Willpower is like a muscle, according to some research, and gets depleted with use over time. Newer research has not replicated this finding, however. Other researchers believe willpower may get depleted because we think it will be. This is at the heart of the willpower question.
Cookies And Radishes
It was a cruel and heartless experiment . . . at least for the hungry college students taking part. They were told not to eat anything for several hours prior to the experiment so they were hungry when they arrived at the lab.
The students were divided into three groups. Group 1 was given a plate of warm, freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies. And a plate of radishes. They were told they could have all the radishes they wanted, but they were not to touch the cookies.
Group 2 was given a plate of cookies and a plate of radishes and told they could eat all they wanted from either (or both) plates.
Group 3 was given nothing.
Hidden away, the experimenters observed the participants. The hungry students in Group 1 looked longingly at the cookies. Some even picked one up to smell the rich chocolate chips. But no one actually bit into a cookie.
After waiting (with the cookies) for a period of time, the three groups were given a set of simple puzzles to work on — “simple” meaning “unsolvable”. Groups 2 and 3 stuck with the puzzles for about 20 minutes. Far longer than group 1, who quickly gave up in frustration after an average 8 minutes.
Although they were participating in two distinctly different activities, the students in Group 1 seemed to have used up all their willpower avoiding the cookies. There was none left for solving an unsolvable puzzle, simple or otherwise. [Beaumeister]
Is Willpower Like A Muscle?
The cookies and radishes experiment and other experiments like it (where participants are required to use willpower in two separate and unrelated tasks) has become widely cited as evidence that willpower acts like a muscle – that it is depleted with use over time and must be replenished through rest or other means. Psychologists call this “ego depletion”.
I have written a number of articles[*] around the idea of optimizing our use of willpower based on the “willpower as muscle” viewpoint and I continue to practice the applications. Perhaps you have used them too.
But it is important to keep an open mind and to find the tools that work best for you and me. Let’s consider some other perspectives.
The Process Model Of Willpower
Michael Inzlicht is a professor in the Department of Psychology and a Research Excellence Faculty Scholar at the University of Toronto. His lab has developed a “process” model of willpower in contrast to the “resource” or willpower-is-like-a-muscle model.
The resource model describes willpower as a limited resource, decreasing over time due to use, the way our muscles tire when we use them. By contrast, the process model views decreasing willpower as a function of motivation, not capacity. According to this theory, after we perform tasks that require mental or physical effort (what Inzlicht calls “have-to tasks”), we then prefer to engage in tasks or pastimes that are easy and enjoyable. It is our motivation to continue difficult undertakings, and not necessarily our willpower, that is flagging.
Is Willpower Like An Emotion?
Blogger Nir Eyal interprets Inzlicht’s research to say that willpower acts like an emotion. We don’t “run out of” or use up emotions like joy or fear or love. Our emotions rise and fall based on a number of factors.
Similarly, according to the willpower-is-like-emotion view, willpower rises and falls based on other factors . . . not because we’ve “used up” our current supply. It could be that our motivation to stick with a particular task is temporarily low in the moment. Or as Nir Eyal says, if we are consistently low on motivation to perform a particular task, maybe we should question if it is something we want to do at all. [Eyal]
Willpower And Mindset
It’s possible that we “use up” our willpower because we think we will. In several experiments, Carol Dweck and colleagues had participants complete an assessment to gauge their beliefs about willpower depletion with questions like these: “’After a strenuous mental activity your energy is depleted and you must rest to get it refueled again’ (limited-resource theory) and ‘Your mental stamina fuels itself; even after strenuous mental exertion you can continue doing more of it’ (nonlimited-resource theory)”. [Job – ResearchGate]
In other trials, the assessments were slanted to manipulate the participants into adopting either the limited-resource theory or the non-limited resource theory. [Job – PNAS]
After the initial assessments, participants performed several different tasks that required them to use their willpower resources (similar to the “cookies and radishes” experiment).
In each case, the people who believed willpower was limited did not perform as well as the people who did not believe it is a limited resource. This held true for the people who came to the study with their ideas already in place and those who were manipulated into believing one or the other. [Job – PNAS]
Of course, simply believing that willpower is unlimited is not enough to improve self-control. But it may be an important strategy.
Willpower And Environment
Another effective strategy for self-regulation is to arrange your surroundings to minimize temptation. Some experts, including Dr. Wendy Wood and Benjamin Hardy, have shown that our environment plays a large role in triggering our habits, thereby influencing behaviors. Their findings indicate that environment and habit trump willpower.
The idea is to alter your environment to prompt the behavior you want to exhibit instead of relying on willpower.
I originally learned this strategy when I attended Weight Watchers meetings. The advice I received: Don’t bring junk food into the house. If you have cookies or chips or doughnuts in the cupboard, you have to resist them many times throughout the day. If you resist buying them at the store, you only have to resist them one time.
Consider the behaviors you want to follow, then examine your environment and how it triggers the habits that help or hinder your desired behavior.
Use What Works
Here then is the willpower question. Is willpower like a muscle, depleting over time with use? Or does willpower act like an emotion, rising and falling based on factors such as our thoughts, beliefs and actions? Does willpower flag only if you believe it will? Or does it get stronger if you believe it does?
The research is ongoing with no definitive results at this time. What this indicates for you and me is, I believe, to do what works.
This includes using our willpower wisely to create the habits that automate the beneficial behaviors we want to develop in our diet, exercise, spending, saving, goal pursuits . . . all the things, in fact, that lead to our embracing the Excelerated Life™.
It also includes becoming acutely aware of our environment and how it influences our habits and our behaviors. And then creating the environments that shape us into the person we are working to become.
The Best Use Of Willpower
However we individually answer the willpower question, the fact remains that it is a finite resource. It is to our benefit to use it as wisely as possible, which includes not relying on it to keep our actual behavior in line with our desired behavior.
Perhaps you want to eat less, exercise more, be a better parent or a better spouse, save money or make better use of your time, pursue a BIG meaningful goal, or maybe you have some other dream. Whatever our wishes, our best use of willpower continues to be to use it to create the habits that enable us to develop the behaviors we desire. That is the answer to the willpower question. And that is embracing the Excelerated Life™!
Excelerated willpower™ — becoming highly self-regulated — is one step in creating your Excelerated Life™, a life of flourishing, of well-being, meaning, and purpose.
Eyal, Nir. “The Way You Think About Willpower Is Hurting You.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, November 22, 2016. Web. October 4, 2019.
Hardy, Benjamin. Willpower Doesn’t Work. New York: Hatchette Book Group, Inc, 2018
Job, Veronika, Carol S. Dweck, and Gregory M. Walton. “Depletion—Is It All in Your Head? Implicit Theories About Willpower Affect Self-Regulation.” ResearchGate. ResearchGate, April 17, 2010. Web. October 4, 2019.
Job, Veronika, Gregory M. Walton, Katharina Bernecker, and Carol S. Dweck. “Beliefs about willpower determine the impact of glucose on self-control.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. National Academy of Sciences, September 10, 2013. Web. October 4, 2019.
Wood, Wendy. Good Habits, Bad Habits. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.