How to Think About Willpower

These days, when people think about willpower, they are more likely to see it as akin to a muscle, something that can tire with use and that needs to then be rested. Willpower is seen as something that is limited and can be used up.

The Experiment

This view can be attributed mainly to research that was conducted in the 1990s. This research established a view of willpower that has held sway for many years. The researchers conducted an experiment using two groups of people. Both groups entered a room with two plates on a table. On one plate was a pile of chocolate chip cookies, on the other, a pile of radishes. One group was allowed to eat from the cookie plate, while the other was only allowed to eat from the radish plate.

People from both groups were then given a puzzle to solve. People in the radish group gave up trying to solve the puzzle more quickly than those from the cookie group. The researchers surmised that the reason for this was that the radish group has used up more willpower in resisting the temptation to eat the cookies, leaving them less to take on the puzzle.

But other researchers are now questioning this view. It turns out that others who tried to duplicate the experiment could not. They could not get the same results. Researchers have concluded that even though people in the original radish group may have stopped doing the puzzle sooner, it was not because of actual ego depletion.

More Accurate View

The scientists came to wrong conclusion. New studies have produced different results – they show that people who run out of willpower do so because they believe it to be a finite resource. People who see willpower as something renewable did not show signs of depletion.

So, this is a case of our beliefs being self-fulfilling, and we need to change our beliefs in order to get more done. Others believe willpower is more like an emotion, such as joy or anger. These come and go as our mood changes, but we don’t run out of them. So, when we are having trouble getting motivated, it is more useful to realize that we can push our way through it rather than telling ourselves we have used up our willpower.

Moreover, if we are continually having trouble summoning up willpower to do a certain task, we can take that as a sign more about the nature of the task than about our will.

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