- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) weak-willedness, an absence of willpower; the tendency to act against your better judgement, or not in your best interest
Few things can cause more worry or anxiety than feeling that you are not in control of things.
But feeling like you are not in control of yourself and your own actions can prove even more alarming, especially if that lack of control or decisiveness leads to you acting against your best interests.
One word for this kind of behaviour is abulia. Derived from a Greek word meaning ‘irresolution’, or ‘ill-advisedness’ (which in turn comes from boule, a Greek word for will or action that was also the name of an Ancient Greek citizens’ council), abulia was originally introduced into English as a medical term describing a lack of functionality—either mental or physical—observed in patients suffering some manner of neurological trauma.
From that fairly austere beginning, use of the word broadened over time so that today, alongside its use in medical and psychiatric contexts, abulia can also be used more loosely to refer to a general lack or loss of will power, or an instance of indecisiveness. But what if you are the kind of person who is fully capable of making a rational and reasoned decision, yet for whatever reason always seems to wind up acting against your best interests? For that, we need something a little different.
Akrasia is a debilitating weak-willedness or lack of willpower, which ultimately leads someone to make a decision or choice seemingly contrary to what might otherwise be their best option. Etymologically, it derives from another Greek word, kratos, meaning ‘strength’ or ‘power’—a root arguably more familiar to English speakers as the origin of words like democracy and aristocracy.
It was popularized (if not in fact coined) by Plato, in an early discussion of human decision-making written sometime in the fifth century BC. Failing to act in your own best interests, it seems, is by no means new.
Later philosophers adopted Plato’s idea of akrasia and developed it—with his own student, Aristotle, going on to identify two distinct forms of the so-called akratic mind. Poor decision-making, Aristotle believed, could either be driven by impetuosity and a lack of full deliberation and consideration (which he termed propetia), or else by weakness and an absolute inability or unwillingness to see through a decision that has been fixed upon (which he termed asthenia).
The concept of akrasia—not to mention the related problem of accounting for someone willingly acting in opposition to their best interests—remains a hotly debated topic in philosophical and psychological circles today. Use of the term itself, however, has long since extended beyond of its original context. Like abulia before it, when it was first adopted into English in the early 1800s, akrasia was an exclusively medical term used to describe a broader lack of strength or vigour, not just of the mind, but of the body too.
Nineteenth century scholars, physicians and writers used it freely as a synonym for everything from paralysis to intemperance, indulgence, and even incontinence. But it is as a term for a general weakness of will—and in particular, an instance or a failure of willpower that leads us to act against our better judgment—that the term has come to be most widely used.
So when you are trying to break an unhealthy habit or addiction, but find yourself easily falling back into old routines, that is akrasia—as is all the upset that comes with it.