T Nation

Is it really all about willpower?

I was reading through all the recent discussions about the fat people not being able to lose weight, and almost everybody’s answer was that they simply didn’t try hard enough.
Many people claim that they don’t have good genetics for muscle growth; therefore they train harder and eat right. Some weren’t born geniuses, so they bust their asses in school and work hard to become successful. Others weren’t born into a privileged household, so they also have to work hard and persevere. Now, what do all these people have in common? Willpower.
I believe that everyone here can agree that not all people are born equal. Everyone is deficient in some quality or characteristic.

This sparked this question in me: Is it possible for someone to simply be born with a very low or almost non-existent sense of motivation and willpower? After all it is possible for someone to be born without a sense of humor, without athleticism, without a high IQ. So why isn't it possible for someone to be born with a lacking quality of willpower?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I also get pissed when people claim that they “just can’t do it”. I always think to myself “well, then work hard enough you lazy piece of shit!”. Well, what if they just can’t? What if they weren’t born with that quality?

All behavioral traits and most physical traits are the result of the interaction between nature (genetics) and nurture (environment); ergo, no, I don’t think anyone is born with incurably low willpower.

As a sociologist, I must comment. We are, in my opinion anyway, more products of our environment than our genetics. We have genetic tendencies, but they can be easily and readily nullified through socialization (this is only my belief, but it is backed up by years of training). Hair, eye, and skin color, not to mention height and body type, are genetic traits, and if we wish to change them, we can do so cosmetically. I don’t think that “motivation” is a genetic trait. It’s a trait that is established and cultivated through the process of socialization.

I’m not sure it’s a case of overweight people not trying “hard” enough. I think it’s a case of them not trying SMART enough, or not caring to try at all. With the proper influence and encouragement, a so called “unmotivated person” can nurture the spark inside themselves and make changes that will have positive benefits for the rest of their lives.

It’s all about choices. You can make a conscious choice to not care and take the easy way and just say screw it, or you can choose to try and do the right thing - the right thing for yourself and the right thing for your family. You chose. We all have to chose every morning to make the effort. I’ll soon be 45 and it hasn’t been an easy road…it’s taken determination just like the determination to succeed at everything else we do. Some people just want to coast by life on the shirt tails of everybody else. And to pity them is to enable them.

An interesting book on this (though certainly somewhat strange) is “Will” by G Gordon Liddy.

As a child he was fearful of everything and
had almost no ability to persevere in anything, no will. He recognized this lack and worked to overcome it in his own odd way, successfully in his case, though the method could hardly be recommended in general.

I will eat them as they are not human. They are just prey to me.

I accept the fact that there are probably some people born with brain-chemistry problems, such as inability to process or uptake serotonin, who have a problem with willpower. However, these people classically manifest lack of willpower in all areas, not just in being big fat tubs of goo. In general, people with such problems get locked up for not controlling criminal impulses to burn things, steal things, touch people, etc.


Anyhow, I may not have a degree in genetics, but I daresay that from what I understand, it would be impossible for the rate of increase in obesity in this country to possibly be accounted for by a corresponding increase in genetic thyroid and will problems. Genes don’t change that quickly (it takes at minimum multiple tens of thousands of years for Chrissakes), and we didn’t have that many obese people in previous generations. Look to lifestyle and diet changes and you’ll find your culprits for the number of blobs we have in the U.S. today.

Interesting idea. Of course, if someone WERE born without any willpower, then I guess it would be a disadvantage and nature would select them out, so to speak.

And yes, for anyone who's interested, "Will" is a great read. So are Liddy's other two books (the names of which escape me right at the moment), which are action/spy-type thrillers. Met G. Gordon once...an impressive (if somewhat odd) man.

If somebody would break one bone in their body with a big hammer everytime they “couldn’t do it” their willpower / motivation would eventually rise dramatically (even if they weren’t born with it).

I think the issue is motivation. Overweight people are unmotivated to change. There are two parts to motivation, however; needs and belief. I believe that some overweight people don’t feel a strong enough need to lose weight, plain and simple. In other words, they don’t really want to lose weight badly enough to actually do it. Sometimes a heart attack will change that, sometimes seeing a fried lose a lot of weight, and sometimes just being sick and tired of being obese will do it. I also believe that the belief side of motivation is a major reason why some obese people stay that way. If you believe you can’t lose weight, then you won’t be motivated to try. Listening to somebody tell you that you have a genetic predisposition to being overweight and that exercise and dieting is futile reinforces that type of false belief. Every fat person on the planet could become motivated to lose weight…if they only felt the need to do so and developed the belief that it could be done.

i agree with demo dick… they’re products of their environment. a great majority of these majorly obese people are in the lower class, low incomes. But are they intelligent people ? not really…but some are… DID they have the capability of being intelligent…??.. probably… the sad thing is that these people growing up were living with fat parents, learned bad habits, and not nurtured to have self-esteem. when you grow up, willpower to change your entire way of life is almost non-existent, but can slowly be learned. but it’s a patern of living since birth that has to be re-wired in their brain… but it’s not impossible… OK… all diets don’t work for all people… and excersize doesn’t come easy…people need to set little goals…several little goals… not a big, seemingly un-obtainable goals… i think if a fat person can eat just one sensible meal a day to start, it could change a lot of things for them…being able to accomplish just the smallest of goals can help in building the self-esteem and willpower to want to do a little bit more…then a little more, and so on…

i think willpower comes from peoples deepest parts of their mind. If someone can desire something so bad that they will not accept failure and consequently never give up, they will find that they are quite a bit “tougher” than they thought. But definately if they believe the bullshit they see everyday from their environment-- with their parents being fatasses or whatever, then they dont believe really that they can achieve being lean and consequently most dont.

This is a good one…


There are certain abstracts, concepts, ideas, etc. that perhaps can exist in isolation. (An example is “thirst”), but many do not, ESPECIALLY when you get into the areas of “desire” or “will”.


The point? I don’t think “willpower” can exist independant of a much desired goal, and how strong reaching that goal is to the individual. Most of us in our lives have had things that we needed and/or wanted that we would stive as hard as we could, against all odds, to achieve it. We also have had many things that were “…take it or leave it…”


The problem with reaching health and fitness goals above and beyond the “average Jane or Joe” is that we have physiology, biochemistry and appetites working 24-7 against us. In other words…lifting weights, dieting, cardio and aerobics, measuring food…this stuff is HARD!!!


But for me (and I would guess many on this site), the rewards are much greater…thus our “willpower” or simply “will” to succeed is made that much stronger.

Well to answer one of your questions, yes, there are genetic limitations when it comes to willpower but in a select few. The brain produces a wide array of chemicals. A lot of people who tend to be obese tend to lack, at least in current studies, usually a defficient thyroid (people with slower metabolisms are said to have less motivation, more impulsive, more angry, etc…), lack of seretonin (controls carbohydrate appetite, helps with sleep, prevents the release of cortisol…basically, makes you feel better about things), and/or dopamine (dopamine is highly associated with willpower as is seretonin but dopamine more importantly. It is also believed to work in an amphetamine-like manner which inhibits appetite, yet increases metabolism. It is resposible for sex drive and most certainly will power. It is however catabolic I believe). Some people have an excess release of cortisol from their adrenal glands (cushing’s disease: so their body’s are very fat and have little muscle definition, no matter how much they exercise…One of my friend’s cats has it and she is a real plump cat even though my friend walks her everyday for at least an hour.)Other factors which may influence obesity are appetite receptors in the brain. Studies at least in rats have shown that some mice have more or less appetite receptors. Who’s to say the same could not be true for humans? Also, obese people have a harder time losing weight than skinnier people, not just because of genetics or environment, but because they have more fat and muscle cells their body is telling them to maintain. Even after rigorous weight-loss from obesity, the body still maintains much of the fat and muscle cells it used to have despite them being smaller in size (hyperplasiac), and the appetite tends to be greater for such individuals than say, someone who might weigh the same, be the same height, and have the same activity level. Other factors which play a role is the hormone (I believe it’s a hormone), leptin. Leptin is released by fat cells. It supposedly lowers appetite and increases metabolism. Mice have been shown to have tendencies of obesity yet ate the same as thin mice due to leptin defficencies despite a high number of fat cells, some all together produced no leptin at all. Leptin is also responsible for an increase in activity level. It is highly analogous to a CNS (centeral nervous system) stimulant like an amphetamine for example. It is also harder for an obese person because they tend to have a larger bone structure. Bigger bones tend to be a bi-product of estrogen which of course is something that will stimulate you to store fat. Basically: lareger bone = more food consumption and perhaps, lowered protein synthesis and better fat conversion (if genetic). Other people have very low insulin resistance and because of that, they might get big fast, but in the long run, too many carbs makes them blow up. This tends to ring quite true for a lot of endomorphs. I will admit, not all of it is genetic, but much of it is overlooked. Our ancestors thousands of years ago did not have the luxury of popping food from the fridge in the microwave…they had to get off their asses and hunt. Lowered metabolism probably equaled a better chance for survival. Today, we live in a totally different environment contrary to what most of our bodies want us to do. So yes, some is very much environment. What can I say, some people can sit on their ass all day and never gain weight, others could run a marathon and work out everyday and they still go through hell to keep the fat off. Life isn’t fair but we learn from its inequities I say. :slight_smile:

I suppose that my vantage is slightly different but I wanted to make a comment anyways and hopefully others in the coaching profession will join in. As noted there are many elements that impact upon “willpower” - so many young men & women don’t have an influence to “lead them through the fire”. Each individual responds differently to the challenge and as a coach my role is to teach them that within them lays greatness. “Human will is indefesible”- In faith, Coach Davies