Summary of Against Willpower

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Obesity. Unemployment. Poverty. People easily dismiss these social problems as failures of individuals with a lack of willpower. Columbia University psychiatrist Carl Erik Fisher warns against such oversimplification. Self-control relies on many factors in the brain, and people, he urges, need to stop overstating the importance of willpower. Follow Fisher’s intriguing history and convincing takedown of the pervasive, inaccurate and possibly toxic cultural concept. getAbstract suggests this piece to anyone who is at times struggling with being disciplined.

In this summary, you will learn

  • Why the concept of willpower is simplistic and inaccurate,
  • Why society’s obsession with willpower is toxic,  
  • How views on willpower changed over time, and
  • How considering more complex aspects of self-control could improve society.

About the Author

Carl Erik Fisher is an addiction psychiatrist and Columbia University assistant professor of clinical psychiatry.



Society’s and individuals’ obsession with willpower is toxic. The concept oversimplifies “a wide and often inconsistent range of cognitive functions” related to self-control.

Willpower has centuries-old roots in early Christianity. The word itself didn’t emerge until 1874 when Victorians blamed poor people’s substance abuse on the failure of willpower. Freud emphasized a conscience-like “superego,” but by the middle of the 20th century, B.F. Skinner suggested that people had no inherent ability to control their behavior. Other psychologists...

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