Daily Archives: March 3, 2014

Practical observations on will

In an attempt to understand the workings of my own will, I decided to try to take an ice-cold shower every day for three months. I chose this partly because of the purported health benefits but mostly just because it was something harmlessly unpleasant I could try to force myself to do, affording opportunities for introspection. I wanted to observe what exactly happened psychologically when I succeeded in acting contrary to inclination, and what happened when I failed to do so.

I started this project a month ago and have been imperfectly successful so far — only 26 cold showers in 30 days, with my longest streak of cold showers every day being (so far) 15 days. (Of course, imperfect success is what I “wanted” on one level, since my purpose was to observe the causes of both success and failure.) Here are some of my observations.


Visualizing the intended act

I got the idea from William James (in his Principles of Psychology and elsewhere) that imagining a particular act is the same thing as willing it, and that imagination naturally leads to motor consequences unless something checks it. There seems to be some truth to this view. One of the most effective ways of making myself take a cold shower turned out to be visualizing — as vividly as possible — myself turning the faucet handle to the right.

The act itself is what must be imagined, not its consequences. Imagining the unpleasant shock of the freezing water hitting your body would obviously tend to weaken resolve rather than strengthen it. Less obviously, even imagining the pleasant consequences of the intended action (e.g., how good you will feel when the cold shower is over) turned out to be relatively ineffective. It’s best to be direct: If you want to do X, imagine X — not something which can be connected to X only by a train of reasoning. When it comes to willpower, as I shall explain below, reason is not your friend.

This technique would appear to work only when willing oneself to do something — not to refrain from doing something. Attempting to visualize oneself not-smoking or not-eating-junk-food or whatever would obviously be an exercise in futility. When trying to stop doing something, then, it would perhaps be helpful to decide in advance on a fixed substitute-behavior (“when I’m tempted to do X, I’ll do Y instead”), turning a thou-shalt-not into a more visualizable thou-shalt.


Stupid slogans, not syllogisms

In the heat of temptation, the last thing you want to be doing is reasoning — earnestly trying to persuade yourself to do what you have already decided you ought to do. Reason is the slave of the passions, and practical reason ought not to be attempted when the baser passions (such as a caitiff unwillingness to be doused with ice-water) are in play.

Here I seem to be parting ways with William James (“to think, in short, is the secret of will”) and leaning more in the direction of Martin Luther (“the devil’s bride, Reason, that pretty whore”), but in fact James is right even here, as the larger context of the quote makes clear.

If, then, you are asked, “In what does a moral act consist when reduced to its simplest and most elementary form?” you can make only one reply. You can say that it consists in the effort of attention by which we hold fast to an idea which but for that effort of attention would be driven out of the mind by the other psychological tendencies that are there. To think, in short, is the secret of will, just as it is the secret of memory (Talks to Teachers, emphasis in the original).

The kind of “thinking” James is recommending is certainly not discursive reasoning. (That kind of thinking may be “the secret of memory,” but in the context of will it is a mere slippery slope to rationalization.) Rather, it is a stubborn refusal to let go of an idea. Bulldog, not fox. The tools you want are not arguments, but rather thought-terminating clichés.

In my attempts to make myself turn on the cold water, the most effective “thoughts” were sound bites calculated to bypass reason and enlist the passions in the service of a predetermined conclusion. I drew slogans from various sources, ranging from Spenser (“Vp, vp, thou womanish weake Knight”) to Hollywood schlock (“This is SPARTA!”), and the stupider they were, the more effective. One that worked particularly well was simply “I’m a Viking!” — because, you know, Vikings are tough and obviously aren’t afraid of a little cold water.

On those occasions when I found myself standing in front of the faucet reasoning about what I was going to do, I inevitably ended up being swayed or almost-swayed by the stupidest rationalizations imaginable: I didn’t say I wouldn’t take any hot showers, only that I would take cold showers — so I can take a hot shower first and then a cold one after that. Or I could make it a James Bond shower (start with hot water, then switch it to cold right at the end). Or I could just take a hot shower today and two cold showers tomorrow, which still averages out to one a day. Or actually, since I’ve only been doing cold showers for a few days now, it wouldn’t really make much of a difference if I took a hot shower today and started the three months tomorrow. And so on. The slave of the passions is nothing if not a hard worker, and will keep dutifully churning out justifications until one of them does the trick.


Striking while the iron is hot

You think and think, and then at some point you say “Okay, NOW!” and make the jump from thought to action. The timing of that jump is important because various motivations fluctuate in strength. You don’t always have the luxury of choosing when to make your decision, but usually you do, and you want to time your fiat so that it coincides with your “good” motivations being at their strongest and their rivals at their weakest. What exactly that means in practical terms varies from situation to situation and can be learned only by experience. Sometimes I had to turn on the water immediately, before I’d had time to have second thoughts; other times I had to just stand there, sometimes for over a minute, “working up” the necessary willpower.


I intend to continue this experiment until I actually succeed in doing three months straight of cold showers every day, and will post other observations as they occur to me.


Filed under Anecdotes, Psychology