A willingness to wonder

Willingness is a core concept of addiction recovery programs, and a paradoxical one. Twelve-step programs emphasize that individual addicts cannot will themselves into recovery and healthy sobriety, indeed that the ego and self-reliance are often a root cause of their problem. Yet recovering addicts must be willing. That is, they must be open to the possibility that the group and principles are powerful enough to trump a compulsive disease.

It’s a tricky concept for many, and must be taken on faith. But now there may be a little bit of science to back it up, too. Psychologist Ibrahim Senay of the University of Illinois—Champaign figured out an intriguing way to create a laboratory version of both willfulness and willingness—and to explore possible connections to intention, motivation, and goal-directed actions. In short, some key traits needed for long-term abstinence.

He did this by exploring self-talk. Self-talk is just what it sounds like—that voice in your head that articulates what you’re thinking, spelling out your options and intentions and hopes and fears and so forth. It’s the ongoing conversation with oneself. Senay thought that the form and texture of self-talk—right down to the sentence structure—might be important in shaping plans and actions. What’s more, self-talk might be a tool for exerting the will—or being willing.

Here’s how he tested this notion. He had a group of volunteers work on a series of anagrams—changing the word sauce to cause, for example, or when to hewn. But before starting this task, half the volunteers were told to contemplate whether they would work on anagrams, while the others thought about the fact that they would be doing anagrams. It’s a subtle difference, but the former were basically putting their mind into wondering mode, while the latter were asserting themselves. It’s the difference between “I will do this” and “Will I do this?”The wondering minds completed significantly more anagrams. In other words, they were much more goal-directed than were those who declared their intentions to themselves.

This is counterintuitive. Why would asserting one’s intentions to do something undermine that goal? Senay wanted to double-check these surprising results, which he did in this way: He recruited volunteers on the pretense that they were needed for a handwriting study. Some wrote the words I will over and over, while others wrote Will I. The idea was that self-posed questions about the future are fundamentally different than self-declarations. Questions should inspire thoughts about autonomy and motivation to pursue a goal—and in the end make the questioners more successful.

To test this, Senay again had the volunteers work on an anagram task. And again, the willful volunteers performed more poorly than the questioners. He ran another version of this experiment, but he changed the goal to exercise rather than anagrams, and got the same result: Those primed with the words Will I had greater intentions to exercise regularly than did those primed with I will. What’s more, when the volunteers were asked why they had decided to exercise more, the quesioners said things like “Because I want to take more responsibility for my own health.” Those primed with I will offered explanations like “Because I would feel guilty or ashamed of myself if I did not.”

This last finding is crucial. It indicates that those with questioning minds were more intrinsically motivated to change. Those asserting their will lacked this internal motivation, which explains their weak commitment to future change. Put in terms of addiction recovery, those who were asserting their willpower were closing their minds, narrowing their view of the future. Those who were questioning and wondering were open-minded—and therefore willing to see new possibilities for the future.

Selections from “We’re Only Human” appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind. For more on overcoming addiction, visit “The Science of Recovery.” Wray Herbert’s book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, will be published by Crown in September.

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