Off the Couch

The willpower muscle

This week on Radio Live Tony and I chatted about how we can all improve our willpower, something we all struggle with at times.  It’s the human condition, and like I talked about last week learning to control our impulses is a vital skill for success and health in modern society.  To understand how to do this well we have to be able to really understand what willpower is and how it works.  And it’s more like a muscle than a skill.  (Click here for a link to the audio of the interview)

The experiment that illustrates this best is an extension of the marshmallow test.  Take two groups of adults and place them in a room with a bowl of radishes and a bowl of fresh, warm, fragrant chocolate chip cookies.  (Almost everyone prefers cookies to radishes.)

One group is instructed to eat as many cookies as they like, the other is told to eat as many radishes as they like, but not to eat the cookies.  The subjects are told the experiment is about taste perception, and after fifteen minutes of eating, both groups are asked to wait and while waiting to complete a pen and paper puzzle, which is actually unsolvable.  They are timed for how long they persevere with the puzzle and asked to ring a bell once they “give up.”

The theory is those who had their willpower depleted by eating the radishes and resiting the urge to gorge on cookies will have less willpower left in the tank to persevere with a hard task.  And the theory was correct, on average the radish  eaters persevered with the puzzle for 60% less time than the cookie eaters.

So outside of eating cookies, what does this mean?  Well most people think of willpower as a static skill, something you have and can rely on.  But actually we all have varying levels of self control on any given day and at any given time.  This can help to explain why after a hard day at the office we are more at risk of eating the whole packet of biscuits, or finishing the bottle of wine.  If we tax our reservoir of willpower during the day, there is less left when we get home.

So if willpower is a muscle, how can we strengthen it?  Well kindness helps.  And so do good plans and goals.

A variation of the above study showed that when placed in the room with just the cookies, and given “gruff” instructions to not eat them, willpower was significantly more taxed than when the participants were told kindly, and in some detail what the research was about and warmly asked to resist their urges to help with the research.  Self compassion, not self criticism makes us stronger (see: “Treat ’em mean“).  It also makes a big difference if we feel like we’re doing things for reasons we can buy into and make our own, rather than just because we’re told to.  It takes less willpower.

Other research has found when we do something as simple as making written plans and goals for how we will deal with times when we face hard tasks, it can help us overcome the obstacles, and create what this great little video calls “I want-power” and “I  will-power”, both of which are really useful for when our “I won’t-power” runs out.

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