they would do the same thing at home is a completely different question.
  16. Jan 19, 2013 #15

    It wouldn't be physically impossible, but if you did resist it you would die because you would have a chemical dependance on it and your parasympathetic nervous system would just shut your body down completely.
  17. Feb 24, 2013 #16
    That's true but it's not the point lol, what I'm asking is if it one's "free will" could possible using it in 100% of cases.
  18. Feb 24, 2013 #17
    That´s not very scientific, how do you plan to investigate 100% of cases?

    Since humans have the will power to go on hunger strike or to commit suicide by stabbing themselves repeatedly I imagine they have the will power to do anything. I don´t think there is a limit to free will, beyond physical limits (withdraw symptoms, starvation, being stabbed, these things will kill you whether you will it or not.)
  19. Feb 24, 2013 #18


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    Philosophical discussions of free will are not appropriate for the medical science forum.
    Last edited: Feb 24, 2013
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