Non-psychological weakness of will: self-control, stereotypes, and consequences


Prior work on weakness of will has assumed that it is a thoroughly psychological phenomenon. At least, it has assumed that ordinary attributions of weakness of will are purely psychological attributions, keyed to the violation of practical commitments by the weak-willed agent. Debate has recently focused on which sort of practical commitment, intention or normative judgment, is more central to the ordinary concept of weakness of will. We report five experiments that significantly advance our understanding of weakness of will attributions by showing that the ordinary concept of weakness of will is less thoroughly psychological than the philosophical debate has assumed. We begin by showing that a sizable minority of people attribute weakness of will even in the absence of a violated commitment (Experiment 1). We then show that weakness of will attributions are sensitive to two important non-psychological factors. First, for actions stereotypically associated with weakness of will, the absence of certain commitments often triggers weakness of will attributions (Experiments 2–4). Second, the quality of an action’s outcome affects the extent to which an agent is viewed as weak-willed: actions with bad consequences are more likely to be viewed as weak-willed (Experiment 5). Our most important finding is that the ordinary concept of weakness of will is sensitive to two non-psychological factors and is thus much broader than philosophers have thus far imagined. We conclude by suggesting a two-tier model that unites our findings with traditional philosophical theorizing about weakness of will.

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  1. 1.

    There is a further difference between the two views that is not explored in the recent debate between Mele and May & Holton. On Holton’s model, weakness of will frequently involves irrationally revising one’s commitments so that at the time of action there is no inconsistency between judgment, intention, and action (2009). Mele, by contrast, emphasizes that core cases involve an agent who is consciously aware, at the time of action, that she is violating her own commitments (2012).

  2. 2.

    Twenty-nine female, aged 18–62, mean age = 30.4, 97 % reporting native competence in English. Data from four participants who had participated in a previous study were excluded from the analysis. As with the experiments reported below, participants were recruited using Amazon Mechanical Turk and compensated $.30 for approximately 2–3 minutes of their time. Participation was restricted to United States residents. They filled out a brief demographic survey after testing.

  3. 3.

    We report effect sizes using Cohen’s d (1988), which is a standard statistic for interpreting effect size when comparing mean differences (“MD” abbreviates “mean difference”). We follow Ellis (2010) for interpreting the magnitude of effect sizes. For d, values greater than or equal to .80 are large, greater than or equal to .50 but less than .80 are medium, and greater than or equal to .30 but less than .50 are small.

  4. 4.

    Fifty percent attributed weakness of will to a professional assassin who entertained doubts about killing, decided that the best thing to do was to continue killing, resolved to do so, and then killed. By contrast, only 15 % attributed strength of will.

  5. 5.

    As will become clear below, to call such a factor ‘non-psychological’ simply means that weakness of will is not identified with the presence of any particular psychological process or state such as the violation of a commitment or the presence of particular judgment or intention. It does not mean that weakness of will does not involve intentional actions brought about by psychological processes.

  6. 6.

    Again we note that cases like this do not involve seriously immoral actions. Indeed, they arguably don’t involve immorality at all.

  7. 7.

    Fifty-five female, aged 18–64, mean age = 32, 94 % reporting native competence in English.

  8. 8.

    Interestingly, participants in the Stereotypical condition more strongly agreed that Beth knew it was bad for her to continue eating than that it was bad for her to continue eating, one-sample t test, \(t\)(29) \(=-\)2.80, \(p = .009\), MD \(=\) 0.86, test proportion \(=\) 4.47.

  9. 9.

    Interestingly, again, participants in the Stereotypical condition more strongly agreed that Jesse knew it was bad for him to continue drinking than that it was bad for him to continue drinking, one-sample t test, \(t(30) = 2.45\), \(p = .020\), MD \(=\) 0.515, test proportion \(=\) 5.13. Moreover, the same was true for participants in the Nonstereotypical condition with respect to continuing to add cards, \(t\)(30) \(=\) 3.476, \(p < .002,\) MD \(=\) 0.90, test proportion \(=\) 4.39.

  10. 10.

    Thirty-eight female, aged 18–68, mean age \(=\) 30, 95 % reporting native competence in English.

  11. 11.

    Knobe’s previous work suggests that folk psychological attributions are sensitive to the valence of normative considerations that extend beyond the narrowly moral. See e.g. Pettit and Knobe (2009).

  12. 12.

    Twenty-eight female, aged 18–55, mean age \(=\) 30.8, 92 % reporting native competence in English.

  13. 13.

    A referee suggests that weakness of will might not come in degrees, which if true would make responses in this experiment harder to interpret. In reply, we don’t see any reason, either intuitive or theoretical, why weakness of will would be any different from strength of will or willpower in this respect, which both come in degrees. And while further empirical work could prove otherwise, we think it’s perfectly intelligible to judge one person more weak-willed than another. In any event, the pattern in mode responses is still quite revealing.

  14. 14.

    Thirty-seven female, aged 18–77, mean age \(=\) 28, 98 % reporting native competence in English. We excluded data from twenty-nine participants who failed comprehension questions. Including these participants in the analysis didn’t significantly affect the results reported below.

  15. 15.

    Other than the relevant mental state, the difference between the two conditions is that in Resolution (but not in Judgment) Peter does not violate a commitment that he has at the time of action, since he has revised his commitment. Such resolution-revision is, for Holton, characteristic of weakness of will. Previous experimental work (not reported here) revealed that participants overwhelmingly described both forms of commitment violations as instances of weakness of will.

  16. 16.

    Follow-up studies (not reported here) revealed that when the outcome isn’t specified at all (i.e. no mention of how Peter did on the test), participant response doesn’t differ significantly from when a bad outcome is specified. This is unsurprising, since participants are likely to infer a bad outcome, given the details of the case.

  17. 17.

    Jeanette Kennett (2014) has recently defended a model of addiction as lack of self-control that includes a similar suggestion. According to Kennett, some addicts “simply cannot conceive of the value to be found in dedication to long-term projects” (p. 157), while others can conceive of such value but do not believe that such lives are open to them. Both of them therefore fail to form the sorts of commitments necessary to secure such values. Kennett counts both forms of addiction as failures of self-control. We thank a reviewer for Synthese for bringing Kennett’s paper to our attention.

  18. 18.

    In addition to Mele (2012) and Holton (2009), a similar view is defended in e.g. Smith (2003) and Cohen and Handfield (2010).


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For helpful discussion and feedback, we thank Wesley Buckwalter, Joshua Knobe, Alfred Mele, Josh May, James Beebe, Ryan Ehrlich, Richard Forbes, Natalie Galloway, Julia Hill, Charles Millar, Jay Solanski, Ayomide Yomi-Odedeyi, Angelo Turri, Christine Tappolet, the audience at the 2014 Canadian Philosophical Association meetings at Brock University, and the anonymous referees at Synthese. This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and an Early Researcher Award from the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation.

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Doucet, M., Turri, J. Non-psychological weakness of will: self-control, stereotypes, and consequences. Synthese 191, 3935–3954 (2014).

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  • Weakness of will
  • Akrasia
  • Self-control
  • Resolution
  • Intention
  • Commitment violation
  • experimental philosophy
  • Folk psychology