Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: June 2012

8 - Breakdown of Will



There have been plenty of books and articles that describe how irrational we are – in consuming drugs and alcohol and cigarettes, in gambling, in forming destructive relationships, in failing to carry out our own plans, even in boring ourselves and procrastinating. The paradoxes of how people knowingly choose things they'll regret don't need rehashing. Examples of self-defeating behaviors abound. Theories about how this could be are almost as plentiful, with every discipline that studies the problem represented by several. However, the proliferation of theories in psychology, philosophy, economics, and the other behavioral sciences is best understood as a sign that no one has gotten to the heart of the matter.

These theories almost never mention failures of will. This is just not a concept that behavioral scientists used much in the twentieth century. Some writers have even proposed that there's no such thing as a “will,” that the word refers only to someone's disposition to choose. Still, the word crops up a lot in everyday speech, especially as part of “willpower,” something that people still buy books to increase.

It's widely perceived that some factor transforms motivation from a simple reflection of the incentives we face to a process that is somehow ours, that perhaps even becomes us – some factor that lies at the very core of choice-making. We often refer to it as our will, the faculty by which we impose some overriding value of ours on the array of pressures and temptations that seem extrinsic.

Agarwal, D. P. and Goedde, H. W. (1989) Human aldehyde dehydrogenases: Their role in alcoholism. Alcohol 6, 517–523.
Ainslie, G. (1970) Experiment described by Howard Rachlin in his Introduction to Modern Behaviorism. San Francisco: Freeman, pp. 186–188.
Ainslie, G. (1974) Impulse control in pigeons. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 21, 485–489.
Ainslie, G. (1986) Beyond microeconomics: Conflict among interest in a multiple self as a determinant of value. In Elster, J. (ed.), The Multiple Self. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 133–175.
Ainslie, G. (1992) Picoeconomics: The Strategic Interaction of Successive Motivational States within the Person. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ainslie, G. (1999b) The intuitive explanation of passionate mistakes, and why it's not adequate. In Elster, J. (ed.), Addiction: Entries and Exits. New York: Sage, pp. 209–238.
Ainslie, G. and Herrnstein, R. (1981) Preference reversal and delayed reinforcement. Animal Learning and Behavior 9, 476–482.
Ainslie, G. and Monterosso, J. (2000) Building choices into series makes rats switch preference from the smaller-earlier to larger-later sucrose rewards. Unpublished manuscript.
Allison, J. (1981) Economics and operant conditioning. In Harzen, P. and Zeiler, M. D. (eds.), Predictability, Correlation, and Contiguity. New York: Wiley, pp. 321–353.
Altman, J., Everitt, B. J., Glautier, S., Markou, A., Nutt, J., Oretti, R., Phillips, G. D., and Robbins, T. W. (1996) The biological, social and clinical bases of drug addiction: Commentary and debate. Psychopharmacology 125, 285–345.
Aristotle (1984) The Complete Works of Aristotle. Barnes, J. (ed.). Princeton, NJ:Princeton University Press.
Averill, J. R. (1988) Disorders of emotion. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 6, 247–268.
Azrin, N. H., Nunn, R., and Frantz-Renshaw, S. (1982) Habit reversal vs. negative practice of self-destructive oral habit (biting, chewing, or licking of lips, cheeks, tongue, or palate). Journal of Behavior Therapy in Experimental Psychiatry 13, 49–54.
Baumeister, R. F. and Heatherton, T. (1996) Self-regulation failure: An overview. Psychological Inquiry 7, 1–15.
Becker, G. S. (1976) The Economic Approach to Human Behavior. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Becker, G. S. and Murphy, K. (1988) A theory of rational addiction. Journal of Political Economy 96, 675–700.
Becker, H. S. (1960) Notes on the concept of commitment. American Journal of Sociology 66, 32–40.
Benabou, R. and Tirole, J. (2000) Personal rules. Paper delivered at the ECARES-CEPR Conference on Psychology and Economics, Brussels, June 9–11.
Bickel, W. K., Odum, A. L., and Madden, G. J. (1999) Impulsivity and cigarette smoking: Delay discounting in current, never, and ex-smokers. Psychopharmacology 146, 447–454.
Boring, E. G. (1950) A History of Experimental Psychology. New York: Appleton Century-Crofts.
Bratman, M. E. (1999) Faces of Intention: Selected Essays on Intention and Agency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Brennan, G. and Tullock, G. (1982) An economic theory of military tactics: Methodological individualism at war. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 3, 225–242.
Brunner, D. and Gibbon, J. (1995) Value of food aggregates: Parallel versus serial discounting. Animal Behavior 50, 1627–1634.
Brunsson, N. (1985) The Irrational Organization. Stockholm: Stockholm School of Economics.
Carrillo, J. D. (1999) Self-control, moderate consumption, and craving. Unpublished manuscript. Universite Libre de Bruxelles.
Case, D. (1997) Why the delay-of-reinforcement gradient is hyperbolic. Paper presented at the 20th Annual Conference of the Society for the Quantitative Analysis of Behavior, Chicago, May 22.
Charlton, W. (1988) Weakness of the Will. Oxford: Blackwell.
Crane, A. M. (1905) Right and Wrong Thinking and Their Results. Boston: Lathrop.
Crews, F. (1995) The Memory Wars: Freud Legacy in Dispute. New York: New York Review of Books.
Cropper, M. L., Aydede, S. K., and Portney, P. R. (1991) Discounting human lives. American Journal of Agricultural Economics 73, 1410–1415.
DeVilliers, P. and Herrnstein, R. (1976) Toward a law of response strength. Psychological Bulletin 83, 1131–1153.
Ellenberger, H. F. (1970) The Discovery of the Unconscious. New York: Basic Books.
Elster, J. (1979) Ulysses and the Sirens: Studies in Rationality and Irrationality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Elster, J. (1999) Strong Feelings: Emotion; Addiction, and Human Behavior. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Elster, J. (2000) Ulysses Unbound. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Erasmus, D. (1509/1983) The Praise of Folly. Leonard, F. Dean (ed.). Putney, VT: Hendricks House.
Freud, S. (1895/1956) Project for a Scientific Psychology. In Strachey, J. and Freud, A. (eds.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth Vol. I.
Freud, S. (1911) Ibid., vol. 12. Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning.
Freud, S. (1923) Ibid., vol. 19. The Ego and the Id.
Freud, S. (1926/1956) Ibid., vol. 20. Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety.
Frijda, N. H. (1986) The Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fuller, R. K. and Roth, H. P. (1979) Disulfiram for the treatment of alcoholism. Annals of Internal Medicine 90, 901–904.
Galen, (1963) Galen on the Passions and Errors of the Soul. P. W. Harkins (trans.). Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.
Gardner, E. L. (1997) Brain reward mechanisms. In Lowinson, J. H., Ruiz, P., Millman, R. B., and Langrod, J. G. (eds.), Substance Abuse: A Comprehensive Textbook (3d ed.). Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, pp. 51–85.
Gilligan, C. (1977) In a different voice: Womens' conceptions of self and morality. Harvard Educational Review 47, 481–517.
Gleick, J. (1987) Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Viking Penguin.
Goldiamond, I. (1965) Self-control procedures in personal behavior problems. Psychological Reports 17, 851–868.
Goldsmith, H. H., Buss, K. A., and Lemery, K. S. (1997) Toddler and childhood temperament: Expanded content, stronger genetic evidence, new evidence for the importance of environment. Developmental Psychology 33, 891–905.
Grace, R. C. (1994) A contextual model of concurrent chains choice. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 61, 113–129.
Green, L., Fisher, E. B. Jr., Perlow, S., and Sherman, L. (1981) Preference reversal and self-control: Choice as a function of reward amount and delay. Behaviour Analysis Letters 1, 43–51.
Hampton, C. (1976) Savages. London: Samuel French.
Harris, C. and Laibson, D. (1999) Dynamic choices of hyperbolic consumers. Paper Presented at the GREMAQ/CEPR Conference on Economics and Psychology, Toulouse, France, June 19.
Harvey, C. M. (1994) The reasonableness of non-constant discounting. Journal of Public Economics 53, 31–51.
Herrnstein, R. J. (1961) Relative and absolute strengths of response as a function of frequency of reinforcement. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 4, 267–272.
Herrnstein, R. J. (1969) Method and theory in the study of avoidance. Psychological Review 76, 49–69.
Herrnstein, R. J. (1997) The Matching Law: Papers in Psychology and Economics. Rachlin, H. and Laibson, D. I. (eds.). New York: Sage.
Herrnstein, R. J., Loewenstein, G., Prelec, D., and Vaughan, W. Jr. (1993) Utility maximization and melioration: Internalities in individual choice. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 6, 149–185.
Heyman, G. M. (1996) Resolving the contradictions of addiction. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 19, 561–610.
Heyman, G. M. and Tanz, L. (1995) How to teach a pigeon to maximize overall reinforcement rate. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 64, 277–297.
Hirschman, A. (1977) The Passions and the Interests. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
James., W. (1890) Principles of Psychology. New York: Holt.
Kagel, J. H., Green, L., and Caraco, T. (1986) When foragers discount the future: Constraint or adaptation?Animal Behavior 34, 271–283.
Kanfer, F. H. (1975) Self-management methods. In Kanfer, F. and Goldstein, A. (eds.), Helping People Change. Elmsford, NY: Pergamon, pp. 283–345.
Kant, I. (1793/1960) Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. Green, T. and Hucken, H. (trans.). New York: Harper and Row, pp. 15–49.
Kirby, K. N. (1997) Bidding on the future: Evidence against normative discounting of delayed rewards. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 126, 54–70.
Kirby, K. N. and Guastello, B. (2000) Making choices in the context of similar, future choices can increase self-control. Unpublished manuscript.
Kirby, K. N. and Herrnstein, R. J. (1995) Preference reversals due to myopic discounting of delayed reward. Psychological Science 6, 83–89.
Kirby, K. N., Petry, N. M., and Bickel, W. K. (1999) Heroin addicts have higher discount rates for delayed rewards than non-drug-using controls. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 128, 78–87.
Klein, B. and Leffler, K. B. (1981) The role of market forces in assuring contractual performance. Journal of Political Economy 89, 615–640.
Klein, R. (1989) Introduction to the disorders of the self. In Masterson, J. F. and Klein, R. (eds.), Psychotherapy of the Disorders of the Self. New York: Brunner/ Mazel.
Kohlberg, L. (1963) The development of children's orientations toward a moral order: I. Sequence in the development of moral thought. Vita Humana 6, 11–33.
Kuhl, J. (1994) Motivation and volition. In d'Ydewalle, G., Bertelson, P., and Eelen, P. (eds.), International Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol. 2. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 311–340.
Kuhl, J. (1996) Who controls whom when “I control myself”? Psychological Inquiry 7, 61–68.
Kyokai, B. D. (1996) The Teaching of Buddha: The Way of Practice (893rd ed.). Tokyo: Kosaido Printing Co.
Laibson, D. (1997) Golden eggs and hyperbolic discounting. Quarterly Journal of Economics 62, 443–479.
Lassers, E. and Nordan, R. (1978) Separation-individuation of an identical twin. Adolescent Psychiatry 6, 469–479.
Lea, S. E. G. (1979) Foraging and reinforcement schedules in the pigeon. Animal Behavior 27, 875–886.
Macaulay, S. (1963) Non-contractual relations in business: A preliminary study. American Sociological Review 28, 55–67.
Madden, G. J., Chase, P. N., and Joyce, J. H. (1998) Making sense of sensitivity in the human operant literature. Behavior Analyst 21, 1–12.
Madden, G. J., Petry, N. M., Badger, G. J., and Bickel, W. K. (1997) Impulsive and self-control choices in opioid-dependent patients and non-drug-using control patients: Drug and monetary rewards. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology 5, 256–262.
Mawhinney, T. C. (1982) Maximizing versus matching in people versus pigeons. Psychological Reports 50, 267–281.
Smith, Maynard J. (1978) Optimization theory in evolution. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 9, 31–56.
Mazur, J. E. (1986) Choice between single and multiple delayed reinforcers. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 46, 67–77.
Mazur, J. E. (1987) An adjusting procedure for studying delayed reinforcement. In Commons, M. L., Mazur, J. E., Nevin, J. A., and Rachlin, H. (eds.), Quantitative Analyses of Behavior V: The Effect of Delay and of Intervening Events on Reinforcement Value. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 55–73.
Mazur, J. E. (1997) Choice, delay, probability, and conditioned reinforcement. Animal Learning and Behavior 25, 131–147.
Mazur, J. E. and Logue, A. W. (1978) Choice in a self-control paradigm: Effects of a fading procedure. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 30, 11–17.
McClennen, E. F. (1990) Rationality and Dynamic Choice. New York: Cambridge University Press.
McDiarmid, C. G. and Riling, M. E. (1965) Reinforcement delay and reinforcement rate as determinants of schedule preference. Psychonomic Science 2, 195–196.
Metcalfe, J. and Jacobs, W. (1998) Emotional memory: The effects of stress on “cool” and “hot” memory systems. In Medin, D. L. (ed.), The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, Vol. 38: Advances in Research and Theory. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, pp. 187–222.
Millar, A. and Navarick, D. J. (1984) Self-control and choice in humans: Effects of video game playing as a positive reinforcer. Learning and Motivation 15, 203–218.
Mischel, H. N. and Mischel, W. (1983) The development of children's knowledge of self-control strategies. Child Development 54, 603–619.
Mourant, J. A. (1967) Pelagius and Pelagianism. In Edwards, P. (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 6. New York: Macmillan, pp. 78–79.
Navarick, D. J. (1982) Negative reinforcement and choice in humans. Learning and Motivation 13, 361–377.
Navon, D. and Gopher, D. (1979) On the economy of the human-processing system. Psychological Review 86, 214–255.
Nemiah, J. C. (1977) Alexithymia: Theoretical considerations. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics 28, 199–206.
Offer, A. (1995) Going to war in 1914: A matter of honor?Politics and Society 23, 213–240.
Offer, A.. (2006) The challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Olds, J. (1992) Mapping the mind onto the brain. In Frederick, G. Worden and Swazey, J. P. (eds.), The Neurosciences: Paths of Discovery. Boston: Birkhaeuser, pp. 375–400.
Ostaszewski, P. (1996) The relation between temperament and rate of temporal discounting. European Journal of Personality 10, 161–172.
Phelps, E. S. and Pollack, R. A. (1968) On second-best national saving and game-equilibrium growth. Review of Economic Studies 35, 185–199.
Plato (1892) The Dialogues of Plato. Jowett, B. (trans.). New York: Random House, vol. 1. (See also Jowett, 1892/1937.)
Polivy, J. (1998) The effects of behavioral inhibition: Integrating internal cues, cognition, behavior, and affect. Psychological Inquiry 9, 181–204.
Rabin, M. (1995) Moral preferences, moral constraints, and self-serving biases. Working Paper 95-241, Department of Economics, University of California at Berkeley.
Rachlin, H. (1985) Pain and behavior. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 8, 43–83.
Rachlin, H. (1995a) Self-control: Beyond commitment. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 18, 109–159.
Rachlin, H. (1995b) Behavioral economics without anomalies. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 64, 396–404.
Ragotzy, S. P., Blakely, E., and Poling, A. (1988) Self-control in mentally retarded adolescents: Choice as a function of amount and delay of reinforcement. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 49, 191–199.
Richards, J. B., Zhang, L., Mitchell, S. H., and Wit, H. (1999) Delay or probability discounting in a model of impulsive behavior: Effect of alcohol. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 71, 121–143.
Ricoeur, P. (1971) Guilt, ethics, and religion. In Meta, J. (ed.), Moral Evil Under Challenge. New York: Herder and Herder.
Ryan, R. M., Kuhl, J., and Deci, E. L. (1997) Nature and autonomy: An organizational view of social and neurobiological aspects of self-regulation in behavior and development. Development and Psychopathology 9, 701–728.
Samuelson, P. (1976) Economics (10th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Schwartz, B. (1986) The Battle for Human Nature: Science, Morality and Modern Life. New York: Norton.
Shiffrin, R. M. and Schneider, W. (1977) Controlled and automatic human information processing: II. Perceptual learning, automatic attending, and a general theory. Psychological Review 84, 127–190.
Shull, R., Spear, D., and Bryson, A. (1981) Delay or rate of food delivery as a determiner of response rate. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 35, 129–143.
Siegel, E. and Rachlin, H. (1996) Soft commitment: Self-control achieved by response persistence. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 64, 117–128.
Simon, H. (1983) Reason in Human Affairs. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Simon, J. L. (1995) Interpersonal allocation continuous with intertemporal allocation: Binding commitments, pledges, and bequests. Rationality and Society 7, 367–430.
Sjoberg, L. and Johnson, T. (1978) Trying to give up smoking: A study of volitional breakdowns. Addictive Behaviors 3, 149–167.
Skog, O.-J. (1999) Rationality, irrationality, and addiction. In Elster, J. and Skog, O.-J. (eds.), Getting Hooked: Rationality and Addiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Snyderman, M. (1983) Optimal prey selection: Partial selection, delay of reinforcement and self-control. Behavioral Analysis Letters 3, 131–147.
Solnick, J., Kaimenberg, C., Eckerman, D., and Wailer, M. (1980) An experimental analysis of impulsivity and impulse control in humans. Learning and Motivation 2, 61–77.
Sonuga-Barke, E. J. S., Lea, S. E. G., and Webley, P. (1989) Children's choice: Sensitivity to changes in reinforcer density. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 51, 185–197.
Sorensen, R. A. (1992) Thought Experiments. New York: Oxford University Press.
Spealman, R. (1979) Behavior maintained by termination of a schedule of self-administered cocaine. Science 204, 1231–1233.
Sperry, R. W. (1984) Consciousness, personal identity and the divided brain. Neuropsychologia 22, 661–673.
Stahler, F. (1998) Economic Games and Strategic Behavior: Theory and Application. Cheltenham, UK: Elgar.
Stevenson, M. K. (1986) A discounting model for decisions with delayed positive or negative outcomes. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 115, 131–154.
Strotz, R. H. (1956) Myopia and inconsistency in dynamic utility maximization. Review of Economic Studies 23, 166–180.
Sully, J. (1884) Outlines of psychology. New York: Appleton.
Sunstein, C. R. (1995) Problems with rules. California Law Review 83, 953–1030.
Szekely, J. (1980) Twins on Twins. New York: Potter. (Probably indexed under its photographers, Kathryn Abbe and Frances Gill.)
Taylor, C. (1982) The diversity of goods. In Sen, A. and Williams, B. (eds.), Utilitarianism and Beyond. Cambridge and London: Cambridge University Press, pp. 129–144.
Vanderveldt, J. H. and Odenwald, R. P. (1952) Psychiatry and Catholicism. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Vaughan, W., Jr. and Herrnstein, R. J. (1987) Stability, melioration, and natural selection. In Green, L. and Kagel, J. H. (eds.), Advances in Behavioral Economics, vol. 1. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, pp. 185–215.
Vuchinich, R. E. and Simpson, C. A. (1998) Hyperbolic temporal discounting in social drinkers and problem drinkers. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology 6, 292–305.
Weber, M. (1925/1964) The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. New York: Free Press.
Zajonc, R. B. (1980) Feeling and thinking: Preferences need no inferences. American Psychologist 35, 151–175.