So how do you feel about “will power?” Old fashioned? Crucially necessary? Both?
John Tierney wrote a really wonderful piece about will power in the New York Times recently. You can see the full article here. I’m going to reflect here on a few elements of the scientific study of the question; then a little bit on some practical implications.
First, “decision fatigue.” It’s not just an apt metaphor, it turns out. Making decisions is work and work takes energy and as you run out of energy, you feel fatigued. There it is. There has always been a difficulty to this simple formulation among scientists who study it. The difficulty is that no one knew how glucose could affect the brain discriminantly rather than generally. Either your brain has enough glucose to function effectively or it does not. But, it turns out that decision fatigue causes activity to rise in some parts of the brain and to decline in others. There is “more activity in the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s reward center, and a corresponding decrease in the amygdala, which ordinarily helps control impulses.”
So more demands from the reward center and less resistance from the control center. That doesn’t sound good.
Second, the more decisions you make, the more you suffer from decision fatigue. It isn’t like a set of conversations you can imagine having. You feel energized after this one and depleted after that one. All the decisions cost and the more options you are considering, the more they cost; the higher the value of making a good decision, the more they cost.
I think about that first criterion when I go to Starbucks and hear a new person go through the decisions that are necessary to get a cup of coffee. When I go in my Starbucks, they start making my coffee when they see me coming in. So I have much less excuse for buying the doughnut than the new guy does. The idea that the cost of the decision varies with the cost of doing it wrong can be illustrated by the idea that it costs a poor person more to go shopping than a well off person because the trade-offs are more numerous for the poor person as is the cost of a bad decision.
Third, these studies all emphasize that there is more difference among settings for choice than there is among choosers. I have some reservations about that myself, but let’s go with it for a little while. Someone who “has a lot of will power” is someone who arranges his decisions properly. He builds good habits, for example, so he will choose the good options—the ones he has decided are right for him—without having to choose them every time. She saves some will power, some “decision energy” for decisions that would otherwise catch her short. She doesn’t run her brain near the empty line, in other words. She anticipates routinely bad settings for decisions, like back-to-back meetings or end of the work day times. She controls her schedule and her diet so that if she makes wrong decisions, it won’t be because her brain has run out of fuel.
Fourth, since it is the accumulated depletion of the decisions that gets to you, you might want to make fewer at a time if that is feasible or in a commercial transaction, like buying a car, put all the high cost decisions up front where you will make them better. Here is a catchy example of sequence.
The car buyers — and these were real customers spending their own money — had to choose, for instance, among 4 styles of gearshift knobs, 13 kinds of wheel rims, 25 configurations of the engine and gearbox and a palette of 56 colors for the interior. As they started picking features, customers would carefully weigh the choices, but as decision fatigue set in, they would start settling for whatever the default option was. And the more tough choices they encountered early in the process — like going through those 56 colors to choose the precise shade of gray or brown — the quicker people became fatigued and settled for the path of least resistance by taking the default option. By manipulating the order of the car buyers’ choices, the researchers found that the customers would end up settling for different kinds of options, and the average difference totaled more than 1,500 euros per car (about $2,000 at the time). Whether the customers paid a little extra for fancy wheel rims or a lot extra for a more powerful engine depended on when the choice was offered and how much willpower was left in the customer.
The car buyers eventually just run out of gas.
And finally, it seems to me that a lot of the implications of these decisions have been anticipated for a long time by “good practices.” People who remind you not to make important decisions when you are tired or to eat something before you go grocery shopping have had no idea at all of the mechanics underlying these prudent reminders. I, myself, am really drawn to the mechanics, but the fact is that eating something before going on a food-buying excursion was a good idea before we found what processes support it and it remains a good idea now.
The great conundrum considered by the article is all the will power required to stay on a weight loss diet. As you say no to one sugary snack after another, your energy is depleted and so you can sustain these decisions, you long for a quick sugar hit. For any other kind of decision, that might be just the right thing. For weight loss, not so much.
 I don’t fuss with personal pronouns much, but here I am going to use “he” sometimes and “she” sometimes. It seems likely to me that people will think men are better at will power than women or vice versa and that really isn’t a good thing to think. So I’m going to make sure pronouns of both flavors are present.