Willpower Bias

by Ken Arneson

This past weekend, I pulled out some crates so we could put away our Christmas ornaments.  My two-year-old daughter decided she wanted to pretend she was a Christmas present, and climbed into one of the crates.

“Close the lid,” she said.

I tried, but she didn’t fit.  “I can’t close it,” I said, “you’re too big.”

“Please?” she asked.

“You don’t fit,” I explained.  “Your head sticks out.  I can’t make you fit if you’re too big.”

“Please please PLEEEEEEASE?”

Two-year-olds see the world as entirely a function of their parents’ willpower. Anything that happens, or doesn’t happen, is because mommy and daddy want it that way—even whether or not a particular girl can fit into a particular box.

Of course, we get older and learn that the world is more complex than that, but that bias towards assuming the universe runs on willpower doesn’t completely go away. It’s built into our psychology, because of the very nature of human childhood.

And because it’s part of our psychology, this willpower bias also gets built into the very structures of our societies. Many of our religions believe a larger-scale version of the two-year-old’s assumption: that anything that happens is because God wants it that way. We see it in sports. We thank God if we win a sporting event, then say, “we didn’t want it enough” if we lose. We elect Presidents and Governors hoping for them to be parent-like and fix things through the force of their will. Every election cycle, we make them tell us over and over how they’re going to fix the economy, when in reality, they have very minimal influence on the economy. “Create jobs, please please PLEEEEEEASE?”

And even more insidiously, willpower bias is built into our languages. Consider these two sentences, one of the few examples where you can avoid willpower bias in the English language:

My arm was raised.


My arm rose.

Raise, like many other verbs in the English language, assumes some sort of willpower behind it, causing the action. The implicit full sentence is “My arm was raised by somebody.”

Rise, on the other hand, differs from raise in one key way: it does not assume an agent behind the action. There may have been willpower causing the arm rise, or there may not have been. But by choosing the world rise over the word raise, we are deliberately excluding any information on whether an agent caused the action. In some other languages, you can take any transitive verb and render it agentless with a grammatical marker, but this isn’t possible in English.

If you think, “so what?” then imagine how we’d think of the world if the word “rise” did not exist in English. You could not say, “The sun rises every day”. You’d have to say, “The sun is raised every day.” Which naturally leads you to wonder, by whom? Copernicus? Carl Sagan? Apollo? God?

If we are choosing a philosophy, it would be good if that philosophy possessed the equivalent of that grammatical marker which the English language is missing. We want our philosophy to be able to distinguish between the forces that can and should be influenced by willpower, those which operate independently, and the various shades in between. We want to choose a philosophy that is as effective as possible, and doesn’t leave us crying “Please please PLEEEEEEASE” in vain.