Willpower, part II: what it is

May 31, 2011 by Joshua
in Awareness, Blog, Fitness

[This post is part of a series on willpower and how to understand and use it. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Understanding willpower requires understanding emotions functionally, so let’s start there. A functional perspective isn’t the only way to view emotions — exploring and communicating how they feel is another, more relevant to art and music, for example — but it serves our purposes. I’ll stick with it, but I don’t mean to imply other perspectives aren’t important in other contexts.

Emotions, functionally

Functionally, emotions motivate you to interact with and change your environment. They also result from your environment, subject to your perceptions and beliefs.

Emotions are how your motivational system motivates you to respond through your behavior to your environment, at least how you perceive it and subject to your beliefs. You inherited that emotional system from your ancestors, who evolved those emotions and the behavior they motivated.

In other words, functionally, emotions are part of a system including your environment, beliefs, perception, and behavior.

For example, if you see (perception) a lion running at you (environment), you may feel fear (emotion), which will motivate you to run away (behavior), hopefully changing your environment to one where the lion can’t eat you.

If you smell (perception) dinner cooking (environment), you may feel hunger (emotion), motivating you to eat (behavior), hopefully promoting your health.

These are two very simple examples. You can understand any emotion any time through this functional lens. There are many other considerations, like that our environments changed faster than our emotional systems evolved, so, for example, we feel motivations to eat more sugar and fat than is healthy, but I’m leaving them out for now to focus on today’s main point, which is willpower.

Of course, the better you understand emotions, the better you understand willpower, but we’re looking at a forest level now.


Willpower is the ability to act independently of or contrary to our emotions.

As an aside, though I don’t know what it’s like to be another animal than a human, I suspect few of them have willpower. Most of them, certainly ones with simpler nervous systems than mammals like bugs and reptiles, don’t seem to reflect on their actions or choose between alternatives.

Some properties of willpower

Willpower is voluntary and conscious — that is, you voluntarily and consciously choose the goals you want to achieve with it and to act on it. Emotions are different. Your emotional system operates unconsciously and involuntarily and it chooses your emotions for you. You can choose your emotions to a small degree so they aren’t completely involuntary, but compared to willpower we can ignore that small degree.

You generally have to plan how to achieve goals based on willpower — how to keep on your diet or exercise program, call that person you don’t want to, etc. You often don’t have to plan how to act on your emotions — you go to the refrigerator when you’re hungry even when you don’t know what you want to eat just to see what’s there. Few people who don’t already exercise simply run a few miles before starting an exercise regiment just to see how it feels.

Willpower requires attention and mental energy to maintain it. Emotions run automatically.

Tomorrow: when not to use willpower.

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2 responses on “Willpower, part II: what it is

  1. Pingback: » Willpower, part III: when not to use it Joshua Spodek

  2. Pingback: » Willpower, part I: what is it, when to use it, and how Joshua Spodek

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