Joseph Cramer, M.D.: Willpower may not always be what it seems

Published: Tuesday, May 27 2014 1:00 p.m. MDT

Why do some people seem to have willpower in abundance and others do not? For the latter, if willpower were air, they would suffocate; if it were water, they would die of thirst; and if it were food, they would starve to death.

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What is willpower? There are plenty of opinions about its presence and its absence.

We speak, preach and even pontificate of its virtues. We condemn, criticize and preach to those who seem to lack it. Yet I am uncertain that we really know what it is.

Every one of us knows someone who we can say has great willpower. It may be you. I would not say I fall into that category. However, this is not why I doubt that we have a universal understanding of what it is.

Why do some people seem to have willpower in abundance and others do not? For the latter, if willpower were air, they would suffocate; if it were water, they would die of thirst; and if it were food, they would starve to death. The people in between would be breathless, parched and hungry.

We use many words to define willpower. We say those with it have self-discipline. They are strong. They are mentally tough. They have self-control. But they may also be rigid or even have obsessive-compulsive disorder.

If someone has OCD and demands a clean room, we might call that person, based on surface appearances, a champion of willpower, especially in comparison to someone who tosses dirty shirts on the floor. But in reality, the first person has a defect in the part of the brain that shuts down circling nerve impulses.

If a person has anorexia nervosa and no one knows, his or her capacity to not eat much may be heralded by some as incredible self-control, when in actuality it is a symptom of a very serious mental biochemical disorder.

Yet we say a person who is overweight and who overeats has an absence of willpower.

If we couldn’t see the size of either of those people, which one would we say has more self-control?

Is it the will to eat or the will to not eat?

Is it greater willpower if a person stops smoking or if a person never starts?

If someone doesn’t do something in life, is it because of willpower or because of laziness?

Do we credit what we, as a society, deem good as being a result of willpower and say something is a result of slothfulness if it is not up to our standards?

How much influence does willpower have in habits or even addictions?

Perhaps we need to ask the people around us who we view as having willpower. What do they say about this attribute we call noble? Were they that way from the beginning, or did they learn to become so, and if that's the case, how? Hard work? Social pressure? Narcissistic self-focus?

Willpower seems to be, at the least, an intuitive understanding of agency.

Perhaps another word for willpower is time. With more time to consider things, we might make different choices. We could contemplate the future and the consequences of our actions. We could better balance our wants and our needs. We could form arguments to combat the screaming voices in our minds that tell us we are no good or cause us to wonder why we even try.

Willpower is not always what it seems. To develop it, however, we need more time — or rather, we need to learn to manage the time we have.

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing physician for 30 years and a hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and the University of Utah. Email: jgcramermd@yahoo.com

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