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?
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Jul 12, 2012
Will power and free will are just terms for talking about our ability as humans to analyze our own tendencies and actions, and to then modify our own behavior going forward.

If you analyze your behavior or performance and perceive that you could change somehow to get a better result, if you are then able to manifest that change, you have exercised will power. Whether it was effortless or supremely difficult, it was will power.

If you can understand that will power and free will exist, and you can understand that you are not employing them as you should, then you are failing to exercise will power.

If you do not recognize that they exist and that you are not employing them, then you are a dumb animal.

Free will is essentially just will power: remembering that you have the ability to apply the same analysis and behavior modification to all situations, including those you have never encountered before.

So, let's review with some terribly black and white examples:

Reacting with no self-anyalysis: animal
Observing but not changing, more often than not: using too little will power
Observing and then changing, more often than not: using will power
Remembering to observe and change your behavior, or to predict your own behavior and pre-adjust: using free will
Jun 8, 2012
Here are some other reasons for the latest generations having no imagination:




+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 7, 2012
What did I write in the late 70s? Oh yes, it was this. "It takes no strength of will to resist temptation. It merely means that the desire to resist is the strongest temptation." Not bad for a teenager, eh?
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 4, 2012
I think you have imagination or you don't, even in this internet age there is a clear distinction between contributers and leechers. Imagination seems a character trait, I'm not sure one's imagination is determined by input.

What I do recognize though is that in general, multiple generations are starting to lack a general sense of depth. Everything is fast, superficial, and snack size. As a simple experiment, watch a video clip from the 70s and turn the sound off. Likely you'll see the artist physically performing with very little changes of scene. Now watch a video clip of a modern song, again with the sound turned off. You'll see hundreds if not thousands of scenes in short bursts and flashes, all within a few minutes.

I'm thinking this cannot be good for developing an attention span. And there's plenty of examples to go round. You see it clearly on the web. You could write a meaningful, life-changing article based on in-depth research and it will be ignored. The captioned cat picture however will go viral.

The other examples are our celebrities. Nobody knows a thing about the people that change this world for the better through science and hardship. Yet somehow everybody does know the daily routine of a random rich singer.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 4, 2012
Ever wonder about "those people" that just live in the moment?

These are the people that didn't try hard in school. They didn't plan for a financial rainy day. They might smoke and drink and harm their body intentionally.

But WHY?

The problem isn't that they don't have a good imagination. I agree, you could argue it's because they don't bother to plan for what life will be in 1, 5, 10, and 50 years in the future. But even that has a more fundamental root cause: Life in our society doesn't have consequences!

We treat people with kids gloves: We have numbed our children from the impacts of consequences - both good and bad.

You can't get a job? That's okay, we'll take care of you.
You're slow? That's okay, we will take care of you.
You're sick and can't pay your bills? That's okay, we'll take care of you.
You don't want to contribute to society? That's okay, someone is there to take care of you.

When there is no consequence to irresponsibility, there is no lesson learned, and no to be productive members of society. Instead, we teach the lesson of entitlement. What a damning lesson to teach!

We don't let kids feel pain when they fail. We don't let them celebrate the success of victory either. (It's not polite to gloat!) As a result, we inadvertently steal that pain or joy, that fundamental motivation that makes someone look forward in life to figure out a game plan in life.

People turn off their brains, and "live in the moment". Living on Auto-Pilot is safe, easy, and deadly. But sadly, "we" support it.

The real problem isn't a lack of imagination, it's a lack of consequences.

Lack of consequences is a fundamental problem. It's a cancer in our culture. I guarantee that if we don't fix it, eventually it'll fix itself.

The problem with spending other people's money to support the worthless is that someday the money runs out.

I just hope I'm not around when it does.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 4, 2012
Good post. The argument is plausible and there might be some experimental evidence to support it. Apparently, thinking about why you're doing something, rather than how, has the effective of increasing perseverance. Ironically, I think I read this in Baumeister and Tierney's 'Willpower'.

That said, I think imagination only partly explains poor future planning. A very imaginative person might focus his imagination on things other than his future, or focus on the future but be unrealistic.
Jun 4, 2012
I've been thinking about this very topic in the last week or so. Specifically about how millennia of agriculture and severe seasons likely altered populations differently in more extreme climates by selecting people with a stronger sense of delayed gratification and people who worry more about long term effects and punishing short-term thinkers. And, of course, killing off people who didn't worry in the summer and spring about winter needs like food and shelter.

When you look at Europe, most of the northern countries are doing better, economically, than most of the Mediterranean countries, largely because of differences in their long-term expectations and planning.
Jun 4, 2012
Coincidentally, my sister raised this topic last month. She works as an Early Childhood Educator caring for 2,3 and 4 year olds. She has worked at it for over 25 years and in the last 10 years she and her coworkers have noticed that increasingly even 3 year olds kids are unable to amuse themselves or self organize into games where they make up their own rules.

Without direction they just sit there waiting to be entertained or told what to do.

The cause is not clear, but 2 year olds do not spend a lot of time surfing the web. Maybe they are modelling the adults in their life?

+8 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 3, 2012
>>in an Internet world who no longer need to exercise their imaginations

I think that is a false and facile premise.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 3, 2012
I always thought the problem with TV isn't that is shows mindless dreck, it's that is shows the exact same mindless dreck to every single kid in the country. These days it's not even the country, it's the world. The program-du-jour is shown in every country in the world.

When these people grow up they'll all be the same, there's no variation. They'll all have the same ambitions, they'll all want the same sort of jobs and lifestyles. Society can't support that, it needs all sorts of different people with different skills to make it work.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 3, 2012
I think imagination is inversely related to the richness of sensorial input, either imposed or chosen. For instance, if you read a book your mind has to work a lot to create a picture of whatever the author describes. If you watch a 3D movie, you get image and sound all chewed up so you don't have to add too much.

Definitely the trend in entertainmet technology is to improve sensorial input. So yes, I think internet age kids are likely to have less imagination. And the "will power" connection with imagination? It sounds pretty logical.
Jun 3, 2012
I think diversification is the most important facilitate factor of imaginative thought. And so I would be lead to believe that any lack of diversification in any form will be the major hindrance of imagination to any generation, past, present, and future.

Language,Books, Radio, Tv, Video Games, and the Internet are all template tools for imagination.And as like any tool, they all have their strengths and limitations.

Different forms of media facilitate and influence different types of behavior and thinking processes. Video games are more attuned to instant gratification and ease in creating scenarios in mind , wheres books require more work and time to create a scenario.

I assume If a child is raised with only instantaneous forms of imaginative gratification, their future behaviors may be hard wired to prefer instant gratifying forms of imaginative thought when they become older. And their decisions and behaviors may also be more attuned to other forms of instantaneous forms of gratification as well.

So I think if future generations are only programmed to a non diverse imaginative stimuli. Then yes they will have less powers of imaginative thought than past generations.

With every generation there are new technology's to help template imagination, and the same has always applied to each generation.

Less diversity will equal less opportunity to create new Imagination.

As long as we, as a society promote diversification in stimuli we shouldn't have any major problems
Jun 2, 2012
"Do you think a kid born in the Internet age will have the same powers of imagination as older generations?"
Yes, if he/she is a writer or cartoonist or something that exercises the imagination!
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 2, 2012
Here's the TED talk that explains the principal behind the tool that contrasts your current self and future self when you make different choices about saving money. The theory behind it (whether will power is real or not) is also explained with a term in psychology called "commitment device":
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 2, 2012
I think it's a combination of experience and personal spectrum. I was always taught/pushed to work hard growing up, with the idea that doing so means you'll be rewarded.

These days, though, hard work doesn't always seem to translate into good results. For example, companies are discriminating against the unemployed - so if you're unemployed, the hard work of applying for jobs is going to start to feel hopeless. Another example, from my job - I recently moved into a budget position, and learned just how flat salaries are at my company. I've come across situations where someone is paid almost as much or more as me for apparently NOT doing their job, while I'm actually doing mine. Final example: the people who are getting government assistance/subsidies (and I'm talking about everyone from welfare cheats/baby factories to Curt Schilling walking off with Rhode Island's money).

I ask you, in situations like these (and I gave one liberal, centrist, and conservative example apiece), what good is willpower? Because mostly lately, I've felt like there is no point to making effort anymore, when everyone seems to be skating by and doing almost as well, or better, pretty much for free. THAT'S the problem with society, Scott. It started 100 years ago when the government decided to run everything and make sure "nobody went without." Except now plenty of people still go without, regular middle-class people who are honest are stuck making do with less and less to fund it, and the people who cheat (all the way from the top to the bottom) reap all the rewards.

It hasn't made me any less imaginative. For example, I can come up with *lots* of things I'd like to do the the cheaters and their enablers! ;)
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 2, 2012
Scott, you *yourself* only recently expressed skepticism about climate change, in your post about "complex systems". Shoulda known you were just trolling.
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 1, 2012
I think imagination is the wrong word for what you're talking about. Perhaps we need to coin a new word - persistent future vision. Because while I have a good imagination (IMHO), I do tend to go for immediate pleasure over long term stuff (at least in the cookie department). That said, my ability to convince myself that any of my imagined futures may be in any way close to reality is virtually non-existent. Maybe I have too much imagination - I don't just imagine one future, I imagine 6-10 different ones a day.
And I think your Internet generation thing falls down - while I am quite young (30ish) I grew up without running hot water, electricity etc :)
Jun 1, 2012
Don't worry about the kids -- they will be "standing on the shoulders of giants" as they say.

Jun 1, 2012
Imagination /= willpower.

It might fuel your motivations, but it's your will power that keeps you on course when things go bad. You can imagine a lot of things but some things require you to dig your heels in to complete. Likewise you can rationalize and wave those imaginations off if you want. Another argument is that you use your willpower to imagine things to give yourself motivation. It's a tool in the toolbox but not the same thing.
Jun 1, 2012
Funny enough, researchers are suggesting that today's kids have HIGHER powers of imagination than previous generations.


I kinda buy it. Just from observing my own kids, I am amazed with what they come up with sometimes. I don't think I was that imaginative.
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