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Odysseus And The Science Of Willpower

If you paid attention in high school you might remember the story of Odysseus and the Sirens. After the Trojan War ended, Odysseus went on a protracted sea voyage back to Ithaca. At one point he realized that his ship would pass by the island of Sirenum scopuli, where the enchanting Sirens sang melodies to seduce the “weak” human mind. In his genius, Odysseus had all his men fill their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast. It worked. They sailed on by and the rest is history.

Ever since Adam and Eve ate the apple, humans have had trouble with self-control. But if there is one lesson to learn from the psychological research it is that Odysseus had the best strategy: it’s the people who avoid tempting situations altogether – the ones who take a different street so they don’t have to walk past the ice cream shop – who exhibit the highest level of self-control.

This was originally demonstrated by the psychologist Walter Miscel who is famous for creating what is known as the Marshmallow Experiment. Conducted back in the 1960s, Miscel invited four-year-old children into a tiny room, containing a table and a chair, and offered them a deal: They could have one marshmallow now or they could wait a few minutes and have two. Most kids took up Miscel’s deal only to give into their impulses 30 seconds later. But some did not, and Miscel’s important discovery is that the kids who waited didn’t have more willpower, they “simply found a way to keep themselves from thinking about the treat, directing their gaze away from the yummy marshmallow.” They didn’t tie themselves to the proverbial mast exactly, but they did find a way to distract themselves from the situation.

A similar experiment recently published by Wilhelm Hofmann, Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs demonstrates complementary results. The researchers equipped a couple hundred participants with Blackberries for one week. Seven times a day the participants were beeped and asked to report if they were experiencing a desire now or in the preceding 30 minutes. They also took note of how strong the desire was, if it was an internal conflict, if they attempted to resist it and how successful they were. Here’s the BPS Research Digest explaining the results:

The participants were experiencing a desire on about half the times they were beeped. Most often (28 per cent) this was hunger. Other common urges were related to: sleep (10 per cent), thirst (9 per cent), media use (8 per cent), social contact (7 per cent), sex (5 per cent), and coffee (3 per cent). About half of these desires were described as causing internal conflict, and an attempt was made to actively resist about 40 per cent of them. Desires that caused conflict were more likely to prompt an attempt at active self-constraint. Such resistance was often effective. In the absence of resistance, 70 per cent of desires were consummated; with resistance this fell to 17 per cent…

People who scored highly on a measure of trait self-control had just as many desires, but they were less likely to report experiencing internal conflict; their desires were generally weaker; and they attempted to resist them less often. These findings are revealing. It’s not that people with high self-control have saintly willpower, it seems. Rather, they seem to avoid putting themselves in situations in which they are exposed to problematic temptations. “The result is not a desire-free life,” the researchers said. “Au contraire, the result appears to be that they mainly have desires that they can satisfy.”

Like Miscel, the researchers found that everyone possess inner demons but it is the people who are smart enough to avoid situations that trigger their inner demons who command higher levels of self-control.

The exciting part of the science of self-control and willpower is that it is now being understood at the neurological level. In 2004 neuroimager Jonathan Cohen and the psychologist Samuel McClure teamed up with the economists David Laibson and George Loewenstein to study how the brain reacts to short-term and long-term rewards. They had participants lay in a scanner and pick between a small reward – five dollars – which they would receive in the near future and a big reward – forty dollars – which they would receive several weeks later. How did the brain handle the two options? Did the brain handle them differently?

They found that choices that tempted the possibility of immediate gratification lit up the striatum and medial orbital cortex, which are more associated with the automatic and emotional brain. All choices lit up the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a part of the frontal lobes associated with more rational and deliberate thinking. This finding isn’t too surprising. Ever since Phineas Cage’s freak accident, which sent a spike through his orbital and ventromedial cortex largely destroying his frontal lobes, scientists have known that self-control is closely tied to frontmost parts of the frontal lobe.

It was likely these parts of the brain that were most active when Odysseus gave his orders. It is makes sense, then, that he was known by epithet Odysseus the Cunning; he must of had large and fine-tuned frontal lobes! Although it is probably impossible to resist every delicious temptation out there, we can, like Odysseus, find ways to counter our weakness of will by avoiding certain situations altogether.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. laz #

    so, then, what is willpower?

    January 15, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      Um, I dunno. Ask Baumeister.

      January 15, 2012
      • laz #

        ‘People who scored highly on a measure of trait self-control had just as many desires, but they were less likely to report experiencing internal conflict; their desires were generally weaker; and they attempted to resist them less often.’

        ..and I suppose those who gave in reported their desires as ‘stronger’ and as having more internal conflict….

        …I do not know either (about will power), but read the above statement and see if you get a flavor of cart-before-the-horse….ok, so I do not give in to temptation because??? I have ‘weaker’ desires??? somehow, Odysseus knew better than this, and figured, just in case I do not have a ‘weaker’ desire than all the other sailors who have drowned here, I am going to have my mates tie me to the mast…

        January 15, 2012
  2. I agree it takes a certain level of self control to completely blind yourself/go around/”take a different street so (you) don’t have to walk past the ice cream shop” but I don’t think that level is significant enough to help us control ourselves in everyday situations.

    I think the best way to teach yourself self control is not by hiding the temptation but rather by having that thing right in front of your nose and teaching your mind to occupy itself with other equally or more stimulating thoughts. (its like mental removal/distraction vs … I don’t know what to call it…making the problem disappear?-which isn’t really practical in most situation (unless you gots some magic.)

    In the wonderful experiment of the kids with the marshmallow temptation do you think it would have been easier for the kids to resist the temptation had the marshmallow been completely removed. I certainly think so… yes the kids would have had to make that decision of temporarily removing the marshmallow and it would probably not have worked because kids probably cant plan that far ahead….but if this had been an example with adults and adult worthy temptation I think many would have asked to have the temptation disappear rather than face the temptation and ‘deal with it’ because it would have been easier. Remember its not easy to make things disappear.

    This ‘dealing’ requires more mental effort and self control and its a lot harder than the ice cream shop approach, but it makes more sense to practice it. I think self control can be tough to your mind… Its all in “simply (finding) a way to keep (yourself) from thinking about the treat” except its not so simple.

    mariam 🙂

    January 15, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      Thanks for your comment Mariam. And no need to worry about grammar (:

      First, yes, I do think that it would have been easier for the kids to resist the temptation if the marshmallow had been removed. But that defeats the whole point of the experiment.
      Second, research suggests that people that try to “deal” with difficult situation where temptation is involve are worse-off than people who avoid tempting situations all together. So I do not think it makes sense to “practice it.” I think it makes more sense to practice avoiding tempting situations.

      January 16, 2012
  3. Can someone point to my grammatical errors if there are any? I know this is probably not what people ask for here but it would be very helpful. I’ve never commented on a blog before I am sooo nervous .

    January 15, 2012
  4. Adam and Eve surely lacked will power before eating the fruit, or they wouldn’t have eaten it?

    Typo “The researchers equipped a couple hundred participants will Blackberries for one week”
    i.e. “…*with* Blackberries…”

    “Like Miscel, the researchers found that everyone possess inner demons but it is the people who are smart enough to avoid situations that trigger their inner demons who command higher levels of self-control.”

    I presume you means “it is the people with higher levels of self-control who avoid situations that trigger their inner demons.” – since avoiding temptation requires and act of will and a cognisance of the consequences of actions. Avoiding known temptations is a sign of self-control.

    This confirms the ancient wisdom that the pursuit of pleasure does not lead to happiness.

    There has been research on people who use internet porn on a daily basis suggesting that regular intense stimulation builds up tolerance and requires increasing intensity for the same effect. E.g. . Pleasures are apparently more satisfying when spaced out and not over indulged. It’s to do with the ventral tegmental area and its dopamine neurons, according to David J Linden’s book “Pleasure”.

    Finally Odysseus is hardly a model of self-restraint. He didn’t exercised self-restraint at all, he was tied to the mast by his companions. Had he not been physically bound he would not had been able to resist. The men were only following orders so they weren’t exercising self-restraint either. In fact wasn’t the problem with Odysseus is that he impulsively told Polyphemus his name after blinding him?

    January 16, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      Thanks for pointing out the typo – fixed.

      I’ll check out that link.

      I’m not sure how you can interpret the story of Odysseus and the Sirens that way. Saying that Odysseus is “hardly a model of self-restraint” is not correct.

      January 16, 2012
  5. laz #

    had he (Odysseus) had self-restraint, he would have placed wax in his own ears…as it was, his self -restraint was literally being tied to the mast…as for telling Polyphemus his name, I believe a variant of the story has him saying his name was No-man, thus when the Cyclop’s brothers asked him who was responsible for his misfortune, he replied ‘Noman’ and thus Odysseus and crew were able to escape riding the bellies of the sheep (rather large sheep, I suppose)….
    …my main thought on all this, is that there is no such a thing as a ‘science’ of willpower, argue as we may about some internal condition which we quiz those who show ‘self-restraint’…we can scan away, but correlation is not causation, and it may be that there is another dimension which may be responsible for that which we are so eagerly willing to quantify with Blackberry queries…there is something askew about all this, and something hollow about all that ‘beeping’ and the ‘fact’ that in the absence of ‘resistance’ 70% of the desires were consummated and that with ‘resistance’ only 17% were consummated…how vague is that?…which desires? when?…and how do we measure the ‘resistance’ when we are predicating it upon the outcome anyway, for it is only after the fact, that we come to know that it was effective?….

    January 16, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      Well, there is a science of willpower. There is a ton of literature on it. There are books on it. I don’t see how you could deny that.

      January 16, 2012
      • sammcnerney #

        Unless, of course, you are trolling for more.

        January 16, 2012
    • “so they begged [i.e. the crew begged Odysseus to flee the wrath of Polyphemus]
      but they could not bring my fighting spirit round.
      I called back with another burst of anger, ‘Cyclops’–
      If any man on the face of the earth should ask you
      who blinded you, shamed you so–say Odysseus,
      raider of cities, he gouged out your eye,
      Laertes’ son who makes his home in Ithaca!” (Book 9: 555-60)

      “So they sent their ravishing voices out across the air
      and the heart in me throbbed to listen longer.
      I signaled the crew with frowns to set me free–
      They flung themselves at the oars and rowed on harder,
      Perimedes and Eurylochus springing up at once
      to bind me faster with rope upon chafing rope.” (Book 12: 208-13)

      Quite the model of self-restraint.

      January 25, 2012
  6. laz #

    no, I am not trolling for anything…I am only trying to make a point of view clear on here…sorry if you misinterpreted my skeptical view as trolling…in a way, it supports my point of how subjective all this ‘science’ is…all open to an interpretation of vague terminology, clothed in numbers which have no secure foundation with a bit of fMRI and Ct scans thrown in for good measure…it is enlightening to talk to radiologists who would be more than happy to illustrate how difficult it is to at times get an accurate diagnosis from image sets (even when the scans are created by multiple modalities) for a real pathology involving tissue and structures, let alone some state of ‘mind’…there may be a ‘ton’ of such literature, but consider, there is also a ‘ton’ of literature on astrology, which hardly makes it valid…

    January 16, 2012
  7. Robert Hagedorn #

    Challenge yourself. Google First Scandal.

    January 17, 2012
  8. laz #

    @Robert: I am doing that now…quite a bit of reading there pal, but am curious as I cannot tell where it is all going…

    January 17, 2012
  9. So I could avoid my food binges just by avoiding thinking about food?

    And distracting myself with another choice, like sleep, thirst, media use, social contact, sex, or coffee?

    But must I choose just one, or can I choose “all of the above?”

    January 20, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      Well, I don’t really have the proper background to give you a professional suggestion. So I am not sure.

      January 21, 2012

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