Willpower and Reward Myopia

Don’t let the immediate rewards of a bad behavior wash away your better knowledge and values. Prevent your imagination from being hijacked by myopic temptations — eliminate “reward myopia.”

For the sake of research and for developing good theories, researchers work with ideas that are boiled down. But what about real life? As we’ve seen from the my prior posts on the subject of willpower, we can take some very useful measures, and they aren’t all the kinds of obvious things that you didn’t need research to know.

But let’s kick the accountability factor up a notch: what if we look at willpower in a more expanded way? Anyone who has struggled with self-control knows that the idea that the self regulates bottom up impulses is not all that satisfying. There are many issues where it’s a matter of the self struggling with the self, or so it seems.

Consider the phenomenon of swearing off of big desserts for the sake of losing weight. Have you ever noticed how much less important that value is (or how it does a disappearing act) when it’s time for dessert? This happens in the early phase of commitment, when the idea is not so strong. When dieters build more resolve, and are conscious of the agenda when exposed to temptation, they experience the frustration of struggling with themselves. At least they do if their prefrontal cortex is humming along.

You could say that this is no different; that it is the self trying to regulate a bottom-up drive that is so strong that it causes rationalization. Thus, there is the illusion of self struggling with self. But this leads one to ask, “What is the self, then, if bottom-up drives can masquerade as the self?” “How do we know it isn’t all a masquerade?” This kind of question has vexed philosophers throughout history, with some abdicating to an “everything is an illusion” position.

For the practical purposes of a psychotherapist, or anyone concerned with self-help (or, more to the point, self-mastery), I suggest we bounce out of the either-or thinking and look at self as a spectrum that goes from:

a) Primitive drives evoked by various stimuli and internal processes, to

b) Values and goals that are well-orchestrated and articulated (using conscious, verbal mental processes that we identify with as the self).

Notes for nerds:

That definition of self is, as I mentioned, a practical tool. It doesn’t pretend to be a complete definition. But bear in mind that people do not identify with everything in consciousness, so is can be misleading to simply say that “consciousness” is self. I say this knowing that there are altered states of consciousness in which we can experience an expanded sense of consciousness that we experience as self plus a higher self or universal consciousness. It’s a very pleasant experience. Careful, though, as it can come with strings attached: Spiritualists can use that experience to “prove” their belief systems or extract a lot of time and money out of hopeful spiritual travelers.

The constructivist movement in psychotherapy is quite concerned with helping us align our behavior with our values in order to extricate us from various emotional maladies, so this “spectrum” perspective can help us digest constructivist thinking and make use of related approaches such as coherence therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy.

With this in mind, let’s have a look at an example of what we can apply to willpower by looking beyond the convenient definition of my previous recent blogs (top-down self-regulation fueled by glucose or other nutrients).

Consider the capacity to think ahead. People will difficulty in this area tend to get into trouble in various ways. They can make bad financial decisions or fall prey to addictions. Most of the folks in jail have trouble thinking ahead.

A recent study offers hope that this can be remediated, with life-changing results. Training to improve awareness and valuing of future rewards has been used in addiction treatment research.

In terms of the big picture, this is another step in our understanding of neuroplasticity: our ability to expand the functioning of our minds by beefing up our brains.

Notes for nerds:

The researchers call the problem “delay discounting,” that is, devaluing future rewards and punishments. The research was conducted with adults addicted to stimulants. The result was an improvement of 50% in reducing this problem, simply through neurocognitive training, that is, memory exercises. The researchers say this is the first study to show that this can be done.

This is part of a larger field of neurocognitive rehabilitation that holds the key to great progress in many areas such as recovery from severe mental illnesses.

Executive functioning is key to our sense of self-mastery, and this research targets an important aspect of executive functioning: short-tem memory. This shows that in one population of persons with addictions, short-term memory can be improved a great deal. Future research will need to look at other addictions. Can heroin addicts or glue sniffers get such improvements. Also, they’ll be looking to the bottom line: do they have lower relapse rates?

This research does not guarantee that we can get actual treatment outcomes such as preventing relapse from this approach; it did not go as far as to measure treatment outcomes. However, given the strong results of neurocognitive rehabilitation-informed approaches in severe mental illness, I think this research is a notable step in expanding our appreciation and acceptance of this as clinically viable.

I wrote about the value of willpower training (practicing self control) as demonstrated in research, where participants made improvements in various behaviors, not just the ones the training focused on. There was overall improvement; the training generalized. Have you added it, or some of the other gudelines, to your lifestyle?

I suggest you add this idea to your bouts of self-training: exercise your working memory. This scratchpad of the brain is an important part of your power to delay gratification in service of more valuable, but longer-term, objectives.

But how? Don’t we exercise it enough in managing our lives? Not if your goal is to get a “training effect” (strengthening above normal demands–remember, this is to help a weak area become stronger than normal life can achieve). Also, this will help build awareness of your short-term memory and opportunities to exercise it. You probably have a collection of tricks you use to extend short-term memory with external aids, such as notes, or doing something immediately, before you forget.

When the results would not be disastrous if you forget, spend some time each day putting yourself in a position where you have to juggle several things, but without the help of notes or other aids. You might wear yourself out if you tried this all day–and who knows what you might screw up if you dared–but there’s no harm in this exercise so long as you use a little common sense.

You may find you can do more than you thought, and you may become more aware of your limits so that you can exercise them in a more targeted way. More importantly, you will be extending your ability for forethought in ways that can serve you in mastering the behaviors that you want to change.


Bickel, W., Yi, R., Landes, R., Hill, P., & Baxter, C. (2011). Remember the Future: Working Memory Training Decreases Delay Discounting Among Stimulant Addicts Biological Psychiatry, 69 (3), 260-265 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.08.017

In this study, 27 adults in treatment for stimulant use were randomly assigned to receive either working memory training or control training according to a yoked experimental design. Measures of delay discounting and several other cognitive behaviors were assessed pre- and posttraining.

Rates of discounting of delayed rewards were significantly reduced among those who received memory training… Discount rates were positively correlated with memory training performance measures.

Robert A. Yourell, MA

Robert A. Yourell, MA, has extensive experience in the mental health and social services dating back to 1975. His training includes Ericksonian communication and hypnosis with John Grinder, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing with Francine Shapiro, PhD, Body Integrative Psychotherapy with Jack Rosenberg, PhD, and solution-focused psychotherapy. He provides free audio experiences on his site that include bilateral sound and Shimmering.
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