Psychology research on agency and willpower and Deus Caritas Est (are somehow connected in my brain)

December 8, 2013 – 10:19 pm

As a follow-up note on the last post, I was struck by some studies on agency mentioned in the Habit book. It cites Mark Muraven’s experiments on autonomy and the model of willpower as a spendable resource. Basically, willpower can be “depleted” — if you spend a period of time trying not to eat some fresh-baked cookies on the table, you’ll have less patience for doing a puzzle immediately afterwards, whereas if you simply were allowed to eat the cookies you’ll likely spend a lot more time before giving up on the (cleverly-designed-to-be-unsolvable) puzzle. (Or at least that was the now-classic experiment they ran.)

So willpower is a spendable resource. But here’s the cool thing: when you believe you have a choice about your situation, you lose a lot less willpower in something like the Cookie Temptation Task. It’s almost as if agency/autonomy act as willpower bandages — you still bleed out a bit, but it staunches the flow; you’re stronger for the other things you have to do.

And my immediate mental connection was: Aha. Not only servants, but friends.

This was weird. I am still not used to Biblical passages cropping up in my brain. It’s usually some other lab study, or a book, or a chunk of code, or a Wikipedia article, or something. The Mel-tendency to make surprising associations is an old familiar one that’s led to great geekiness and writing in the past, so I wonder if I’m getting another database of sources loaded into the Random Connector O’ Matic.

But the connection popped up, and I pondered it a moment. Our free will is best employed in the service of Great Awesomeness when we don’t bludgeon it into a grudging sense of duty, but rather let it choose the same thing out of love. I had recently read Benedict’s encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God is love”) where he talks about how works of charity — of outward service — flow from that great interior fire of love, how it becomes something you can’t not do when you are lit by love. (I love reading Benedict; he’s so logical and academic and writes so beautifully in German in a way the English translations don’t quite catch. He’s like an engineer, except in theology!) When you have been filled that way, a great abundance spills from you and into others.

That last thought, I knew, came from the book my housemate Megan left on the dining table for me to read (I’d gotten halfway through), which is The Soul of the Apostolate. It has some flowery Praise the Great Merciful Almighty language (which I’m not a fan of) but really hammers hard on the “seriously, develop a good interior life; all else flows from that” mentality (which action-oriented, impulsive, Do Something Now Small Mel Self has a very hard time with). It takes willpower, and I cannot muster up that willpower out of a sense of duty alone. It’s only when I have a sense of choice and freedom — and I make that choice from love, not duty — that I can sit and do the work I need to do.

This seems so stilted and incomplete now when I type it; so many gaps I am not typing, great gaps between all the ideas that seemed to weave into a seamless sheet at the moment of “oh wait, cool shiny mini-revelation!” that was my happy geeky moment then. It’s okay, though. I know I am not making these connections very well; there is a more eloquent threading that could be done between the studies (listed below) and the scripture text and encyclical mentioned above, but I don’t have the time to write that now. I’ll leave these as traces for later — maybe later-me, maybe later-someone-else.

Here are 6 scholarly papers with further reading (from the bibliography of the Habit book) that I’d like to track down. Someday. In my copious free time. If you have copies and want to talk about any of them, I would love to geek out with you.

  1. M. Muraven, M. Gagne, and H. Rosman, “Helpful Self-Control: Autonomy Support, Vitality, and Depletion,” Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology 44 no. 3 (2008): 573-85.
  2. Mark Muraven, “Autonomous Self-Control Is Less Depleting,” Journal of Research in Personality 42, no. 3 (2008): 763-70
  3. Mark Muraven, DIkla Shmueli, and Edward Burkley, “Conserving Self-Control Strength,” Journaly of Personality and Social Psychology 91, no. 3 (2006): 524-37;
  4. Ayelet Fishbach, “The Dynamics of Self-Regulation,” in 11th Sydney Symposium of Social Psychology (New York: Psychology Press, 2011);
  5. Tyler F. Stillman et al., “Personal Philosophy and Personnel Achievement: Belief in Free Will Predicts Better Job Performance,” Social Psychological and Personality Science 1 (2010): 43-50
  6. Mark Muraven, “Lack of Autonomy and Self-Control: Performance Contingent Rewards Lead To Greater Depletion,” Motivation and Emotion, 31 no. 4 (2007): 322-30.
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  1. 4 Responses to “Psychology research on agency and willpower and Deus Caritas Est (are somehow connected in my brain)”

  2. This seems so stilted and incomplete now when I type it; so many gaps I am not typing, great gaps between all the ideas that seemed to weave into a seamless sheet at the moment of “oh wait, cool shiny mini-revelation!” that was my happy geeky moment then.

    I HAVE SO BEEN THERE.

    Also, *hug*, I love you and I was just chortling and swooning with other Hacker Schoolers about how happy we are to have you in our community, and how joyful I am to have you as a friend.

    By Sumana Harihareswara on Dec 8, 2013

  3. I teach with a similar philosophy. My goal is to get students to buy into what they’re doing and really enjoy it. I only crack down hard when it is clear that this is just not going to happen and the end of the quarter is getting close. It is an art, which is another way of saying that I currently stink at getting the right balance (some kids need more freedom to figure it out, others need a kick in the butt much sooner). But I’ve found that once a kid is intrinsically motivated, they learn SO much SO fast. Now time to exercise a little willpower and get some curriculum built for tomorrow :)

    By Andy Pethan on Dec 9, 2013

  4. “This seems so stilted and incomplete now when I type it…” I’m reminded about something Crowley said, that every revelation appears trivial when written down.

    By Mark Hoemmen on Dec 9, 2013

  5. Appreciating the hard work you put into your site and detailed information you present. It’s awesome to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same out of date rehashed material. Great read! I’ve saved your site and I’m including your RSS feeds to my Google account.

    By Kacey on Dec 16, 2013

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