Peed Us Not Into Temptation

Bladders and Willpower in King Louis XIV’s France

King Louis XIV, according to some historical accounts, had an extraordinarily resilient bladder. That is, he had a nearly superhuman ability to postpone his trips to the chamberpot whenever he found it strategically advantageous. And it turns out that as the most powerful leader of an entire continent, as a monarch who regularly hosted and negotiated with foreign dignitaries at his opulent palace at Versailles, he was given many opportunities to leverage his unique physiological gift.

For a visitor riding alongside Louis the God-Given and his guards in a bumpy, bladder-jostling carriage through endless stretches of immaculately trimmed foliage, it was not only gauche to request an interruption of the discussion to dismount and pee, but also a sort of concession. Bladder-stretching wasn’t upper-class sport quite the same way billiards, hunting, and jeu du paume were, but it was nonetheless an explicit demonstration to the visitor that the most immediately relevant parts of his mental and physical makeup were inferior to those of his majestic host. Not even the most eloquent and high-minded European nobility could escape the binding power of a good competition.

The guest was squeezed between two extremes of social interaction: the cerebral and fastidious etiquette of the aristocracy on one side, and on the other, a primal, ego-driven desire not to be physically outdone by an adversary. King Louis XIV, thus, occasionally enjoyed the advantage of negotiating a treaty or a trade deal with a man who was trying desperately to keep from wetting himself.

King Louis XIV

The king’s pee-postponing prowess—and the fidgeting and leg-crossing it imposed on his guests—offer a case study in willpower, a concept that has recently come under scientific scrutiny. One of the most influential psychological studies of willpower is Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment, in which he allowed children to choose either to eat a marshmallow immediately or to resist the temptation for about 15 minutes and receive two marshmallows. Those who were able to delay their gratification and double their reward, he found, had more professional and educational success later in life.

Mischel’s finding helped advance the idea that the key to developing healthy habits is active resistance—that in order to avoid eating a marshmallow, for example, you should furrow your brows, clench your fists, and mentally beat back the waves of temptation. And indeed, this may be what King Louis XIV had in mind when he put his guests through the urinary gauntlet. In Western culture, the notion of summoning one’s willpower to triumph over temptation stretches as far back as Adam and Eve’s apparent failure to do so in the Garden of Eden. A crucial tenet of Christianity is the divinity of willpower and the perils of its absence, and in light of the many ways King Louis XIV cultivated an image of divinity, it doesn’t seem out of character for him to have made a willpower-based game of resisting the chamberpot.

But most people aren’t totalitarians who fancy themselves direct representatives of God. Most people are just trying to get better at turning down marshmallows. And it turns out that in the everyday practice of making good decisions, relying on willpower is a pretty bad strategy.

Marina Milyavskaya and Michael Inzlicht conducted a study that illustrates willpower’s inadequacy. They asked people to describe their goals—e.g., to “improve my health” or “learn French” or “train myself to hold my pee for at least three hours”—and then asked them several times a day for a week to report the temptations they faced in the moment and how they reacted to them. What they found was somewhat counterintuitive: Exposure to temptation, not effortful self-restraint, was associated with goal attainment. In other words, the people who reached their goals weren’t the ones who practiced active resistance, but rather the ones who simply experienced less temptation.

A meta-analysis of the behavior of people with high levels of self-control reached a similar conclusion: People who can restrain themselves, it seems, don’t solve the problem of temptation with sheer mental effort. They solve it structurally, by establishing habits and routines that reduce their overall exposure to temptation. “People who are good at self-control…seem to be structuring their lives in a way to avoid having to make a self-control decision in the first place,” said Brian Galla, author of the meta-analysis, in an interview with Vox’s Brian Resnick.

A visitor to King Louis XIV’s Versailles, therefore, shouldn’t have tried to overcome the urge to pee by mustering up his mental fortitude. He should have preempted the urge by avoiding a drawn-out carriage ride alongside a megalomaniac.

Hop in—there’s free coffee.

But what about when you’re already face-to-face with temptation and no preemptive action can save you? What recourse do you have when you’ve already stepped inside the carriage and you start to feel that ominous pressure in your lower abdomen?

One option is to cultivate a sense of compassion for your future self. Although it may sound like it was pulled from a Tony Robbins seminar, the idea has a good deal of scientific support.

Consider a study by Hal Hershfield that found that people were more willing to save money for the future after interacting with virtual, digitally age-progressed versions of themselves. In one part of the experiment, Hershfield manipulated the digital avatars to express different emotions and saw that people were even more willing to save if their older selves appeared sad. “Why?” asked psychologist David DeSteno on the podcast Very Bad Wizards. “I would say because you’re having compassion for future ‘you,’ and it makes you more willing to sacrifice.”

DeSteno goes further, arguing that compassion is just one of several emotions that can be used to loosen temptation’s grip. “We can take those emotions that normally make us willing to invest in other people,” he said, “And pivot them so that we cooperate with someone else who’s important to us, and that is our own future self.” In his research, DeSteno has consistently shown that people who feel compassion, gratitude, and a reasonable sense of pride in their own accomplishments are better at delaying gratification.

Such research is especially relevant now that it’s February, a time of year by which at least a third of New Year’s resolutions have likely already failed. If the science is any indication, an overreliance on active resistance deserves much of the blame.

However, willpower’s downsides go well beyond its inadequacy in helping people eat more vegetables or hit the gym more often. An unfortunate truth about willpower is that we tend to moralize it and, as a result, harshly judge both others and ourselves for perceived lapses in resolve. Perhaps by embracing ideas about temptation that aren’t so loaded with unjust assumptions about character and self-worth, we’ll manage to drain some of the cynicism and self-righteousness from our understanding of behavior. Or we’ll at least manage to hold our pee for a bit longer.

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