This Science News article, Fighting willpower’s catch-22, (Google the title) reports on how resisting desires makes ensuing ones more tempting. I certainly have experienced this to be true, although it took me decades to recognize this and begin to manage it. Like maintaining balance, applying this always requires a moment-to-moment re-realization.
Why did it take so long? After all, the Tao Te Ching presses home the view that contending with oneself or others is just shooting oneself in the foot. This is probably a good example of how one can only truly understand what one already knows. Alas, we must wait for this ‘already know’ to come about — mostly ‘drop by drop’ throughout life. (See We only understand what we already know and You Know.)
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?.)
A glaring example of this catch-22 trap in my life was my relationship with tobacco that played out over years; this in contrast to the short-term research reported in Science News. (See My Battle With Tobacco.) Here are a few excerpts the Science News 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 ensuing thought entangles perception. You might say language itself serves as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that easily over-stresses emotion. Naturally, this language-emotion loop is a by-product (a.k.a. emergent property) of the bio-hoodwink. The real problem occurs when these ensuing perceptions, reinforced by an implicit or implied belief in free will, 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 reveals, Of old those who excelled in the pursuit of the way did not use it to enlighten the people but to hoodwink them.