Yesterday Neil Levy delivered the second of three Leverhulme lectures. The topic this time: “The Science of Self-Control.” In these lectures, Levy is setting two views against each other. The first is a view that emphasizes willpower – when tempted, one must grit it out. The second is a view that emphasizes self-management – the way to avoid temptation is to objectify ourselves, understand what triggers failures of self-control, and put ourselves in environments without temptation. Like Ulysses aware of the nearness of Sirens, we ought to find ways to tie ourselves to the mast.
What does science have to do with this? Levy argues that science is indicating the preferability of a self-management view.
Levy began by reviewing a leading view in the psychology of self-control – the so-called ego depletion view (associated most frequently with the work of Roy Baumeister and colleagues (e.g., Baumeister et al. 1998)). On this view, self-control (or willpower) is seen as a depleteable resource. Our capacity to exercise self-control is akin to a mental muscle – while practicing the exercise of self-control can enhance this capacity, there is only so much this capacity can do over short stretches of time. So, if you have had to use this capacity throughout your day, you will be more likely to give in to the next temptation that comes along.
Levy does not deny that we are able to exercise something like willpower in some circumstances. But the effectiveness of the use of willpower, he argues, depends heavily on the environment an agent is in.
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