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Willpower may not always be what it seems

Why do some people seem to have willpower in abundance and others do not? For the latter, if willpower were air, they would suffocate; if it were water, they would die of thirst; and if it were food, they would starve to death.
Joseph Cramer, MD, Deseret News Modified: May 23, 2014 at 5:44 pm •  Published: May 28, 2014
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What is willpower? There are plenty of opinions about its presence and its absence.

We speak, preach and even pontificate of its virtues. We condemn, criticize and preach to those who seem to lack it. Yet I am uncertain that we really know what it is.

Every one of us knows someone who we can say has great willpower. It may be you. I would not say I fall into that category. However, this is not why I doubt that we have a universal understanding of what it is.

Why do some people seem to have willpower in abundance and others do not? For the latter, if willpower were air, they would suffocate; if it were water, they would die of thirst; and if it were food, they would starve to death. The people in between would be breathless, parched and hungry.

We use many words to define willpower. We say those with it have self-discipline. They are strong. They are mentally tough. They have self-control. But they may also be rigid or even have obsessive-compulsive disorder.

If someone has OCD and demands a clean room, we might call that person, based on surface appearances, a champion of willpower, especially in comparison to someone who tosses dirty shirts on the floor. But in reality, the first person has a defect in the part of the brain that shuts down circling nerve impulses.

If a person has anorexia nervosa and no one knows, his or her capacity to not eat much may be heralded by some as incredible self-control, when in actuality it is a symptom of a very serious mental biochemical disorder.