I happened to see this article, Fighting willpower’s catch-22, on the Web edition of Science News. It reports on how resisting desires makes ensuing ones more tempting. I certainly have experienced this to be true, although it took me decades to understand and put into practice. Still, like maintaining balance, it is always a moment-to-moment understanding and practice.
Why did it take so long? After all, the Tao Te Ching presses home the view that contending with one’s self or others is just shooting one’s self in the foot. This is probably a good example of how one can only truly understand what one already knows. (See You Know). Alas, throughout life we can only wait for that ‘already knows‘ to come about.
Underlying all this is the popular myth of will power and discipline — the belief we can control those characteristics or hurry things along. (See Free Will: Fact or Wishful Thinking?)
An example in my life of this catch-22 trap was my relationship with tobacco (see My Battle With Tobacco), which played out over years, in contrast to the short-term research reported in Science News. Here are a few pithy excerpts from the article.
Willpower comes with a wicked kickback. Exerting self-control saps a person’s mental energy and makes the next desire that inevitably comes along feel more compelling and harder to resist, a study of people’s daily struggles with temptation found.
But people best able to resist eating sweets, going out with friends before finishing work or other temptations find ways to steer clear of such enticements altogether, so that they rarely have to resort to self-control.
Willpower fluctuates throughout the day, rather than being a constant personality trait. Prior resistance makes new desires seem stronger than usual. In addition, there appears to be no signature feeling of when willpower is low.
P.S. No sooner had I posted this than I saw this book review in Science News, “Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain” by Michael S. Gazzaniga.
In his new book, Gazzaniga drags readers kicking and screaming to the brink of an existential meltdown, and then rescues them with a dramatic twist at the end.
Gazzaniga’s opening salvo: You are not the boss of your brain. The illusion of control is a sweet lie that people —including neuroscientists — tell themselves. Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist himself, describes loads of studies, including some of his own, showing that people aren’t always willful and purposeful agents in control. One of his best arguments: “Have you ever succeeded in telling your brain to shut up already and go to sleep?”
If natural laws and the ways of the brain can explain each and every behavior, it follows that free will is an illusion. But before you sprint out and buy a Porsche (“The universe made me do it!”), Gazzaniga calls out that very issue. Angsty hand-wringing about free will is meaningless, he argues. What really matter are social relationships. Just as it’s uninformative to say that a person who is alone on a planet is the tallest, the concept of personal responsibility has no meaning if there are no other people to be responsible to.
No matter how much scientists learn about the brain, the results will never offer an escape clause releasing people from personal responsibility, he says.
For sensitive, introspective readers, the book may feel like an emotional roller coaster as it careens through brain science, morality and even law. But Gazzaniga is a funny, sympathetic and trusty guide, making the trip not just worthwhile, but fun.
It is striking how language and subsequent thought traps and twists perception. You might say language itself serves as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. All this is simply a by-product (a.k.a. emergent property) of the bio-hoodwink that is pulling emotion’s strings. The real problem of believing we have free will is that this belief, whether implicit or implied, drives us to contend with ourselves in an unwinnable battle.
Contrary to what the author says, I find that we use free will as our ‘escape clause’ from reality. The illusion of personal responsibility offers us the promise of escape in that we can presumably get what we want if we just take more responsibility. This is how civilization keeps its populations in line. As chapter 65 notes, Of old those who excelled in the pursuit of the way did not use it to enlighten the people but to hoodwink them.