A scientific squabble over how to define self-control draws from an unlikely source: A story from Greek mythology.

Sailing home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, Odysseus longed to hear the Sirens’ legendary song. But he knew that was a very bad idea. The Sirens, the goddess Circe had warned, lured passing sailors to their island to kill them. So Circe helped Odysseus form a plan. As his boat approached the Sirens’ island, Odysseus handed crew members balls of wax to plug their ears, and he ordered the men to tie him firmly to the boat’s mast. He told the crew to tie him tighter if he begged and pleaded to heed the Sirens’ call. His plan in place, Odysseus was able to both hear the Sirens and live to tell the tale.

The science is clear. Proverbially tying oneself to the mast — or crafting strategies in advance to thwart temptation — is the optimal way to meet one’s goals. But not all agree that such preemptive strategies constitute self-control.

Social psychologists say Odysseus utilized exemplary self-control. That’s because they tend to distinguish between strategic self-control — that is, the Odysseus approach — and willpower. Willpower would be akin to Odysseus resisting the Sirens’ call in the moment without rope and muscular crewmen. 

Some social scientists, though, have started to push back against that linguistic split. Most laypeople use both willpower and self-control to refer to resisting temptation in the moment, says Chandra Sripada, a psychiatric neuroscientist and philosopher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. As such, they view Odysseus’ decision to tie himself to the mast not as an act of self-control but an admission that he lacked it.

“The Odysseus case is a vivid example of how precommitment, preplanning and things like that aren’t called by ordinary people self-control,” Sripada says.

Read the complete article in Science News