Why willpower?

December 29, 2011

Every year, people gather in my hometown for an almost
unthinkable challenge. During the Leadville Trail 100, athletes run 100 miles.
They begin the race at 10,000 feet, climb to 12,600 feet, descend down the
other side of a mountain pass to 9,200 feet, then turn around and do the climb
and descent all over again. You can only train for a race like this up to a
certain point. Racers say that they train to run 50 miles. After that, they
rely on the capacity of the mind to convince the body to keep running, even though
everything in them urges them to stop.

The race is metaphorically fascinating. Racing is about
facing oneself as much as it is about facing a difficult challenge. The last
runner to cross the finish line is ritually cheered with greater enthusiasm and
more admiration than the first. This testimony to endurance has brought me to
tears on an annual basis since the summer of 2000, when I first put my lawn
chair alongside the last uphill that runners face.

Maybe it is this spectacle--and my complicated feelings
about it--that has me entranced by a new book by psychologist Roy Baumeister
and science writer John Tierney. Baumeister set out, through an extensive set
of laboratory experiments, to determine what makes for willpower. Tierney has
tried to turn this research into a readable, anecdote-driven, almost self-help
oriented book on the subject.

Baumeister and his colleagues find, for example, that
willpower functions like a muscle. It can be built; it can atrophy. They find
that humans have essentially one resource pool for willpower: extending it in
one area will certainly weaken it in another. (This is why it's a bad idea to
try to quit smoking and go on a diet at the same time.)

A recent article by two psychology professors argues
that Baumeister's description of willpower misses the critical factor of belief: willpower is limited, but
only if you believe it is. Endurance increased among study participants, they
note, when they believed that they could renew their willpower indefinitely.

This notion would resonate with Trail 100 runners. The
belief that running the race is possible--that finishing is doable--has to be
valuable when you are at mile 60 at 2 a.m., with two marathons left to go.

But Baumeister shot back  that "mental tricks" (like belief) only work in short-term
situations. Belief about your abilities will never trump "judicious" use of
willpower. In fact, false confidence will hurt rather than help us--we will
find ourselves breaking down and backfiring more readily. Baumeister describes
willpower as something like a mechanism that can be well-maintained and
utilized for optimal performance or broken through misuse.

Willpower is an important factor in spiritual pursuits of
all kinds: it can keep us persisting in prayer and see us through trials; it
plays a crucial role in a disciplined life that might be old-fashioned but is a
well-documented part of religious traditions.  But from a theological point of view, what is the value of a
person's will functioning well or poorly? Simply celebrating the human capacity
to endure great trials--or to lose 100 pounds or to sit, as in one example that
Baumeister and Tierney site, encased in a block of ice while the ice melts--is
empty unless it's tempered by community, by a commitment to something bigger
than oneself.

That bigger "something" goes unaddressed by both sides of
the willpower debate. They are not interested in the question of why we might exert our wills, only
in how. This seems like an important missing piece.