Will Power and Imagination
Will Power and Imagination
June 1, 2012
As regular readers know, I don’t believe will power is a real thing. It’s an unnecessary complication to the simple observation that people pursue whatever paths they think will generate the greatest happiness. If I decline a cookie and you don’t, it’s not because I have greater willpower; it’s probably because you enjoy cookies more than I do, or you’re hungrier, or I have a dental appointment. We are just moist robots executing our programs. Willpower is nothing but cause and effect romanticized.
I have a hypothesis that a person’s ability to forgo short term pleasure in favor of future gains is largely a function of imagination. If you improve a person’s imagination, you will improve his so-called emotional intelligence.
A recent study found that people will save more for retirement if they see a digitally aged picture of themselves. In other words, when you help people imagine their own futures, they make different choices. So the science lines up with my hypothesis at least that far.
I came to my hypothesis about imagination and willpower by observing people who routinely choose short term happiness over long term payoffs. If you ask enough questions, you’ll find that people of that sort don’t have an imagined future. Ask where they expect to be in five years and you’ll get a shrug.
I’m the opposite. I’ve always imagined my future in great detail. If you observed my life over the years, you’d see what looks like loads of willpower. I got good grades in school, avoided the worst physical and legal risks, worked long hours, saved for my retirement, and stayed fit. According to my hypothesis, it probably means I have a good imagination. And I do. As a kid I always imagined myself in my retirement years. I could see my future home so vividly that I could walk through it like a 3D model. By the time I was in kindergarten I could tell you what my face would look like in retirement, how I would feel, and even how I would dress. I’m not saying my imagination was accurate, just vivid and persistent.
If my hypothesis is correct, and imagination drives our choices, what happens to kids in an Internet world who no longer need to exercise their imaginations? When I was a kid, imagination was essential for turning sticks into rifles and trees into enemy combatants. Today a kid just grabs a joystick and lets the game designers do the imagining for him.
My prediction is that people raised in the Internet age will have less practice using their imaginations, and as a result will have less of what society labels as willpower, or emotional intelligence. That should translate into greater rates of obesity, unbalanced national budgets, skepticism about climate change, and lots of people graduating with useless degrees. Hmm.
Do you think a kid born in the Internet age will have the same powers of imagination as older generations?