Willpower Not As Important In Addiction Treatment As Strategies, Study Finds

If you are an addict or alcoholic, how many times have you heard the phrase “It’s all about willpower.” If you are anything like me, you’ve probably had something to that effect said to you, and to a nauseating degree. In fact, it seems to be those people who tend to be the most in control of their imbibing that utter these words, often directed at others who just can’t seem to do the same.

Indeed, a new study offers evidence that willpower may not be as important to substance abuse treatment as many think. Rather, is it the recovery strategies used in treatment that appear to be the most critical.

Lead researcher Anke Snoek, Ph.D., a student at Macquarie University in Australia:

“There are already many effective treatments available. Many of these treatments make use of strategies rather than willpower. However, what I hear from the people I interview, is that they feel that treatment is imposed on them by people that have not experienced addiction themselves. They find it hard to comply with this treatment.”

For the study, 69 patients addicted to alcohol, opioids or methamphetamine were interviewed over a 3-year period. Study researchers reported on how people, namely those addicted to opioids or alcohol, perceived their level of self-control and how it developed over time.

They then offered a framework to help understand how strategies are applied to making recovery possible.

While those who considered themselves “high” or “very high” regarding willpower often suffered from substance abuse, researchers believe that strategies employed are likely more reliable that willpower during recovery.


Snoek speculated on the reasons that willpower is often considered as most critical during recovery:

“…in everyday cases, where self-control is required, we often rely on willpower, and willpower is often sufficient. When we fail in these cases, to align our behavior with our intentions, it is often because we are weak-willed.”

So, most people understand self-control based on their own experiences with (failure of) self-control, and they think: ‘if I can refuse that second drink with my willpower, why can’t addicted people do that? They must be weak-willed.’”

The study also offered examples of patients who used “skill power” over willpower. And based on responses, researchers believe that perhaps respondents were not as strong-willed as they stated.

For example, one participant self-described as strong-willed, and yet the patient followed that by expressing doubt. That is, the patient noted the paradox of strong will and addiction.

Another explanation may be that the patients are indeed strong-willed, but their willpower is focused on the control of difficult life circumstances that damage the ego:

“[An] important thing that arises from our article is that addicted people do have a strong willpower. The fact that they fail to control their substance use is not due to lack of willpower, but because will-power alone is not sufficient.

“I think that many people, also treatment providers underestimate the willpower of addicted people. If they learn how to use this willpower strategically, they could greatly benefit from it.”

Finally, Snoek noted there was a finding not present in the published study version. When researchers compared patients who obtained stable recovery versus those who did not, two findings emerged:

“One of the successful strategies concerned changing one’s environment. The second one was controlling one’s emotions and internal states. Research has shown that emotions highly influence our self-control. When we feel miserable, our main concern -over other goals – is how we can feel better.”

addiction treatment | Addicts HelplineIn conclusion, researchers posited that while most study participants identified themselves as strong-willed, there seemed to be no association between those who considered themselves as having a strong willpower and recovery status.

Rather, the strategies used by patients were associated with a patient’s steady recovery vs. struggles.

And those in recovery were more excited regarding strategies than those who were unsuccessful in controlling substance abuse.

Ultimately, willpower was only deemed valuable when used as part of a strategy.


“There is not one solution in overcoming addiction. People need many strategies on different levels, they need willpower. It takes time to acquire those skills and know when to apply them.”


In response to these findings, I offer the following from David Sack, M.D., CEO of Elements Behavioral Health:

“Addiction is a chronic brain disease, not a matter of willpower. This means that, contrary to old stereotypes, people who become addicted to drugs or alcohol are not weak, immoral or tragically flawed.

“So if addiction is a chronic brain disease and not a matter of willpower, why do the work to get better? Isn’t it pointless? Not so. Addicts start getting better when they take responsibility for their own sobriety.”

“It’s not your fault that you have this disease, but it is your responsibility to manage the cards you’ve been dealt and to take steps to improve your life.”

~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology