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August 8, 2006

The End of Willpower


"Willpower really doesn't have any meaning," said Dr. Albert Stunkard, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania who has been studying weight loss for five decades.

More: "Telling an overweight person to use willpower is... like telling a clinically depressed person to 'snap out of it.'"

So wrote Jane Fritsch in her October 5, 1999 New York Times story.

The article follows, then we'll chat.

    Scientists Unmask Diet Myth: Willpower

    A thin person, the kind who has always been thin, is confronted by a chocolate cake with dark fudge icing and chopped pecans. Unmoved, he goes about his business as if nothing has happened.

    A fat person, the kind who has always struggled with weight, is confronted by the same cake. He feels a little surge of adrenaline. He cuts a slice and eats it. Then he eats another, and feels guilty for the rest of the day.

    The simplest, and most judgmental, explanation for the difference in behavior is willpower. Some seem to have it but others do not, and the common wisdom is that they ought to get some.

    But to weight-loss researchers, willpower is an outdated and largely discredited concept, about as relevant to dieting as cod liver oil. And many question whether willpower even exists.

    ''There is no magical stuff inside of you called willpower that should somehow override nature,'' said Dr. James C. Rosen, a professor of psychology at the University of Vermont. ''It's a metaphor that most chronically overweight dieters buy into.''

    To attribute dieting success or failure to willpower, researchers say, is to ignore the complex interaction of brain chemicals, behavioral conditioning, hormones, heredity and the powerful influence of habits. Telling an overweight person to use willpower is, in many ways, like telling a clinically depressed person to ''snap out of it.''

    It is possible, of course, to recover from depression and to lose weight, but neither is likely to happen simply because a person wills it, researchers say. There must be an intervention, either chemical or psychological.

    The study of weight loss began in earnest in the early 1950's, when doctors and nutritionists treated overweight people by telling them to eat less.

    ''Willpower was a kind of all-embracing theory that was used all the time to make doctors feel good and make patients feel bad,'' said Dr. Albert Stunkard, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania who has been studying weight loss for five decades.

    ''Most people think that willpower is just a pejorative way of describing your failures,'' he said. ''Willpower really doesn't have any meaning.''

    Willpower's role in weight loss was a major issue among scientists about 30 years ago, when the behavior modification movement began, Dr. Stunkard said. Until then, the existence, and importance, of willpower had been an article of faith on which most diets were founded, he said.

    The behavior modification approach had its roots in a 1967 study called ''Behavioral Control of Overeating,'' which tried to analyze the elements of ''self-control'' and apply them to weight loss. The study, by Richard B. Stuart of the University of Michigan, showed that eight overweight women treated with behavior modification techniques lost from 26 to 47 pounds over a year. They had frequent sessions with a therapist and recorded their food intake and moods in diaries. And the therapists helped them develop lists of alternatives to eating, like reading a newspaper or calling a friend.

    ''No effort is made to distinguish the historical antecedents of the problem and no assumptions are made about the personality of the overeater,'' Mr. Stuart wrote in his article, published in the journal Behavioral Research and Therapy.

    After that, the focus of weight loss programs shifted toward behavioral steps a dieter takes regarding eating, said Dr. Michael R. Lowe, a professor of clinical psychology at the MCP Hahnemann University in Philadelphia, and away from ''something you search for within.''

    Behavior modification is now the most widely accepted approach to long-term weight loss. Practically, that means changing eating habits -- and making new habits -- by performing new behaviors. Most programs now recommend things like pausing before eating to write down what is about to be eaten, keeping a journal describing a mood just before eating and eating before a trip to the grocery store.

    There is also mounting evidence that behavior affects the brain's chemical balance, and vice versa. Drugs like fenfluramine, half of the now-banned fen-phen combination, reduced a dieter's interest in eating, making willpower either irrelevant or seemingly available in pill form. And Dr. Stunkard has just completed a study that showed that people with ''night-eating syndrome'' -- who overeat in the late evening, have trouble sleeping and get up in the middle of the night to eat -- have below-normal blood levels of the hormones melatonin, leptin and cortisol.

    Still, to deny the importance of willpower is to attack a fundamental notion about human character.

    ''The concept of willpower is something that is very widely embedded in our view of ourselves,'' said Dr. Lowe of MCP Hahnemann. ''It is a major explanatory mechanism that people use to account for behavior.''

    But Dr. Lowe said he and others viewed willpower as ''essentially an explanatory fiction.'' Saying that someone lacks willpower ''leaves people with the sense they understand why the behavior occurred, when in reality all they've done is label the behavior, not explain it,'' he said.

    ''Willpower as an independent cause of behavior is a myth,'' Dr. Lowe said. In his clinical practice, he takes a behavioral approach to weight control. In part, that involves counseling dieters to take a more positive attitude about their ability to lose weight. It also involves some practical steps. ''Most importantly,'' he said, ''you need to learn what behavioral steps you can take before you get in the situation where you're in the chair in front of the television with a bowl of potato chips.''

    It is important, he said, for dieters to keep in mind the formidable forces working against them and their so-called willpower. ''We live in about the most toxic environment for weight control that you can imagine,'' Dr. Lowe said. ''There is ready, easy availability of high-fat, high-calorie fast foods that are relatively affordable, combined with the fact that our society has become about as sedentary as a society can be.''

    But not all experts reject the notion of willpower. Dr. Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, said this was the most difficult time in history for dieters, and that it would be a mistake to dismiss the willpower concept. ''A person's ability to control their eating varies over time, and you cannot attribute that to biology,'' he said.

    ''There's a collective public loss of willpower because of this terrible food environment that challenges us beyond what we can tolerate,'' Dr. Brownell said. ''One needs much more willpower now than ever before just to stay even.''

    All the temptations notwithstanding, thousands find a way to lose weight and keep it off, a fact demonstrated by the National Weight Control Registry, a research project that keeps tabs on people who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept the weight off for more than a year.

    ''A lot of times in weight loss programs patients will say to me that they need to learn to be able to live with an apple pie in the refrigerator and not eat it,'' said Dr. Rena Wing, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh and Brown medical school, who is collaborating on the registry. Most behaviorists say dieters should instead arrange their lives so that they rarely have to confront such temptations.

    ''If I were to put an apple pie in front of everybody every minute of the day, I could probably break down everybody's quote-unquote willpower,'' she said. ''We really are trying to get away from this notion of willpower. If you make certain plans, you will be able to engineer your behavior in such a way that you will look as if you have willpower.''



Looking at the headline for this post, for a second there I thought Francis Fukuyama had taken over operational control of my frontal lobes — what's left of them.

But I digress.

What occasioned this post was Tim Harford's "Dear Economist" feature in last weekend's Financial Times.

Have a look, then we'll chat some more.

    Dear Economist,

    It was my birthday recently and I made some resolutions: to slim for the beach, read more serious novels, save money and quit smoking. I am doing OK on the cigarettes so far but I am already back to watching Big Brother and I have put on 3lb. Did I take on too much at once?

    Rebecca Furniss, Parson’s Green, London


    Dear Rebecca,

    An interesting new paper by three University of Michigan economists argues that willpower is a scarce resource like any other. You cannot exceed your allocation of willpower any more than you can buy a round of drinks with an empty purse.

    It’s a plausible view: economic psychologists have found that people make more impulsive decisions if they have already had to resist earlier temptations than if they come fresh to the chocolate bar. Many of us have caved in and given ourselves a “reward” after a day of hard work.

    It seems likely that your success in kicking the smoking habit has drained you of the psychic resources to read anything other than Dan Brown. Worse, were you to redouble your efforts to plough through something by James Joyce, your cigarette habit might return, leaving you at risk of becoming the most cultured corpse in the morgue.

    The solution is clear enough. First, outsource tough decisions whenever you can. Set up an automatic savings plan and cut up your credit card, so you will not have to resist the temptation to spend too much money. Buy food online so that you do not have to walk past the Ben and Jerry’s and use up your valuable powers of self-denial.

    And if you ever feel like reaching for the cigarettes again, top up your willpower by reaching instead for the freezer and the remote control.


Short column shorter: Harford's conclusion is that willpower is a zero-sum game, to mix a metaphor.

You only have so much of it.

It's like money.

It doesn't grow on trees, nor does it replenish itself.

Use it and lose it.

Not weight — willpower.

So spend wisely.

What Harford didn't tell Rebecca, either because he didn't want to pile on or because he simply didn't know, is that quitting smoking results in a subsequent average weight gain of over 20 pounds.

If Rebecca's baggies are already in a twist over a mere three pounds, weight till she sees what 18 more look like.

August 8, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Clearly, trying to convince or persuade anyone as to the "correctness" of your own view on this is a loser's game. There are a jillion paths - what works for one is crap for another. We all have to figure this stuff out for ourselves.

Posted by: Flutist | Aug 9, 2006 2:12:28 PM

The problem with 'willpower' is that it isn't simply wishing you are going to do something and thus do it, it is much more complicated than that. Of course 'willpower' when stripped to its basic laymans terms is a zero-sum game...it takes a LOT of energy and concentration to do something you don't want to do.

As noted, both clinical and chemical treatments work -- but both only give you the opportunity to temporarily see that it will work -- thus reducing the energy needed to make it happen. Drugs have a much higher recurrance rate than clinical treatments -- mainly because you are given a stimulus and not given any toolbox method to react to the counter-stimulus when its not there. For instance, I have had ADHD since I was a child 30+ years ago -- back then they called it hyperactivity (and it was bad enough I was actually kicked out of Kindergarten and then first grade until my parents and school could figure out what to do with it -- this was *WELL* before it was trendy to diagnose this). Drugs work for this -- mainly because I have no reason to deal with it clinically. In my case, a hyperactive hyper-alert response system is a good thing as I have to multitask between half a dozen dissimmilar goals. Not really that great trying to take graduate courses though or the few times a year I need to concentrate on a single item for work (in fact its impossible). Could I change this through will power -- yes I could...but my other tasks that require the hyperattention would fail.

But for most, willpower is something that can easily be kept in check. Things like behavioral modifications. If you think you might drink -- *STAY OUT OF BARS*. If you smoke at work, find new friends that don't smoke. And its a process...what leads you up to each of the decisions that lead you to the ultimate event? Figure those out and you figure out how to put yourself into situations where its not a problem.

This is where the clinical assessment might come into play -- a neutral third party can make suggestions that friends or family will not. They can tell you things that you don't want to hear and order you to do it or not -- and then its your responsibility if you care.

Willpower is not dead. The oversimplification of the word is. And just because it takes a structured effort to figure this stuff out and some folks don't have the means to this structured end -- that in no way aleviates you from the responsibility.

Anyhoo...I'm rambling...

Posted by: clifyt | Aug 9, 2006 1:44:50 PM

The concept of willpower so exasperates me. I've simply never seen it work, at least not in the form I, and I believe most people, think of it as -- a nose-to-the-grindstone, white-knuckled, grisly determination to stop overeating/drinking/using/whatever. Deprivation - so boring and bleak, as Al so accurately described - is at its core. Deprivation, with its boot-camp soul, can't be sustained over the long haul. For something like compulsive overeating, weight loss is just the de-tox. The "recovery" (a term and concept I truly hate) is the rest of your life. It takes something you can actually live with to succeed, because these destructive behaviors are real beasts. (That may be, like Al speculated, slouching toward thinning out the herd. Who knows.)

This is, of course, just dealing with shades of meaning, but I find motivation much more workable. Very simply put -- exploring why you want to stop the habit. Fear of dying? Longing to walk up a flight of stairs without fainting? Desire to make an old boyfriend jealous? Need to keep your job? Sick of waking up in your own vomit? What? Whatever it is, the decision to change has to be so strong that it eclipses the decision to eat/drink/use/etc. The difference, I suppose, is in the quality of resistance. I don't like the airy-fairy sound of this, but willpower is more going against, and motivation more a going with. Ultimately, it is all a mind game, but the tweaking of this, that small shift in perspective - focusing on exactly how you want your life to change - can be the difference that makes the difference. There is always a way.

Ah hell, I always quote Shakespeare on this (with slight editing):

Assume a virtue if you have it not...
Refrain tonight,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence: the next more easy;
For use can almost change the stamp of nature,
And either curb the devil, or throw him out
With wondrous potency.

Hamlet, Act III scene iv

Posted by: Flutist | Aug 9, 2006 1:01:10 PM

I don't know about willpower, but I know about making choices. Do I eat that pie for the short-term gratification, or do I skip it for the sake of a long-term goal? Do I buy crap at the market and then fight the urge to eat it, or do I not buy the crap so it's not in the house calling to me to have just a teeny bit?

On the other hand, I know our minds and bodies hate deprivation. It's so boring, so bleak. Why live longer if it just means going longer without the things you enjoy?

Well, one answer smacked me up side the head a couple of months ago. All sorts of very annoying but non-lethal things started happening to my body. See, I had imagined I would just drop dead someday from a heart atack or stroke -- nice, short, clean ending. Adios, it's been fun. I hadn't thought much about being plagued with all sorts of nasty health problems that would kill me very slowly. Oh, that. So I went to the doctor for the first time in 15 years. He confirmed what I suspected: diabetes.

So now I'm back to the choices. Every minute of every day I have to decide whether to do the smart thing or the self-destructive thing.

That leads me to a tangental theory. Perhaps when we sense the environment has become too crowded, too stressed, some genetic switch flips in some of us that overrides our self-preservation instinct. It's like the code is telling us, "Look, it's time to cull the herd and your particular contribution to the preservation of the species is no longer needed. How about checking out early?" And so we drift into self-destructive behaviors -- behaviors our minds and bodies resist changing. Maybe I eat the bacon cheeseburger with a side of chili fries and a huge chocolate shake not because I lack "willpower," but because my genetic code is trying to kill me off.

Posted by: Al Christensen | Aug 9, 2006 11:35:23 AM

Gee this one really makes me want to think outloud. The other night at a dinner with my son's and daughter in law, we had went to an all you can eat buffet. Well being a woman with a weight issue, an all you can eat buffet is really NOT a nice place to be. First off. No matter how much you DON'T eat, there will always be the person that "see's" you having the one plate that you allow yourself to have, full. Heaven forbid it contains something other than salad. Then making your way back to the table you notice that there is an awful lot of people, both genders, that have weight issues too. Hmmmm maybe we are getting fatter? Yet those same people do NOT think they have a weight issue? It's always the fatter person that is sitting next to them that has the weight issue. ok..I went off my little soap box here for a minute. But let me just say. As we were leaving the restuarant, my lovely, tall slim daughter in law looked at me and said. "Mom you don't eat enough. You never do." I looked back at her and said "yeah I wonder why I weigh what I do?" Then she said, in an innocent tone and something that I never thought of, "well maybe your body is just used to it." Used to what you eat? Or used to weighing what it does? I thought you know she made the best sense there. But I do have to be honest here. I can tell when I am not doing good by my body and I know when I have to get back into eating better and exercising.

Also many, many moons ago. I went crying to a doctor about my weight. The same doctor that helped me give birth to first son. He sat there looked me over and did all the TESTS that could be done. He looked me in the eye and said...you know what I think ? I said no..what do you think? He said..I think your body is the size it is, just because it's you. He wasn't all bent out of shape with weight. He told me he thought that we all had a predetermined size from birth and there might be some big ones, some small ones, tall ones, short ones. Then he pronounced me perfectly healthy and told me to go home and make my hubby some meat and potatoes. oh throw a few veggies in once in awhile too... hahaha. That doctor was my best doctor I ever had.

So right now I try to watch it. Yet I don't worry so about it. That my friend is the key. STRESS AND WORRY WRECK HAVOC ON A BEAUTIFUL PERSON.... YOU!

Posted by: Rhonda | Aug 9, 2006 9:05:56 AM

A zero-sum game? Willpower? So no matter how hard someone tries, they'll never be able to give up their vices?

Score two for this zaniness. One for kooky religion, and the other for a lack of personal responsibility.

Looks like there's no hope for pedophiles.

Posted by: BFH | Aug 9, 2006 3:03:22 AM

I don't buy it. (the will power thing, not the cigarrette/ weight gain thing)

Posted by: IB | Aug 8, 2006 11:58:59 PM

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