Saturday 18 January 2014

Is Will Power Over-rated?

Driving between meetings on Tuesday (I think it was) I heard an episode of The Human Zoo.  It was discussing will power, and the thesis was that typically we overestimate the autonomy of our choices, and underestimate the influence of environmental factors.

I found this interesting, as a lot of my work is, effectively, about helping people make changes and choices.  

Michael Blastland set out to explore what the evidence is for will power.  Timandra Harkness (right) brought an electric shock machine (not the machine shown in the picture, I assume) into the studio to test Blastland's will power, and psychologist Nick Chater was on hand to offer his perspective. In fact, that demonstration was poorly explained and did not shed much light.

The following fruit/chocolate choice was more interesting.  The hypothesis is that we are more able to exercise will power when our mind is not too busy with other things: conversely when we are busy with many competing priorities, we are less able to exercise will power (or at least as they defined it: choosing the 'good' choice, an apple, over the 'tempting' choice, a chocolate).

This struck me as more interesting: I have observed that when people are under stress, their decision-making becomes less reflective and their accounts of reality become more simplistic: thin stories.  That led to an interesting question in my mind, which was not explored in the programme, about the difference between 'wilful' and 'strong willed.'

Chater also says that if you are exerting a lot of will power in one area of your life (eg a severe dieting regime) then other areas of your life tend to become slacker: as though there is only a certain amount of will-power to go around.  

That raised a further question for me, which was not addressed, about the longitudinal effect, rather than the simultaneous one.  Intuitively, I think that if one exercises will power in one area of one's life (say dieting) over a period of time, one is then better able (subsequently) to exercise it in another. But that was not explored. Certainly in my experience, people whose story about themselves is that they have no will power seem to find it hard to exercise will power: a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I would like to know if the evidence supports that (and the corollary) or not.

What Chater was arguing, quite strongly, was that there is no evidence that some people are endowed with more will power than others, and that the differences lie in the circumstances or conditions within which people are operating.  

Whilst I think that he neglected to consider (or at least to discuss) the power of habit (and in the deliberate cultivation of good habits which was the traditional way in which people strove to cultivate virtue), he did make the important point that harnessing the power of context in a positive way is a very effective strategy. That is, it is very valuable to create an environment that nudges you in the direction of the decisions you wish to take.

A couple of people from the Design Council were consulted on how to nudge people into good behaviour; and they cited an example of some work done in A&E departments to reduce aggressive behaviour towards nurses and other staff. This was principally done by putting into the environment (in which most people are likely to be very stressed) clear communications about what to expect, what the process is, and so on; so that the environment itself is perceived as less incomprehensible (and therefore less hostile).  This has been demonstrated to be far more effective than posters exhorting people: 'Don't hit the staff!'

That, of course, relates to the research suggesting that 'No Smoking' posters have the opposite effect to their intended one.

So a key skill becomes manipulating your environment to support the choices you want to make.  At the simplest level, this is obvious: if you want to control your food intake, it is more effective to make sure there are no biscuits and cakes in the cupboard, than to put a post-it on the cupboard saying 'Don't eat the biscuits!'

Some of the things my coaching clients do, which work for them, include turning off the email reminder system when they want to focus on an important piece of work, clearing their desk the night before and leaving the one critical document on it for their attention in the morning, having a picture related to their goals as a screen saver on their pc and so on. 

Incidentally, some of the other effective strategies include telling others of your goals, breaking them into small steps and imagining them in detail, keeping records of your progress, rewarding yourself, and practicing self-affirmation.  Again, all of these may require a degree of will power (and manipulation of the environment to support that) to execute: at least until they become habitual.

 But of course, these are all willed actions to support exercising will power: so I am not convinced the case against will power is as strong as it is made out to be.

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