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 ...

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