About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Rationally Speaking podcast: Willpower

This episode of Rationally Speaking is all about the age-old problem of willpower: why don't we do what we know is best for us?

Massimo introduces some of the early philosophical approaches to this puzzle, and then he and Julia go over more recent scientific research on the issue (for example: does resisting temptation deplete your reserves of willpower, or does it strengthen your willpower "muscle"?).

They also examine possible solutions to the problem, including betting and precommitment, and online programs and mobile apps that can help.


  1. It is my peception that there has been a de-emphasis on willpower and discipline in the past few deacades, at least in American cultures. Do you think this perception is accurate? If accurate, do you think this approach is justified, counter-productive, or somewhere in between?

    It seems that a big reason for the de-emphasis of willpower is the implicit judgement that takes place when a person "fails" to resist the tempation. In order to avoid this judgement, it has been more fashionable to emphasize environmental factors, such as the cost or availability of temptations. How can we utilize the positive aspects of willpower, while removing any unhelpful baggage that may go along with it?

  2. Looks like I'm a little slow today. I did not realize that podcast was the one released this week. Woops

  3. The philosophical question is whether it's even rational for you to make sacrifices now for some future "you" who doesn't even exist yet. Is it rational to put yourself through misery just so that your future self has some nice memories and stories to tell? Science can find the best way to accomplish the goals, but philosophy should examine whether the goals are worth pursuing in the first place.

  4. Massimo and Julia talked about fueling willpower with sugar, which Americans get plenty of, but they didn't mention the more obvious factor of sleep, which Americans don't get enough of.

  5. Can anyone give me some of the references for the research they cited, such as left-hand writing affecting willpower? Thanks

    1. Nathan,

      these are some of the sources on my list:

      * “The sources of human volition” by Patrick Haggard. Science, volume 324, pp. 731-733, 2009.
      * “Anterior prefrontal function and the limits of human decision making” by Etienne Koechlin and Alexandre Hyafil. Science, volume 318, pp. 594-598, 2007.
      * “Free choice activates a decision circuit between frontal and parietal cortex” by Bijan Pesaran, Matthew J. Nelson and Richard A. Andersen. Nature, volume 453, pp. 406-410, 2008.
      * “How does neuroscience affect our conception of volition?” by Adina L. Roskies. Annual Review of Neuroscience, volume 33, pp. 109-130, 2010.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.