The key to willpower lies in believing you have it in abundance (maybe)

Posted on under Today's research

Americans believe they have less stamina for strenuous mental activity than their European counterparts—an indication that people in the U.S. perceive their willpower or self-control as being in limited supply, a new study suggests.

What the researchers say: More than 1,100 Americans and 1,600 Europeans—including 775 Swiss and 871 German-speaking adults—participated in the study, which tested the validity of a widely used psychological assessment tool called the Implicit Theory of Willpower for Strenuous Mental Activities Scale.

People taking the assessment are asked to rate their level of agreement with statements such as, “After a strenuous mental activity, your energy is depleted, and you must rest to get it refueled again.”

Americans in the study were more likely to indicate that they needed breaks to rest and recover after performing mentally taxing activities, while their European counterparts reported feeling more invigorated and ready to jump into the next challenging task immediately.

“What matters most is what we think about our willpower,” said the study’s lead author.  “When we view our willpower as limited, it’s similar to a muscle that gets tired and needs rest. If we believe it is a finite resource, we act that way, feeling exhausted and needing breaks between demanding mental tasks, while people who view their willpower as a limitless resource get energized instead.”

The researchers sought to test whether the ITW-M measured the concept of willpower consistently across sexes and different cultures. Participants’ scores on the ITW-M questionnaire were compared with their scores on similar assessments that explored their beliefs about intelligence, life satisfaction and trait self-control, which relates to their ability to rein in their impulses.

Why do some people seem locked in a lifelong battle for self-control while others are so self-disciplined—impervious to overeating, overspending or binge-watching TV shows when they feel pressured? Personally it’s almond nuts and cookies I can’t summon up the willpower to resist—just ask Alicia.

The secret to having ironclad willpower lies in believing that you have an unlimited supply of it, the researchers said.

“Your feelings about your willpower affect the way you behave—but these feelings are changeable,” they said. “Changing your beliefs about the nature of your self-control can have positive effects on development, leading to healthier behaviors and perceptions of others.” There’s hope for me yet! No more cookies! No, really, I mean it. Maybe just one. Out! Out! damned cookie! (Shakespeare please forgive me.)

So what? Willpower and motivation are essentially the same in neurogenetic terms. I am afraid that this research is going to be used by authorities—employers, teachers and others—to induce guilt. There is so much more to willpower than just believing that you have it. I honestly thought we’d consigned these ideas to the scrap heap of 1980s pop-psych self-help books.

Willpower has a number of elements which the researchers didn’t take properly into account. For a start it is very largely genetically-based. For example, take cookies (thanks, I will, but just one and don’t tell Alicia). We are genetically programmed to seek out sweet things. Honey, sweet berries and the like gave our ancestors the energy they needed for a very physically strenuous lifestyle. For that reason our dopamine reward system makes sure that we have the craving for things sweet. (The chocolate one please.)

Likewise, to conserve energy, we are programmed to avoid tasks that we find boring or which we don’t see the point of. So much of what we are asked to do at work falls into that category and our lack of enthusiasm is falsely ascribed by others to our lack of “willpower.”

Our willpower is also closely linked to the relationship we have with those asking us to do a particular task. That relationship is largely where we get our motivation from. We will do something much more enthusiastically if we value the association with the person we are doing it with or who has asked us to do it. This is due to our fundamental drive to increase our nexus of support. The sense of being supported and “engagement” are very closely tied together (in fact they may be the same thing). A lack of “willpower” then, may simply be a way of showing that we feel unsupported and thus unmotivated.

Finally it is simply untrue that willpower—or any other similar trait—is unlimited. In some people, because of their genetics or their childhood experience, it may be greater than in others. But even Europeans’ have their limits. (Well, maybe, just one more—a chocolate chip one please.)

What now? The way to increase employees’ or students’ willpower is to make their work interesting and increase their commitment to the relationship with you. That’s the human way.

By Dr Bob Murray