New insights on the significance of willpower to self-control: Study disentangles two ways of thinking about self-control to examine role willpower plays in restraint

In Greek mythology, the story of Odysseus and the Sirens illustrates a paradigmatic example of self-control.

When the hero of Homer’s epic prepared to travel past the Sirens, mythical creatures who lure sailors with their enchanted singing, Odysseus instructs his crew to plug their ears with wax and tie him to the ship’s mast. That way, Odysseus can listen to the Sirens as he sails by, and the crew can keep their wits. No matter how much he begs to be released, no one will hear his pleas.

Was Odysseus exercising willpower with his plan, or was he merely removing his ability to cave to temptation?

Jordan Bridges, a doctoral student in the Rutgers Department of Philosophy, has coauthored a paper in the journal Cognition explaining why this distinction matters for the study of self-control, and what it might tell us about how mere mortals view the power of willpower.

Researchers have long wondered what tools people successfully use to resist temptations — like eating another bag of potato chips or checking Facebook one more time before bed. And while no one really knows why some of us have more self-control than others, psychologists and behavioral economists know a lot about the methods people use to resist temptation.

Bridges said one method is called diachronic regulation, which involves selecting and modifying one’s situation and cultivating habits over time to avoid temptation — essentially removing willpower from the equation. A second approach, synchronic regulation, relies on deliberate, effortful willpower in the moment to resist temptation.

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