The Sunday Edition

Willpower is a myth, and believing in it may make things worse

Psychiatrist Dr. Carl Erik Fisher specializes in addictions treatment, and his patients often tell him their problems stem from a lack of willpower. But Dr. Fisher calls willpower "a dangerous, old idea that needs to be scrapped." He argues willpower is an unscientific concept shaped by moral judgments about substance use and "sinful" behaviour, and that believing in willpower makes us more likely to give in to temptation.
A quarter-pounder hamburger is served at a McDonald's restaurant on March 30, 2017 in Effingham, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Listen13:55

It has been several weeks since your last cigarette, and the craving is getting stronger. Or, perhaps, you have been trying to extricate yourself from a romantic entanglement. Or maybe you would like to drink less, eat less, exercise more.

At first, your commitment held strong. But it is growing flimsier by the hour. 

The thing you want — but which you know you should not let yourself have — is right there. Easily attainable, increasingly alluring, and starting to feel a bit inevitable. 

So you turn to what seems like the best tool you have to resist your own worst impulses: willpower.

According to Dr. Carl Erik Fisher, a psychiatry professor at Columbia University, there's a problem: willpower is a myth.

And not only that — it is "a dangerous, old idea that needs to be scrapped."

Ideas about will and willpower are shot through with moral overtones, and [that's] what leads people today to attach such shame and guilt to their perceived failures of willpower.- Dr. Carl Erik Fisher
Dr. Carl Erik Fisher is an assistant professor at Columbia University, where he teaches in the Department of Psychiatry and the Masters Program in Bioethics.

Dr. Fisher is a practicing psychiatrist who specializes in treating substance use and compulsive behaviours. He regularly hears from patients who say insufficient willpower is at the root of their problems. But the more he looked into that idea, the more muddied and imprecise it appeared. 

He argues willpower is an unscientific concept shaped by moral judgments about substance use and "sinful" behaviour, and that believing in willpower may actually make us more likely to give in to temptation. 

He wrote about the problem with our modern conception of willpower in a piece called "Against Willpower," published in Nautilus Magazine earlier this year.

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview. 

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