The Perils of Willpower

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

By Wray Herbert

The coming holiday season looms as a nightmare of temptation for many, whether the lure is fruitcake or martinis. Most dieters and abstainers think of willpower as the key to success. Bite the bullet; just say no. Yet paradoxically, the cornerstone of most addiction recovery programs is the exact opposite of willpower: It’s admitting powerlessness over drugs or sweets or booze.

This is a difficult concept for many, especially for those who have grown up in a culture that celebrates self-reliance. How can weakness be the way to success? Whatever happened to personal responsibility and self-discipline? It’s not entirely clear why or how this principle works, but some new research may help illuminate the dynamic.

Northwestern University psychologist Loran Nordgren and colleagues wanted to explore how our beliefs about our own powers of restraint might shape our behavior in the face of temptation. They suspected that people who believe they are powerless would be less likely to put themselves in risky situations—holiday parties, for example—and would therefore be less likely to give into temptation. Similarly, people who believe in their own powers of restraint would be less vigilant about temptation—and thus at heightened risk for a slip. They were especially interested in one puzzling question about addiction and recovery: Why do so many people relapse even after the physical symptoms of addiction subside?

They decided to study smokers. They contacted about 50 smokers who were trying to quit through a smoking cessation program. All had gone without a smoke for at least three weeks, which means that their physical withdrawal cravings were past. The researchers began by giving the smokers a questionnaire to gauge their beliefs about their ability to control their impulses and withstand temptation. Then they asked them a series of questions about the steps they took to avoid being around cigarettes: Do you avoid people who smoke? Ask people not to smoke? Sneak an occasional drag? And so forth.

Four months later, they contacted the recovering smokers again to see how they were doing with their effort to quit. They expected that their beliefs would shape their risky behavior, which would in turn influence success or failure. And that’s precisely what they found. As reported in the December issue of the journal Psychological Science, quitters who were confident in their powers of self-restraint were more apt to hang around smokers and keep cigarettes around—and were also more likely to relapse. Those who felt weak and vulnerable had a higher rate of success.

But what makes one person believe in willpower, while another sees himself as powerless? According to the researchers, beliefs are not fixed. They fluctuate depending on our circumstances and psychological state. People in a “hot” state are feeling the full force of their visceral impulses—hunger and craving—and therefore “believe” in the potency of addiction and in their vulnerability. But people in a “cold” state—who aren’t having cravings at the moment—have a great deal of trouble remembering what those impulses feel like, and as a result tend to believe more in their personal willpower. This disconnect is what the psychologists call the “empathy gap.”

The problem is that we spend most of our time in a cold state, so we tend to overestimate our powers of control and restraint. When we overestimate these powers, we are more likely to act recklessly. This would help explain why people relapse long after their physical compulsions are gone: They feel confident in their abstinence, and let their guard down, only to find themselves in a hot state—and at a holiday party. It would also explain another cornerstone of recovery programs: Going to meetings. Spending time around other recovering addicts, listening to stories of temptation and struggle and relapse is a way to prevent a hot state from going cold.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit the “Full Frontal Psychology” blog at True/Slant. Excerpts from “We’re Only Human” also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 3:18 PM


At 11:00 AM , Blogger Randy Zeitman said...

The problem I've found with the powerlessness concept is that it's never distinguished from "choice" and "being present".

As your article says, to them will power means 'restraint under pressure' but to me it means "effot" such as in the planning and awareness training needed to make sure that troublesome situations don't arise. But when they do, such as last night's holiday party, it's willpower that saves the day. If I admitted I was powerless I would either have had to leave or eat any and everything I wanted. But you need multiple tools to handle multiple situations.

At 7:40 PM , Blogger ijklm said...

As the title of the blog says, " we're only human"-- I suppose its admitting that one can slip up at any time.
I have found this to be true of not just addictions (I am a recovering potato chips addict!) but of any old habit pattern.