What You Need to Know About Willpower

We live in an age where everything around us is engineered to attract our attention and sustain it for extended periods of time.

Commercials, advertisements, social media, you name it.

Self-control is important in fighting against these influences.

Nowadays, it is more important than ever.

But self-control is cognitively effortful and psychologically costly. To make matters worse, willpower is a finite resource which is used up whenever we exercise self-control.

As human beings, we are fundamentally ‘flawed’ in that we are impulsive creatures. We overvalue immediate pleasures over larger-later rewards. We prefer instant gratification over delayed gratification.

Although we are impulsive creatures, we are also rational creatures that know logic, can contemplate the meaning of our existence, and know what’s good for us in the long-term.

Oftentimes, we have to resist smoking, drinking alcohol, eating junk food, and eating sweets and chocolate because we know that these might not be the best things for our long-term health or long-term goals.

It is our willpower that helps us resist temptation and saves us from giving into our cravings.

So what is willpower?

Psychologist Roy Baumeister et al (2007) says it is the greatest human strength and defines willpower as the ability to restrain or override one response, making a different response possible.

In this first part of my series of articles on willpower, you will learn how and why willpower runs out.

Willpower training is always going to be challenging

Willpower as a limited, finite resource

Leading researcher on willpower literature Roy Baumeister and his colleagues (1998) investigated willpower depletion in participants. In one experiment, participants were required to try to solve an impossible task.

One group of participants was given chocolate chip cookies that they had to resist when trying to complete the task, whereas the other group was given horseradish.

It was found that those who had to resist eating cookies persisted at the task for significantly less time on the problem-solving task than those who had to resist the horseradish.

Roy explain this study in his book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength as follows:

“Resisting temptation seems to have produced a psychic cost, in the sense that afterward participants were more inclined to give up easily in the face of frustration. It was not that eating chocolate improved performance.

Rather, wanting chocolate but eating radishes instead, especially under circumstances in which it would seemingly be easy and safe to snitch some chocolates, seems to have consumed some resource and therefore left people less able to persist at the puzzles.”

Exercising your willpower by resisting temptation will no doubt drain your ability for future self-control. Partly in homage to Freud, Roy termed this depletion of self-control as ego depletion.

But resisting temptation is only the tip of the iceberg as to what uses up our willpower.

In his book Impulse: why we do what we do without knowing why we do it, Dr. David Lewis talks about how self-control relates to a number of different functions. Here’s David:

“[Self-control] forms part of a much larger collection of executive functions concerned with self-monitoring, coping with stress, considering different options, weighing up alternatives and making decisions.

All of these draw on the same limited energy source, which means that resisting temptation in one direction can make it far harder to do so in another.”

In a nutshell

Willpower is a limited resource

  • Resisting temptation will drain your ability for self-control.
  • Our willpower can be drained by making decisions, weighing up options, and coping with stress.

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter so you don’t miss out on the rest of the posts in this willpower series.

More posts on willpower:
What Depletes Your Willpower & What You Can Do About It
How to Improve Your Willpower


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