Willpower, Reality and the Creative Challenge

Warren Kinston 18. November 2012 12:00

Willpower seems to be returning to popular focus.  That can’t be all bad for THEE which takes its origin from willcreative challenge letting go courtesy gnuckx The taxonomy only focuses on those matters which we can will into existence, and which would not exist if we did not will them.  Like I’m currently willing this blog into existence, and you are using your will in giving it some attention.

While will has an intrinsic energy (human energy as distinct from physical energy), this seems to manifest as part of the creation of personal purposes and values.  Nothing much can be willed without a goal.  Things happen without intending of course: we don’t forget to breathe or fail to react when touching a hot stove.  But this is our biological self at work: important but irrelevant for a taxonomy of psychosocial reality like THEE.

In THEE, willpower is the resource that our autonomy, i.e. inner freedom, has at its disposal.  There are only certain conduits through which you can channel your willpower but they are the fundamentals of your humanity—willingness, purpose, communication, experience, change, inquiry and action.  (Members will recognize this as the Root Hierarchy, and can view their function as conduits here.)

Cognitive psychology loves playing with ideas that are seemingly profound but rather silly when the lab experiments are exposed to the light of day.  One of the current buzzwords happens to be willpower or self-control—the terms seem to be used inter-changeably.  A common starting assumption in popular explanations of the cognitive theories is that people lack willpower.  The blogger says: “Just look at broken New Year resolutions or failures to follow diets or non-use of gym programs.”  But this is to take some tiny fragment out of a life and blow it up out of all proportion.  If people really lacked willpower or self-control, how on earth would they ever get anything done and stay out of jail?  

A popular academic theorist at present is Prof. Roy Baumeister who has done excellent work, especially in relation to free will.  As you might expect, I am biased: his view accords with THEE assumptions.  He recognizes free will as an advanced form of action control over evolutionarily older and often anti-social instincts.  Well conceived!  However, his views of willpower are less persuasive.  He regards it metaphorically as a muscle whose strength can be sapped by exercise.  He describes a terrible state of ego-depletion that flows from making decisions.  Oh dear! 

In psychological experiments he finds that ultra-simple decision-making e.g. choosing between two versions of the same product, like red pen versus purple pen or white t-shirt v black t-shirt, depletes our powers. Don't you just love creative challenges?

This particular experiment reminds me of shopping.  I hate it. Steve Jobs said that he wore the same clothes all the time to avoid just these sorts of decisions.  But does shopping really deplete our willpower?  Or does it rather misuse it?  Any person can be overwhelmed and traumatized.  In my case, shopping does this rather quickly—it's an abusive environment for me.  Only thing worse are those marketing letters aiming to get me to decide to subscribe to an investment service. Ego depletion (to use that term) would seem to be a function of the type of decision and decision context presented to a particular person, not the brute work of deciding as such.

Baumeister's theory is like saying our respiratory system is deficient because if we put a polythene bag over our heads we are likely to suffocate.  In my view, we should study the use of willpower under its normal use.  I observe that healthy people are not depleted by decision-making but rather invigorated by suitable work, which invariably involves countless decisions daily.  If, however, you are expected to do work that is boring or inappropriate in a context where you have no control, exhaustion is rapid. If the work is beyond your capability then it is like breathing inside a polythene bag, and you are likely to collapse and fall ill.  I have seen deaths from such person-role mismatches in organizations.

My twopennyworth here is the observation that willpower comes particularly into play in the face of a creative challenge.  This is a situation where you do not quite know for sure whether the task or project is too difficult for you or not, but you think it is worth tackling.

However much I may moan about it, I doubt that there is much willpower involved in my getting up in the morning.  We get up because we always do it, because it is easy to do, because getting the day going well depends on it.  However, when we attempt something creative, then we first have to be clear that we are motivated, that there is a worthwhile justification, and that we sense a determination in ourselves to see it through.  Ideally you should not proceed unless you sense somehow that you can and will rise to the challenge.

Motivation is of course essential in everything significant in our lives.  Lab experiments regard motivation as irrelevant.  The subject is paid $20 to participate in a study and the results are assumed to be meaningful and applicable to everyday life.  It resembles testing a submarine’s hull integrity by hosing it down in the sahara desert.  

But there is hope—of a sort.  At last another couple of psychologists have shown that providing simple motivational incentives can abolish the so-called ego-depletion.  They boldly write that experiments suggest that: “incentives, individual perceptions of task difficulty, personal beliefs about willpower, feedback on task performance, and changes in mood” can all affect self-control.

Well, what do you know!

Many things affect our determination.  Do we need expensive experiments to tell us that?  The improved theory is that willpower is a function of «motivation and attention».  «Attention» is fine: without attention you would not know what it was you were trying to do.  Everything psychological and willed depends on attention.  However, referring to «motivation» is not good enough.  Look at the creativity framework: you will see that it is just one of three regimens for perseverance.  

It is natural for psychologists to emphasize motivation, but turn to the real world for a moment.  You may be highly motivated, but you may choose not to act because of social circumstances.  We need a justification for letting our motivations rip.  After all, that means using your own resources and often the resources of others.  So, as the THEE graphic shows, motivation does not determine willpower. It's just the reverse—willpower determines motivation. Unfortunately for psychologists, it's tough to work that out intuitively and quite impossible to do so from lab experiments: you need taxonomic analysis.

If the creative challenge is yours and your motivation is genuine—i.e. positively willed rather than manipulated by experimenters or governments—it does not go away when the environment is adverse.  Instead you will experience frustration. If you are like me: intense frustration—and irritation as well.  However, if the matter is important, then you will bide your time until conditions are more favourable.

A creative life requires submission to wider realities—something that cannot be readily simulated in an academic laboratory.

So good luck with your challenges, and don't worry too much about your ego.



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Warren Kinston is the creator of the THEE-Online website as an open forum for the further discovery and development of THEE. He writes this blog as an escape valve for the excitement and frustrations of the work. More info here.

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