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The Willpower Paradox
Dissent: Volume 6 of the Helter Skelter Anthology of New Writing

The Willpower Paradox

Wray Herbert in the Scientific American Mind

“Willingness is a core concept of addiction recovery programs — and a paradoxical one. Twelve-step programs emphasize that addicts cannot will themselves into healthy sobriety — indeed, that ego and self-reliance are often a root cause of their problem. Yet recovering addicts must be willing. That is, they must be open to the possibility that the group and its principles are powerful enough to trump a compulsive disease.

“It’s a tricky concept for many and must be taken on faith. But now there may be science to back it up. Psychologist Ibrahim Senay of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign figured out an intriguing way to create a laboratory version of both willfulness and willingness — and to explore possible connections to intention, motivation and goal-directed actions. In short, he identified some key traits needed not only for long-term abstinence but for any personal objective, from losing weight to learning to play guitar.

“[…] Senay designed another experiment to look at the question differently. In this study, he recruited volunteers on the pretense that they were needed for a handwriting study. Some wrote the words ‘I will’ over and over; others wrote ‘Will I?’

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“After priming the volunteers with this fake handwriting task, Senay had them work on the anagrams. And just as before, the determined volunteers performed worse than the open-minded ones.”

If you’re looking to motivate yourself, it looks like “will I?” might work better than “I will”. Read the entire article here.

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