Mar 13, 2015
Last week Professor Neil Levy, a neuroethicist, gave three lectures on Self-Control at the Oxford Martin School. Roughly, the first lecture targeted philosophical issues, the second empirical issues and the third bridged the two. Neil's summaries and audio are at the bottom. In the next two paragraphs I will briefly summarize the take-home message of the lectures.
Over the three lectures, he offered a new approach to self-control. He argues that will-power is of little relevance to self-control, that the self-control character-trait which correlates with success is not will-power and that relying on will-power alone leads to low levels of self-control. He defends that self-control is mainly the ability of self-management, of managing the environment so that temptations become more costly, less salient or inaccessible - he mentions Facebook nanny, Beeminder, commitment devices and so on. Self-management is the ability of not having to use will-power. Will-power is only relevant insofar as it enables these techniques to be deployed, but once in place the techniques themselves consist in avoiding to use will-power altogether. Will-power is an extremely scarce resource, and we should use the little we have so we don't have to depend on it anymore. He cites numerous evidence in support for his view. To mention a few, people with high self-control character-trait are less able to resist temptations, exert less effortful self-control, but are nonetheless more likely to pick environments with few temptations/distractions and better at developing techniques to ignore temptations (e.g. little children sung, slept, etc.). He contends that glucose role in increasing self-control is exerted by signalling high short-term resource availability, a stable environment, and thus low opportunity costs - but he doesn't expect this effect to hold in the long-term. He predicts that unconscious signals of a stable environment will increase self-control, which helps explains why high social-economic status correlates strongly with self-control. Neil has a blog post discussing how the myth that willpower equals Self-Control prevents the prescription of policies that would use these managerial techniques to increase people's Self-Control. By the end, he hinted his view could perhaps be seen as the extended will view, mirroring the extended mind view.
I believe the first lecture is not especially helpful for LessWrongers as it mainly focuses on contrasting his view with the rationalist view within philosophy, which is not pretty rational and likely false. Those interested in the empirical side will find the second lecture more attractive and should check this blog post summarizing it. I think the take-home message is more extensively spelled out in the third lecture. On the first lecture, there is this post by Professor Julian Savulescu, which particularly addresses the objective stance towards oneself present on Neil's view and opposed by the (philosophical) rationalists. There's some disagreement about to what extend these rationalists would really disagree with this view.
Lecture One: Self-Control: A problem of self-management
In this lecture I argue that self-control problems typical arise from conflicts between smaller sooner and larger later rewards. I suggest that we often fail successfully to navigate these problems because of our commitment to a conception of ourselves as rational agents who answer questions about ourselves by looking to the world. Despite the attractions of this conception, I argue that it undermines efforts at self-control and thereby our capacity to pursue the ends we value. I suggest we think of self-control as a problem of self-management, whereby we manipulate ourselves.
Lecture Two: The Science of Self-Control
In this lecture I outline some of the main perspectives on self-control and its loss stemming from recent work in psychology. I focus in particular on the puzzle arising from the role of glucose in successful self-control. Glucose ingestion seems to boost self-control but there is good evidence that it doesn't do this by providing fuel for the relevant mechanisms. I suggest that glucose functions as a cue of resource availability rather than fuel.
Lecture Three: Marshmallows and Moderation
There is evidence that self-control is a character trait. This evidence seems inconsistent with the management approach I advocate, since that approach urges that we look to external props for self-control, not to states of the agent. In this lecture I argue, that contrary to appearances, we should hesitate to think that people high in what is known as trait self-control have any such character trait. In fact, properly understood the evidence concerning trait self-control supports the management.
EDIT: Changed the title from willpower's relative irrelevancy to the myth of Willpower. Added a link to another blog post.