Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Secret of Willpower

One of the most common reasons given to me by a patient who cannot seem to follow a diet program or smoking or substance cessation program is that he or she lacks willpower. The trouble is that people say it so often that they begin to believe it. I like to point out to people that it is not willpower that they lack, but a lack of a significant value on the decision that has to be made.

“You do have willpower,” I often point out, “in fact, you have so much willpower that I can prove it to you beyond the shadow of a doubt.” Just as the patient in my office has willpower, so do you. Looking at a few simple questions will help you see just how much willpower you have.

Do you go to work, to school, or shopping in the nude? Now, you could do that, there’s nothing stopping you from doing that, but you don’t do it. Why not? Because you buy into a set of values called “morality” which provides societal norms for how people appear in public. If you think about it long enough, you’ll agree that nothing terrible would happen to you, other than a morbid sense of embarrassment, should you go to work or school naked. However, you choose to behave in a socially acceptable manner. There are clearly individuals who don’t make that choice. and who wear scanty clothing or immodest dress in a way that would cause the average person’s eyebrow to rise. These people don’t buy in to those norms. That helps to reinforce the fact that this is a choice. A volitional choice that you make.

Let’s take this a step further. Observant Jews follow a set of dietary guidelines commonly referred to as the Kosher Laws. These laws prohibit the eating, for example, of pork products. Now, if you ask an individual who follows these laws whether or not pork is harmful to a human’s health, the answer would be no. Is pork repugnant to human eating habits, “No.” Is pork in such a scarce supply that one needs to ration its use? Also “No.” So, if pork is not in short supply, if it isn’t bad tasting, and if it isn’t unhealthy, then why do Jews who follow the Kosher Laws refuse to eat it? The answer is because the Bible tells them not to eat it. Accepting that law is a choice, a volitional choice that this individual makes. Again, if an observant Jew were to eat a ham sandwich, the earth would not open up and swallow him whole, lightning bolts would not come down, and he would not suddenly drop dead. No, all that would have happened is that he would have violated a principle that he agreed to accept and abide by. It is a choice he makes. Even though it may be attributed to a Divine Commandment or Law, as far as that one, individual person, it is a volitional choice.

And so when it comes to following a diet, or avoiding smoking, or drug use, or alcohol use, following these principles is a choice that one makes. Whether to follow the accepted behavior or not becomes a matter of, you guessed it, willpower. The truth is that we are tested in areas of willpower every day, every one of us, repeatedly; and it is only in those areas that we hold values to be significant that we agree to follow those principles.

A middle aged married couple is sitting on the beach. Strolling by is a bathing beauty wearing a scanty bikini with a body to fill it. The husband looks at her, and perhaps thinks to himself that he would like to approach the young lady. But he does not. Why? Because he knows that if he does, his wife will kill him. That is a choice he makes.

You are driving home at night. It is a dark street, there is no traffic, it’s late, and you hit a red light. There’s no traffic, but you stop and do not go through the red light. You wait for it to turn green. Why? That is a choice you make. You accept that going through a red light is wrong.

In every one of these examples the problem is not making the choice, the problem is why is the choice being made. What is the underlying value that the choice represents? And why do you accept that value as valid and not other values? Now, assimilate all of this and turn it around. The problem with following a diet or avoiding an offensive substance is not willpower, it is value power. What has to be done in order to get an individual to follow a protocol for health is to help that individual accept that the protocol has value, and that variance from the protocol is dangerous.

While what constitutes a motivating power for any individual is variable, the constant remains that the orientation of the argument should shift from having willpower to assigning a value to the decision or protocol to be followed that is adequate to the task of motivating the individual to follow the plan. Do you have children? Grandchildren? Are you looking forward to a retirement or vacation? Even a more immediate goal such as a pending material acquisition, anything which is a valid motivating factor can be used to assign value to a decision process to be carried out. You do have willpower, all you have to do is want to use it.

This material and entire blog copyright © 2009 by Marc I. Leavey, M.D.
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