Sunday, October 02, 2005

Will Power: Fund or Muscle?

There are two distinct views of will power in psychology and behavioral econ. One is that will power is a fund, which gets depleted the more often you draw from it. The other is that will power is a muscle, which becomes stronger the more often it's exercised.

The will-power-as-fund viewpoint tends to support paternalistic policies, because the modern capitalist system presents people with numerous temptations they have to resist. A person faced with too many temptations will deplete his fund and eventually give in to temptation. The will-power-as-muscle viewpoint resists paternalism, because shielding people from temptations will slowly weaken their will power.

So which viewpoint is true? I would say the muscle viewpoint includes the fund viewpoint. While it's true that in the long run a muscle gets stronger as you exercise it, in the short run a muscle can indeed become exhausted, just like a fund. Exercising your muscles regularly and strenuously is a way of increasing the amount of strength you can deploy at any given time. Put more simply, exercising your muscles increases the size of your strength funds. And that, I think, is how will power works as well. You exercise your will power by resisting temptations, first smaller and less frequent ones, then larger and more frequent ones.

Of course, it's possible to exercise too much and actually do damage to your muscles. This is especially true in the early stages of an exercise regime. In terms of strengthening your will, it's better to successfully resist smaller temptations than to give in to larger ones. Hence our greater willingness to impose paternalism on children (paternalistic does mean "like a parent," after all). Children are unlikely to have developed strong will-power muscles yet, making them especially vulnerable to large temptations and unlikely to be strengthened by them. Adults, on the other hand, are presumed to have developed the necessary muscles, or to realize they need to.

Accepting the will-power-as-muscle viewpoint draws attention to the unintended spillover effects of nanny-state policies. Policies that shield people from temptation X may actually reduce their long-run ability to resist other temptations, including temptation Y. This creates support for policies that shield people from temptation Y, further enervating the will power required to resist yet other temptations. In addition, the knowledge that the state will protect people from certain temptations reduces their incentive to strengthen their will power, making them even more vulnerable to future temptations. The result is a slippery-slope process in which paternalist policies create the very conditions used to justify them.

(I don't recall where in the literature I encountered the "fund v. muscle" distinction, but I'm pretty sure I didn't make it up myself. If anyone knows the source, I'd be most grateful if you gave me the citation.)


Blar said...

Roy Baumeister is your man. He's done a lot of work on self-control (a.k.a. self-regulation a.k.a will power), such as this paper. He defends both the idea that will power is a limited resource and the idea that it is a muscle. I believe that he and his colleagues came up with the limited resource theory first, and then expanded it to the muscle theory to account for both the long-term and short-term effects. They continue to use both metaphors.

I think that the implications of the muscle theory are not so firmly against the nanny state. There are two risks. One is that you won't use your self control muscle enough, in which case it will be weak and you'll be low on will power. The other is that you will use your self control muscle too much, in which case it will often be fatigued and you'll be low on will power. Your fear is that the nanny state is pushing people in the direction of not using their self control muscle enough. Another fear is that trends in our society like increasing choices and a consumer culture that creates temptations are pushing people towards having to use their self control muscle too much. Which view is correct? They could both be correct, for different people or at different times.

The other thing to keep in mind is that will power is just one piece of the story. Many of the things that can be achieved through the exertion of will power can also be achieved in other ways, by using clever strategies or by making subtle changes to the situation.

Blar said...

One other question is how strong will power muscles are formed. You seem to suggest that all we need is for the government to get out of the way, and people will build up their will power on their own. But a crafty paternalist might recommend a "trainer state" that enacts policies to help people develop stronger wills. Has anyone argued that the free market is efficient with respect to will power training, as it is with production and allocation? The nanny/trainer state might be able to help people in ways that are only minimally detrimental to will power training, while also training people to have stronger wills than they would've had without government intervention.

Glen Whitman said...

Blar -- I find your confidence in government distressing!

I think most people (notwithstanding the inevitable exceptions) will develop their self control muscles to the extent they need to, if faced with the full cost and responsibility for their own decisions. In the face of greater temptations, they'll tend to develop bigger muscles. Of course, it's important for children to have guidance in this process, lest they be exposed to too many temptations too quickly. But we should expect adults to have developed their will power muscles, because the failure to expect that is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Your "trainer state" sounds like a perfect example of the phenomenon that I'm talking about: paternalist policies create the very conditions they're supposed to correct, thereby justifying more intervention. This is just one example of the broader phenomenon in which failed government policies create effects that are blamed on markets or individuals, thus providing a pretext for more intrusive government policies.

Does the market provide the efficient amount of self-control training? I don't know for sure. I do know that the more people demand training services, the more will be provided, so at least the incentives are in the right place. Government agents, on the other hand, have exactly the wrong incentives. Bureaucrats foolish enough to solve the problems they're assigned to lose their jobs or get their budgets cuts. So I have no reason to think the Self-Control Training Administration would provide the right amount or kind of training.

Blar said...

I'm not really expressing much confidence in the government. I don't even know what the trainer state would do (though I imagine it would involve changes to public education and to corrections). I don't know what the market would do either (is there a market for practicing resisting temptations?) I guess I'm just trying to show that the will power muscle doesn't provide a new argument in favor of libertarianism, just a new context for libertarianism vs. paternalism arguments to take place. Our ideas about how the muscle building would take place are too vague for this argument to go very far beyond this generic conflict, I think.

My view is that, first of all, there should be more research to figure out how important generalized will power is. Would people benefit significantly from more will power? Baumeister's studies, as far as I know, have mostly been limited to artificial laboratory experiments that do not say much about this question. If will power is important, then the government should investigate the effects of its programs on will power and try to modify them to achieve their goals in a way that's consistent with the goal of promoting will power. Whether or not existing government programs negatively impact will power, if it is important then the government should look into programs that would be effective at increasing will power, including programs that would help free market approaches to will power enhancement flourish. These are really just my generic positions on anything with the potential to have significant benefits - just plug in other words for "will power" into the template (and omit that Baumeister reference). Your (generic) response is that the market will do a pretty good job on its own (due to incentives), and bureaurocrats would mostly just mess things up, seek rents, and expand the bureaurocracy.