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Triumph of the Will?

An extremely intriguing post by Steve DeAngelis today:

The Importance of Willpower

….Aamodt and Wang assert that personal willpower (the ability to overcome the tension created between desire and common sense) is a zero sum game — use it and you lose it. That is, people who demonstrate willpower in one area have less of it to use in another.

“The brain’s store of willpower is depleted when people control their thoughts, feelings or impulses, or when they modify their behavior in pursuit of goals. Psychologist Roy Baumeister and others have found that people who successfully accomplish one task requiring self-control are less persistent on a second, seemingly unrelated task. In one pioneering study, some people were asked to eat radishes while others received freshly baked chocolate chip cookies before trying to solve an impossible puzzle. The radish-eaters abandoned the puzzle in eight minutes on average, working less than half as long as people who got cookies or those who were excused from eating radishes. Similarly, people who were asked to circle every ‘e’ on a page of text then showed less persistence in watching a video of an unchanging table and wall. Other activities that deplete willpower include resisting food or drink, suppressing emotional responses, restraining aggressive or sexual impulses, taking exams and trying to impress someone. Task persistence is also reduced when people are stressed or tired from exertion or lack of sleep.”

During the Second World War, the United States faced in Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, enemies whose leadership placed an unusual stock in the advantages of superior will.  While roundly cursed posthumously by his generals at the time, historians now tend to give Hitler considerable credit for preventing a potential disaster in the face of the Red Army counterattack in 1942 with his fanatical insistence that the Wehrmacht stand and fight for every inch of ground, ultimately stabilizing the German lines and permitting a regrouping for further offensives. Noted historian, John Lukacs, has written of Adolf Hitler ” His mind and willpower were extraordinary….”.

Hitler held his regime together to the very end with his word being regarded as law througout the Third Reich, even when Soviet tanks were two hundred meters from his Fuhrerbunker. He dismissed from office his most powerful paladins, Goering and Himmler with a word, even when he was mere hours from his own suicide. The strain of such indomitible determination, in the face of apocalyptic stress, however, made a physical and mental wreck of Der Fuhrer. Hitler’s marked physical degeneration after 1941 was aggravated by the gross quackery of his physician Theodore Morell, an unhealthy lifestyle and injuries sustained in the 1944 bomb plot, but close associates like Speer had noted personality changes in Hitler as early as the latter’s fiftieth birthday when Hitler began to rigidly and monomaniacally focus on the war. Shuffling, beset by Parkinsonian symptoms, frequent rages and chronic insomnia, possibly addicted to stimulant drugs, Hitler’s sickly, grayish appearance often startled high Nazi officials who were granted increasingly rare audiences in Hitler’s final years.

3 Responses to “Triumph of the Will?”

  1. Lexington Green Says:

    So Stalin’s daily vodka binges with his murderous cronies at his dacha meant he had more willpower left over for more important stuff like smashing the Hitlerite beast?

    If we generalize from the simple case of two tasks in a row to a broader conclusion, this appears to go against at least 2,500 years of teaching, from Aristotle through Aquinas and down to Steven Covey — the idea that the will can be trained and strengthened by repeated practices of self-discipline and self-denial.

    We will need a few more studies before I believe that everybody has been wrong all these centuries, particularly where my own experience and observation is more coinsistent with what I will call the classical model.

  2. Lexington Green Says:

    OK. Having now read the DeAngelis articlen it IS consistent with the “classical model”.

    Our Western Heritage is secure, for now.

  3. zen Says:

    Good to know Lex 🙂

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