It’s Not All About Willpower

With more self-control, we would all eat right, exercise regularly, stop procrastinating, save for retirement, and be rockstars… right?


The American Psychological Association conducts an annual Stress in America survey which asks about participants’ abilities to make healthy lifestyle changes, among other things. Lack of willpower is regularly cited as the #1 reason for not following through with those changes. A majority of people also believe that willpower is something that can be learned.

What We Know

There are 3 necessary steps to achieving your goals:

1. Establish the motivation for change and set a clear goal
2. Monitor the behavior toward that goal
3. Exercise willpower

Willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.

And some of this seems to be something that you’re born with.

Students found to rank high on self-discipline scales tend to have better grades, better school attendance, higher standardized test scores, and are more likely to be admitted to competitive high school programs. High self-control scores correlate with higher self-esteem, less binge eating and alcohol abuse, and better relationship skills. Self-disciple is found to be better than IQ in predicting academic success.

And the effects seem to extended beyond the classroom. People with high self-control in childhood grow into adults with greater physical and mental health, fewer substance abuse problems and criminal convictions, and better savings behavior and greater financial security.

Delayed Gratification

The classic experiment that is still taught in psychology courses today is the “marshmallow test”. In this experiment, preschoolers were presented a marshmallow and told that they were to be left alone for a few minutes. They were told if they waited until the researcher returned, they would receive two marshmallows. If they could not wait, they would be given only the one.

Willpower can be thought of as the basic ability to delay gratification

Sacrifice one marshmallow right now for two a little later from now. Forfeit the enjoyment of a cigarette for better health and avoiding an increased risk of lung cancer in the future. Resist spluring at the mall to save for emergencies and overdue bills.

This success or failure of willpower can also be thought of as a “hot-and-cool” system.

The cool system is cognitive – a thinking system that incorporates knowledge about feelings, actions, and goals. The hot system is impulsive and emotional – quick and reflexive in response to certain triggers.

When willpower fails, exposure to a “hot” stimulus overrides the “cool” system which leads to impulsive actions.

Those preschoolers? Those who waited for the researcher to return were found to be more likely to score higher on the SAT and were subjectively rated as having a greater ability to plan, handle stress, exhibit self-control in frustrating situations, and concentrate without becoming distracted. Those who could not resist were found to perform more poorly on self-control tasks, even as adults over 40 years later.

Their brains even appear to look different.

Individuals with higher self-control have a more active prefrontal cortex – a region in the brain that controls executive functions like making choices. Those with lower self-control had more activity in the ventral striatum – a region in the brain thought to process desires and rewards.

Limited Resources

Every day, you exert willpower.

Resisting repeated temptations has been shown to take a mental toll. This is one of the reasons that willpower is likened to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse.

For example, people who are confronted with a plate of cookies and a bowl of radishes, and ate the radishes (thus resisting the cookies) give up on a challenging puzzle sooner than those who eat the cookie to begin with.

Interacting with others and maintaining relationships can also deplete willpower, such as dealing with a difficult coworker.

Other studies have suggested that brain cells that are working hard to maintain self-control actually consume glucose faster than it can be replenished in the brain – meaning they are low in fuel. Human subjects who exerted willpower in lab tasks had lower glucose levels than control subjects and restoring glucose appeared to help reboot depleted willpower. Sugar-sweetened beverages restored willpower while a sweet but sugar-free diet drink did not.

Interestingly enough, subjects who are asked to stay up all night are not more likely to become willpower depleted than those who got a good night’s sleep. So, depletion isn’t based on physical fatigue, but it still has a physical basis as we saw in the previous paragraph.

Studies also suggest that willpower depletion can be kept in check by beliefs and attitudes

People driven by their own internal goals and desires (rather than wanting to please others – an external source of motivation) may be better off when it comes to willpower. A good mood can also overcome some of the depleting effects normally seen after exerting self-control.

Those who think that willpower is a limited resource are subject to having their willpower depleted. So, willpower is only limited if you believe that it is.

Willpower and Health

Limited willpower is often cited as a primary roadloack to maintaining a healthy weight – and believe it or not research does seem to support this idea. Children with better self-control are found to be less likely to become voerweight as they get older – perhaps due to their ability to control impulses and delay gratification.

However, as you read in the sections above, utilizing willpower may diminish your ability to withstand the next temptation.

People often blame bad moods for “emotional eating”. However, one study showed that willpower depletion was more important than mood in determining why subjects indulge – emotional state was not an influence.

Your reason to be dieting may also play a role. You also read that someone’s beliefs and attitudes may buffer the effects of willpower depletion. Choosing not to eat a cookie for internal reasons (you enjoy the challenge of resisting tempting treats) show better self-control than those who avoid the cookie for external reasons (wanting to please the tester or to fit in with your social group).

However, overeating behaviors are complex and willpower is only one aspect. Both willpower and environment play a role in food-related choices.

Willpower plays a role in other healthy lifstyle choices as well besides weight – such as use and abuse of tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs. Understanding the role of willpower may prove important in the development of effective treatments for addiction and in helping people make healthier choices.


Financial Decision Making

Just as unhealthy food choices have become uqibuitous, so have opportunities for impulse spending.

People’s purchasing behaviors have been shown to be subject to willpower depletion.

Financial decision making may be even more difficult for those living in poverty. All shoppers engage in economic decision making, but decisions that are quick and easy for those with more money may be difficult tests of self-control for those who are financially insecure. Therefore, those with less money will likely experience a greater depletion of willpower as they face repeated and difficult financial decisions.

Can We Build Better Self-Control?

How can willpower be strengthened? And if willpower is a limited resource, as some believe, how can we conserve it?

Avoiding temptation is one effective tactic, albeit not always an option. It’s easier to turn down the slice of cake if you close your eyes or distract yourself than if you are staring directly at it. Even at the office – keep the candy in a desk drawer rather than in a container on top.

Implementation intentions can also help. This involves creating “if-then” statements to help plan for situations that are likely to test their resolve. Having a plan in place ahead of time may allow your to make decisions in the moment without having to draw on your willpower.

Researchers do not think that willpower can ever be completely exhausted – we always keep some in reserve and, with the right motivation, we can tap in to these reserves and presevere even when self-control strength has been run down. High motivation might help overcome weakened willpower, at least to a point.

Remember when we said that self-control is like a muscle in that it can become fatigued? Also like a muscle, regularly exerting self-control may improve willpower strength over time, and this increased willpower in one area can lead to stronger willpower in other areas. Similarly, depleting willpower in one area can reduce willpower in other areas. Focusing on one goal at a time can help buffer this effect. Once a good habit is in place you will not need to draw on willpower as much to maintain the good behavior. Once it becomes routine, you won’t need to draw on willpower at all to make that good decision!

Remember when we said that glucose levels have been shown to be connected with willpower depletion? A possible remedy could be to eat regularly in order to maintain blood sugar levels in the brain. So for dieters, it may be more beneficial to eat small, frequent meals rather than skipping meals.

Key Points

  • Willpower is correlated with positive life outcomes
  • When willpower fails, exposure to an emotionally charged stimulus overrides one’s rational system leading to impulsive actions
  • Repeatedly resisting temptation drains the ability to withstand future enticements
  • The effects of willpower depletion may be mitigated by positive moods, beliefs, and attitudes – with the right motivation people may be able to persevere when when willpower strength has been depleted
  • Avoiding temptation and planning ahead are effective tactics for maintaining self-control in the face of temptation
  • Regularly exerting self-control may imporve willpower strength over time

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