Can Virtuous Habits Be Cultivated?

Can virtuous habits be cultivated?
Can habits help us make better choices?
image: Getty
July 24, 2012

Editors' Note: Please post your comments and thoughts on our Facebook page.   Roy Baumeister, author of this essay and co-author of the book Willpower, participated in the comments section when this essay originally appeared on the site, but the comments are now closed. 

The shopper covets the expensive item and worries vaguely about the credit card bill. The dieter contemplates the fine dessert. The ex-addict looks longingly at the cigarette, the bottle, or the drug, recalling the sweet feelings but also the problems and promises. The man and woman prepare to kiss, warm with alcohol and new intimacy, but are held back by thoughts of their respective spouses back home.  The procrastinator thinks of the tough, worrisome task ahead but notes the deadline is still a week off, so perhaps it is fine to leave it one more day. Such moral and practical dilemmas pervade daily life.

Doing what is right requires strenuous effort to resist the alluring temptations of vice. You strive to resist selfish impulses and push yourself to do what moral duty prescribes. Virtue is hard work

Or is it? Could virtue become a habit — that is, a relatively effortless, automatic tendency to do what is morally right, with a minimum of inner struggle?

The answer to this question, crucial for understanding and improving the moral level of humanity, is emerging from scientific research on willpower. A recent study in which two hundred German citizens wore beepers for a week, and at random intervals reported on their desires at that moment, yielded a stunning finding. The researchers had sorted people into those with relatively good and relatively poor self-control based on questionnaires about their lives and habits. One fairly obvious prediction was that people with good self-control would resist desires more frequently than people with poor self-control. After all, that’s what self-control is for, to resist desires, right?

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But the results came out strongly in the opposite direction. People with good self-control were less likely than others to resist desires as they went about their daily lives. How could this be? The answer is that people with good self-control avoid temptations and problem situations, rather than battling with them. Other research confirmed that self-control works most effectively by means of controlling habits, rather than by using willpower for direct control of one’s actions in the heat of the moment.

Self-control is sometimes called the “moral muscle” because it furnishes the basic ability to do the right thing. Most vices and sins involve failures of self-control, and most virtues indicate good self-control. Until recently, it was standard to think of self-control in terms of heroic single feats of willpower, such as for resisting a strong temptation. But much of the new evidence suggests that self-control is most effective when it operates through habits. People use their self-control to break bad habits and establish good ones, and then life can run smoothly and successfully, with low levels of stress, regret, and guilt.

Viewed in that perspective, virtue is best achieved when self-control is exerted so as to establish habits of good behavior. Part of the reason is that using willpower to resist temptation is a strenuous, costly business with unreliable results. Habits are far more reliable than that.

Two decades’ worth of lab research has established that willpower is limited, and exerting self-control to resist impulses or change your actions depletes it. Like all living things, humans naturally seek to conserve their energy, and so exerting self-control to resist temptation or take the path of virtue encounters a natural reluctance (which some moralists would call laziness, or worse). And if the temptation or impulse arises when your willpower has already been depleted by other demands, then your odds of resisting go down, and you do something you’ll regret. That’s why you shouldn’t plan on achieving virtue by relying on willpower to get you through crises, temptations, and other problem situations. Willpower fluctuates, and you can’t count on always having enough.

Instead, if you use willpower to establish virtuous habits, the danger of succumbing to impulse or temptation is reduced. The human psyche is well designed to acquire habits (both good and bad). Doing something new and different takes effort and attention, and sometimes plenty of thought and emotion. In contrast, doing something by habit requires none of those, or at most a very small amount. To conserve the limited mental and physical energy that people have, nature has designed us to convert novel exertions into easy habits. This occurs over time, with repeated practice. Can you remember your initial struggles with a bicycle, a surfboard, a computer keyboard and mouse, a tennis racquet? Yet after enough repetitions, one uses those same items efficiently and effectively, with hardly a thought or error. The human mind’s ability to convert difficult action into easy deft habit is remarkable.

Habits of virtue can be a godsend. Seated at dinner as the waiter begins to serve wine, I have watched and admired how the recovered alcoholic deftly covers his glass with his hand to signal “none for me.” Not so long ago, perhaps, saying no required of him much struggle and anguish. If every offer of wine took as much effort as on his first day of sobriety, it is a fair bet that he would have fallen off the wagon countless times. But it gets easier, thanks to the miracle of habit. Of course, the habit did not appear by magic or wish or resolve. It took willpower to make the refusals habitual.

How far can we rely on virtuous habits? The strongest desires and most problematic temptations probably cannot be defeated by habits alone. But cultivating virtuous habits in many areas can conserve your willpower for when you really need it. This explains the problems of people with characteristically poor self-control. They expend their willpower in ordinary things, like deciding what to eat and whether to blurt out some angry thought. When a more serious temptation comes along, their willpower is depleted, and they succumb. In contrast, people with virtuous habits conserve their willpower for when they really need it.

Indeed, it is questionable whether resisting a strong temptation or impulse can ever become entirely habitual. Virtuous habits are much more successful at avoiding those temptations and impulses than trying to stifle them once they are felt.

To understand this, it is necessary to ponder the question of whether temptation is inside or outside the person. Almost certainly it is both. Although there may be some impulses that arise entirely from inside the body, far more of them are triggered by external objects. Yet these same objects do not trigger everyone equally. They only tempt people who have such desires. So the problem situation — a tempting impulse to do something against one’s values — arises mainly when inner drives meet up with opportunities to indulge them. It takes both a suitably inclined person and the compromising situation to create the maximum temptation. In such situations, habits may help some, but willpower will almost certainly be required. At that point it may be too late for habits to help much.

The solution is not to get to that point. Virtuous habits may be more effective at avoiding temptation than at resisting it. The desires inside oneself cannot be eliminated. (This is probably why many of the great saints of history described themselves as terrible sinners. They knew that they had plenty of sinful desires. But virtue is not the absence of desire for sin — it is the absence of sin despite the desire to sin!) One can prevent inner inclinations and weaknesses from blossoming into full-blown cravings and desires by avoiding the external circumstances that trigger them. The recovering alcoholic knows to avoid bars. The veteran dieter knows not to keep fattening foods available at home. In such cases, even if the inner drive does occasionally produce a strong, specific desire once in a while, the lack of opportunity saves the day. There may be a moment of weakness, when willpower is low and sweet memories lead to cravings, but if there are no pastries or cigarettes or drinks available, virtue remains intact despite the fact that the person is briefly willing to give in.

Playing goalkeeper for my high school soccer team taught me a useful lesson that is relevant here. People told me that the goalie’s job is to block shots, and so I practiced trying to dive and jump to block the balls kicked my way. Yet I could tell I was not making much progress. Deducing that my coach was useless, I went to games and watched how the best goalkeepers played. I noticed that they did not block very many shots. Instead, they prevented shots from happening. They would quietly move forward as the other team passed the ball back and forth, watching for just the moment to intercept a pass, before it was ever kicked earnestly toward the goal. The post game stats might show only a couple blocked shots, suggesting the goalie had not done much, but the truth was that they had prevented more shots than they blocked. And it looked much easier than waiting in the goal and then trying to stop a swerving ball coming right at the goal with the full force of a powerful kick.

 In the same way, people with good self-control achieve virtue in a seemingly easy, undramatic fashion. We may reserve our admiration for the most dramatic cases, in which someone heroically does the right thing despite being strongly tempted to do otherwise. But everyday virtue is best achieved not by such heroic feats of willpower, but rather by avoiding such situations in the first place.  By pulling together many small habits, especially for avoiding temptations and problems, one can live a more virtuous life.   

Questions for Discussion

1. Are there forms of moral and virtuous behavior that do not involve self-control?

2. Do people ever fully recover from addiction?

3. Do you have any suggestions for bringing up children with willpower and good habits?