The Power of Free Will

11. February 2019 / in Self-Perception / by Elisabeth Stephan.

Thanks to the enlightenment in general and perhaps in particular, since turning eighteen or moving out of the parents house, most people have been enjoying self-determination (in varying intensity, depending on the political, religious, societal system to which they belong or in which they live). This hard earned freedom of will is of great value to us. 

Being in control of one’s own decisions and actions is no doubt the holy grail of contemporary society. Our path to (peruse) happiness is paved with freedom: we act, speak or think as we want. A small caveat: especially actions will often have to conform to social norms.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that, because our environment shapes our behavior too. As recent studies by Dan Airely (Professor of behavioral economics at Duke University) confirm, our surroundings have great influence on our actions. And because this is so, our (consumerist society) environment is shaped to induce certain behavior. Well designed advertisement campaigns are very effectual in eliciting the desired response from the consumer. Against our better judgment, we give in to instant gratification, even when we can see the possibly undesirable outcome. Our mind tricks us…

Visual perceptions

As do our eyes… Optical illusions are often cognitive (mis)perceptions where the visual precept seems to differ from reality. Unlike with other illusions that fool our senses, we keep seeing these distorting visual illusions even after having been show otherwise. We are unable to control our visual perception to see what we know in actuality to be true. We cannot will ourselves to see it. And we keep perceiving the illusion.

A perfect life

Similarly, with all the information about mind-full, healthy living, we don’t necessarily follow all the advice and live a near perfect life. There is a lot of information and advice out there, much of which can be deemed rational and logical as well as being supported by research and data. (If we were to follow all the recommendations, we may never finish our morning routine…) Mere knowledge doesn’t seem to help us too much in making smarter and healthier decisions.

How many of you slept as much as you feel you should last week? Eat healthy? Went for a walk or run or swim? Took some time to connect with loved ones? Didn’t fall into the bottomless hole of the social media abyss?

Often, we can experience the detrimental effects of some actions right away (not just the delayed reaction perhaps years later of habitual vices), and yet we do it again.

Using reason, we want to change our behavior. We set out to “be good” and then life and work just get in the way.

Life is complex and many facets play into our decision making process. Extensive studies suggest that too many options will yield an inability to make decisions while also costing us much mental energy.


What might be worse is, that willpower falls right into this category. Willpower (also known as self-discipline or self-control) is the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals or the capacity to override an impulse. For example, one might employ the cool cognitive system of behavior rather than the hot emotional system to respond to outside stimuli. This research has also shown, that it is a limited resource, capable of being depleted (ego-depletion) which also lowers mental energy.

Diminishing willpower seems to be a reality, with a tiered mind reaching for the cookie jar after bedtime. However, we also have the ability to change our environment so that the cookie jar is full of apples or better yet, short movement instructions that promote a good night’s sleep…

Our surroundings and established routines can make it hard to break habits. The structural power of the design of our environment sometimes acts against our will.

A coup d’état

Let’s have a coup d’état against these forces. Make a Ulysses Contract (recall the Sirens luring his ship to destruction) to gain power and control over your future self. Usually, this is an agreement you would make with yourself, but how about you give this authority to someone else?

Allowing someone to make decisions for you may seem strange to the enlightened individual. However, there are some scenarios where this voluntary surrender of power will enlarge your horizon and enable you to experience unexpectedly exciting things.

Take for example the Japanese culinary tradition of Omakase (meaning “I’ll leave it up to you”). When you order Omakase in a restaurant, you place your palate in the hands of the chef. She or he knows the produce best and will create an epicurious experience that may lead you to new discoveries and unexpected excitement of your taste buds. Some might jerk you out of your usual eating habits.

XuendR talents

In a similar manner, leaving your physical activity regiment to a professional (such as a XuendR talent) will free you in at least three ways:

  1. You don’t have to fight with yourself, you have given permission to this individual to tell you what you need to do. 
  2. You get to shift responsibility for any sore muscles to them! 
  3. You try new (maybe even) exciting things and feel revived and recharged and a general renewed interest in the world around you. 

Written by Elisabeth Stephan
a key XuendR talent

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