Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Willpower and narratives

I read Willpower by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. According to the described research, energy is integral to self-control. Resistance to the temptation of short-term impulses is "real" work. These systematic study findings agree with anecdotal experience: tired or hungry humans are more likely to act irritable and self-indulgent, even when the fatigue is mental. Thus good sleeping and eating routines are causes or fuel for self-control as well as effects of it.

Philosophically speaking, these overall facts on willpower add to the formidable pile of compelling evidence against the mythical "disembodied mind" (soul). Humans have startling potential for decision-making and self-denial. But aside from abnormal genes and/or painstaking training, they have limits1. They can't actually force their bodies to do whatever they wish, no matter how much perseverance stirs within their alleged supernatural "hearts". Most obviously, the underlying physicality, i.e. the brain, will shut down at some point due to simple exhaustion. Although before that happens, involuntary reactions probably will wrest the weary body away from the tyranny of conscious direction2.

Whether or not someone believes in a mystical basis for willpower, the book has practical suggestions. I imagine that my initial retort is like other know-it-all readers: "That's it? If lasting behavior modification were that straightforward, why is failure so prevalent?" However, a few of the book's propositions fit snugly into my favorite personal schema for human willpower: narratives. The more effectively that someone constructs and follows a narrative of a desired plan of action to reach a goal, the greater the chance of success. Examples:
  • The book's preference of specific details over broad intentions is a factor in a narrative's perceived level of "reality". A vague narrative is prone to treatment as a fantasy. Mushy rules or to-dos are difficult narratives to interpret as true - or as false in the case of failure.
  • One of the book's foremost points is the need for frequent monitoring and short-term milestones, combined with the willingness to be flexible and forgiving in the immediate-term when inevitable complications occur. The same applies to a narrative, which must inhabit attention for it to be a tangible guide. Narratives must often enter everyday awareness in order to be measurements and signposts for actual deeds.
  • Long-term rewards and consequences require extra emphasis in thoughts, because the competing short-term incentives are naturally louder. Good narratives are clear on the desirability of the far-off benefit, so attentiveness to a narrative substitutes a different, imagined item for the present temptation. The narrative projects the decision-maker outside the influence of the current time and place. Taste of future victory compensates for withdrawal now. Other than abstract reinforcement, this mental operation is a helpful distraction3.
  • Orderly environments and personal habits aid willpower. Messes consume mental resources, leaving less room for considering proposed narratives. In contrast, tidiness of oneself is a subconscious increase in the narrative's plausibility. Little triumphs and confidence boosters bring it within reach. "I see that I can exert control. Maybe I can carry out a hard narrative too."
  • "Precommitment" could be the willpower technique that aligns closest with narratives. What else is the essence of a narrative, if not a vision of what future-me will do (and be)? 
Perhaps the preceding are signs that I'm trying to cram the book's discoveries into a biased framework that I find attractive. I readily admit that I'm enamored with narratives as the "secret weapon" of humanity's advanced aspects. Language is a medium for narratives. Fancy plans are narratives ("Two right turns then a left"). Self-concept is a narrative. Sympathy is a narrative that features another, in which the self can be exchanged for the main character. Indeed, any interpretation of another's actions or knowledge depends on narratives4. Teachings on morality, character-building, and religion employ particularly dramatic narratives for manipulation.

Entrenched narratives are more than ideas, too, because humans act in response5. Unlike other organisms, which are dominated by fairly simple inborn drives and brains, humans incorporate surprising complexity in their decisions. Viewing themselves as part of larger narratives, their acts and roles need not exhibit complete biological/evolutionary reasonableness. The narrative mechanism enables a vertiginous third-person perspective beyond the self: "What I do here today will echo across history and inspire other trite expressions..." Angst-heavy humans are capable of envisioning the implications of a choice on the trajectory of the chooser's life story. They can be embodiments of principles. They can feel the coercion of idolizing an ideal version of themselves6. The grip of relentless narratives yields levels of human willpower which shouldn't be underestimated.

1My father once commented that part of the fun of watching Survivor is to see how long the contestants manage to act normally. As normal as the typical Survivor contestant, anyway. The strain breaks/hardens people in different ways.
2Recall the common remarks, "I don't remember giving in. Eventually my attention wandered for a moment, and it happened automatically." Some commentators have said that humans more accurately have free-won't rather than free-will. Alcohol doesn't introduce strange motives. All it needs to do is suspend rational judgment. Conscious courage is the ability to override impulsive fear. Mere fearlessness could come from deficient perception or comprehension of risks.
3Distraction is underrated. Illusionists and experimenters have demonstrated repeatedly that a sufficient distraction virtually eliminates other stimuli. Stopping to ponder a questionable option is less advantageous than minimizing it by moving on. Simply put, more time spent simultaneously contemplating and yet "fighting" a motive corresponds to more moment-by-moment opportunities to surrender.
4Specifically, the "theory of mind" presupposes that the self's mind is an adequate model for others' minds. Their point of view is obtained by putting the self's mind in their narratives. Carl's eyes are shifty. If I were Carl, shifty eyes would indicate that I'm was hiding something. So by matching the real narrative of Carl with a hypothetical narrative about myself, I assume that Carl is hiding something.
5And according to what I've previously mentioned about philosophical Pragmatism, entrenched narratives play a still deeper role. The narratives that a human has judged to "work", by whatever standard, are the tools for constructing human truth from confusing/ambiguous raw data. Moreover, numerous confrontations with reality may prompt complicated revisions and additions to patchwork narratives. Otherwise the narratives no longer would "work". ("My paranoia can accommodate the new facts quite neatly...")
6The parenting section of the book doubts the effectiveness of training self-esteem versus training willpower. I don't dispute that. In terms of an aspirational narrative about the self, the distinction is how demanding the narrative is: not only the size of the relative gap between the ideal and the "real" self but also the extremity of the ideal. Humans who think "I've reached my apex just the way I already am" are aiming at a lower target than humans who think "I'm going to try to become elite".

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