As Paul talked about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” (Acts 24:25)
Talk about righteousness, self-control, and judgment often elicits strong responses. But rather than avoiding further discussion as Felix did, disputants sometimes behave more like the riot at Ephesus. Few topics in social science right now are hotter than willpower and self-control, considering both the number of studies on the subject and the disputes over their validity.
“I’ve become increasingly skeptical about the very concept of willpower,” clinical psychologist Carl Erik Fisher wrote in the popular science journal Nautilus as we were finishing our May issue. “It’s time to get rid of it altogether.” Academic discussions of self-control, he argued, are too wrapped up in “roots in Judeo-Christian ideas about resisting sinful impulses” and “Victorian moralizing.”
Meanwhile, some key studies on willpower, self-control, and “ego depletion” are at the center of what some are calling a replication crisis. Some efforts to repeat major experiments in this field haven’t been able to reproduce the studies’ findings. Then again, other efforts are working just fine.
Granted, some of those disputed findings were weird in the first place. One peer-reviewed paper that got a lot of attention in 2012 reported that just gargling sugar water could significantly boost short-term self-control. (The thinking is that glucose alerts motivational centers in the brain; spitting it out avoids the negative effects sugar has on self-control.) There’s still a lot of research surrounding the relationship between sugar and self-control, but scientists these days are mostly skeptical about the promises of glucose gargling.
I first talked about exploring some of these issues with University of Connecticut sociologist Brad Wright as he worked on his CT cover story on how churches welcome people of different ethnicities (“Dear Pastor, Can I Come to Your Church?” July/August 2015). It turned out that he had his own self-control study planned, so he was deeply aware of the debates. With that study now published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, he guides CT readers through what social science really has learned about self-control and willpower.
I’m grateful that Wright knows where the social science is solid and where it’s murky. But more importantly, I’m glad that he actually believes those “Judeo-Christian ideas about resisting sinful impulses.” Likewise, I’m glad that it’s not about “Victorian moralizing” for him, but about rightly receiving gifts from God. It’s less about the judgment to come and less about putting ourselves under our own self’s control than it is about bringing ourselves under the control of the one who has saved us from judgment. That’s enough for now! Go read Brad’s article.