Monday, February 27, 2012

Willpower and temptation

Willpower – the will as a distinct human faculty is a largely discredited concept within philosophical circles – recently made headlines in Science News: Fighting willpower's catch-22 (Bruce Bower, January 30, 2012). Research conducted in Germany showed that self-control “saps a person’s mental energy and makes the next desire that inevitably comes along feel more compelling and harder to resist.” Unfortunately, the research did not suggest how people can increase self-control, ideas that might have been helpful in Lent (and at other times!) to a great many.

Augusto Blasi (“Moral Character: A Psychological Approach”, Character Psychology and Character Education, ed. David K. Lapsley and F. Clark Power (West Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), pp. 73-78) describes will as “a set of interlocking skills, mainly cognitive in nature. Among these are:

·         goal setting; the ability to break down goals into hierarchical plans;

·         future time perspective; the ability to keep one’s attention focused, but also to mentally manipulate the objection of attention;

·         the ability to distance oneself from the concrete present and to keep distant goals in mind;

·         and monitoring one’s action and its outcomes.”

Blasi reports broad agreement exists about that summary from various disciplines.

Sadly, much of Christianity appears psychologically ignorant. Furthermore, the subject of temptation receives scant attention in many Christian churches today. Yet temptation is an important, recurrent theme in the Christian tradition, e.g., the traditional version of the Lord's Prayer in English, Lenten emphases on discipline and resisting temptation, and Jesus refusing to succumb to the temptation to avoid the cross. When clergy do address temptation, they often exhort their hearers not to succumb to the temptation. In Nancy Reagan’s words, “Just say, No!” Saying No! becomes a purported panacea for a wide variety of evils that includes drugs, excessive alcohol consumption, and sex outside of marriage.

Alternatively, other religious responses to temptation involve trying to manipulate people with guilt. Yet, spiritual directors and psychologists generally agree that guilt is not a powerful, positive motivator, i.e., guilt feelings may keep a person from succumbing to temptation in the short-run but guilt loses its motivational power to change behavior in constructive directions over time. If guilt were more effective in helping people to resist temptation, fewer people would consistently engage in behaviors that leave them feeling guilty. Guilt also can consistently motivate negative behaviors.

More effective approaches to dealing with temptation incorporate insights from psychology, developing a strategy that bears a closer resemblance to popular self-help literature than many religious leaders might like. Of course, a critical difference is that the religious person seeks God's help in resisting temptation. God's assistance might help a person recover mental energy after successfully resisting a temptation, better equipping the person to resist the next temptation. Focusing on God can also help to set positive goals and to focus on those goals as achievable. God’s assistance most often occurs in community; a person resisting temptation draws strength from God through interacting with other people, a premise intrinsic to 12-step groups and healthy religious congregations.

Understanding the nature of the temptation one faces is also helpful. For example, William De Witt Hyde, a nineteenth century president of Bowdoin College, in his slim volume that he intended for his students, Practical Ethics (available as a free e-book from Amazon for Kindle), identified two types of temptation:

Temptations fall into two classes. Either we are tempted to neglect an object, and so to give it too little influence over us; or else we are tempted to be carried away by an object, and to give it an excessive and disproportionate place in our life. Hence the resulting vices fall into two classes. Vices resulting from the former sort of temptation are vices of defect. Vices resulting from the latter form of temptation are vices of excess.

Persons familiar with Aristotle will recognize that Hyde has simply adopted Aristotle’s approach to virtue and vice: virtue is the mean between two extremes (vices).

Different strategies may work best with different types of temptation, e.g., one tactic best aids moving from an excess of rashness toward courage is easier whereas another tactic works better in moving from an excess of cowardice toward courage. The coward might find successfully attempting small steps toward boldness efficacious, an approach that might do nothing to satisfy the thrill-seeker’s need for the excessive risk taking associated with rashness. The latter might benefit from analysis to understand why he/she craves excessive risk or from finding safer, less destructive ways to enjoy the thrill of risk taking (or apparent risk taking), e.g., riding a roller coaster instead of driving 80 mph in a 35 mph speed zone.

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