Why Willpower Doesn’t Work

Jud Brewer
February 11, 2022
A person stands in triumph atop a rocky outcropping

So, it’s February – a month when, for a lot of us, the resolutions we may have set a month ago start to fall apart. There are two big reasons for this: making changes is hard, and willpower doesn’t work.

First, behavior change is not as simple as it may seem. As a behavioral neuroscientist and psychiatrist, I’ve seen countless patients who engage in behaviors that fit a certain definition: “continued use despite adverse consequences.”

Believe it or not, that is the definition of addiction. 

Addiction isn’t limited to the use of drugs, gambling, smoking, or overeating.  It could mean continued shopping despite adverse consequences. Or pining away for that special someone, or gaming, or checking social media, or worrying.  You get the point.  Addiction is everywhere.

Changing behavior is so hard in part because of the reward-based learning system. Reward-based learning is based on positive and negative reinforcement. Put simply, you want to do more of the things that feel good and less of the things that feel bad. This ability evolved so far back that scientists can see it in sea slugs.

Back in our caveperson days, reward-based learning was exceedingly helpful. Since food was hard to come by, our hairy ancestors might come across some food and their stodgy little brains would grunt, “Calories . . . survival!” And when the caveperson got some sugar or fat, his or her brain not only connected nutrients with survival but also released dopamine, a neurotransmitter essential for learning to pair places with behaviors. Dopamine acted like a primeval whiteboard, upon which was written: “Remember what you are eating and where you found it.”

And so, caveperson laid down a context-dependent memory and learned over time to repeat the process. See food, eat food, feel good, repeat. Trigger, behavior, reward. Repeat.

Fast-forward to last night. You weren’t feeling so great— you had a bad day at work; your partner said something hurtful; or you recalled that painful moment from your childhood— and then you remembered that Extra Creamy Milk Chocolate Bar in the pantry. Your reward-based learning system has already learned that if you eat chocolate or ice cream when you’re mad or sad, you feel better emotionally (even if not necessarily physically). And even if the newer parts of your brain know that late-night snacking isn’t that healthy, the older parts don’t respond to logic, reason, or willpower.

These days, you don’t even need a pantry.  Most of our time online is spent getting little dopamine hits from clicking on this or that, or liking this or that, or being liked for this or that. We have grown collectively addicted to these dopamine hits. And that’s by design. Silicon Valley’s clever designs maximize intermittent reinforcement (dopamine neurons in the brain perk up even more when the reward is random rather than regular) and immediate availability of reward.

Our brains evolved to help us survive, but now they have been leveraged to trigger cravings and evoke emotions . . . and create habits, compulsive behavior, and addictions.

How can we break this cycle of addiction?  Well, here’s one thing that won’t work: willpower.  Willpower is a function of the newer parts of your brain, but addictive behaviors are rooted in the older parts – parts that aren’t amenable to hearing a good pep talk or negative reinforcement.  They are habits, deeply ingrained.

To really change habits, you have to make the older parts of the brain work for you. In my work, I’ve found this process has three steps: noticing behavior, investigating why you’re engaging in it, and substituting it with a bigger, better option.  I discuss it in detail in my book Unwinding Anxiety and on Ten Percent’s Teacher Talks podcast. Here, I want to focus on how mindfulness enables it to take place.

First, if you aren’t aware that you’re doing something habitually, you will continue to do it habitually.  With mindfulness, you can notice what’s happening in the older parts of your brain and recognize a habit loop when it’s happening.  What am I doing? you can ask yourself.

Second, mindfulness helps you get curious about it. Why am I doing this? What triggered the behavior? Getting out of habit mode frees up the newer parts of the brain to do what they do best: make rational and logical decisions.

Third, mindfulness can help you ask What reward am I really getting from this?  and find a bigger, better one instead.  Sometimes, the peace of mindfulness can be its own reward. If you’ve had a good meditation session, you know the feeling: open, expanded, aware.  Or you can get curious about a sensation in the body, or the breath.  Where is it?  What is it?  Is it changing?  This curiosity can, itself, be a more fulfilling reward than the behavior you’re trying to change.

My lab found that mindfulness training helped smokers recognize habit loops and be able to decouple cravings from smoking. Patients could notice a craving, get curious about what it felt like, and ride it out, instead of habitually smoking. Breaking this habit loop led to five times greater quit rates than the current gold-standard treatment.

Forcing, cajoling or tricking yourself out of addictive habits won’t work.  But mindfulness can be your ally in discovering them, finding out how they operate in your unique brain and body, and, eventually, with discipline and repetition, unwinding them as well.

A psychiatrist and internationally known expert in clinical mindfulness training, Jud Brewer has developed and tested novel mindfulness programs for addictions. Jud is the Director of Research at Brown University Mindfulness Center, one of the world's leading meditation research institutes.

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