How Willpower Works

Oh cupcake, I know I must not eat thee, but ...
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"The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself ..."

With these words, Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" captures the very essence of temptation. For what is temptation, but the thing we desire with every stitch of our being, yet attempt to deny with our meager self-control.


Temptations often fall to our base animal instincts. Just consider that tempting cupcake!

Humans love sweets. We evolved to gorge on energy-rich sugar whenever we could score it -- which worked out just fine back in our hunter-gatherer days [source: Lieberman]. See, sugar's rather scarce in the natural world, so our bodies do just fine with the occasional sugar binge. We digest it, store it in fat cells for later use and continue foraging through the bushes.

But there's always a balance to things. Our bodies want sugar constantly because we evolved to thrive in a world of scarcity. Children especially crave sweets to help fuel their rapid development [source: Kroen]. But now we live in a world of mass production and industrialized agriculture. Our "me want cookie" light still flashes 24/7, but now we have the means to have a cookie whenever we want it -- and in truly grotesque quantities.

Our natural instincts simply don't jibe with the world we've created. Think about temptations of the flesh: By the laws of evolution, a man who bonks every able-bodied woman in sight is simply fulfilling his biological mission to spread his genetic code. Yet you know him to be a philandering jerk, because his actions put him at odds with cultural standards of decency and public health.

To make matters worse, humans suck at weighing short-term rewards versus long-term rewards. Today's cupcake is sweeter than fitting into that swimsuit six months from now.

Therefore, it falls to each of us to either succumb to our deeply rooted temptations or to fight them with the one weapon we have against the world of sexy, sweet, short-term delights.



The Philosophy and Science of Willpower

Back in 1967, New York City's 42nd Street offered quite the barrage of carnal temptations to passing pedestrians.
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Like their ancient toga-wearing counterparts, modern philosophers continue to disagree on the nature of freewill. Do we really have any control over the choices we make and the things we desire, and if so, to what degree?

Theories of freewill vary, but the ancient words of Plato still line up with our modern perceptions of temptation and willpower. The revered Greek philosopher argued that the human experience is one of constant struggle between the intellect and the body, between rationality and desire. Along these lines, true freedom is only achievable when willpower unchains us from bodily, emotional, instinctual slavery.


You can find similar sentiments throughout world religions, most of which offer a particular and often difficult path to rise above our darker natures.

And science? Well, science mostly agrees with all of this. Willpower is all about overcoming your natural impulses to eat cupcakes, skip your morning workout, flirt with the waiter, hit the snooze alarm and check your e-mail during a funeral.

Your willpower, however, is limited. If life were a video game, you'd see a glowing "willpower" or "ego" meter at the top of the screen next to your "life" meter. Successfully resist one temptation, and the meter depletes a little. The next temptation depletes the "willpower" meter even more, until there's nothing left at all.

Our modern scientific understanding of willpower in large part stems from a 1996 research experiment involving chocolate and radishes. Psychologist Roy Baumeister led a study in which 67 test subjects were presented with tempting chocolate chip cookies and other chocolate-flavored treats before a persistence-testing puzzle. Here's the catch: The researchers asked some of the participants to abstain from sweets and snack on radishes instead.

Baumeister's results told a fascinating story. The test subjects who resisted the sweet stuff in favor of radishes performed poorly on the persistence test. They simply didn't have the willpower left to resist slacking off.

The resulting paper, "Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?" inspired more than a thousand additional studies discussing everything from the influence of positive messages to the ego-sapping power of daily decisions [source: Villarica].

Studies also show that cognitive capacity also affects our ability to hold out against temptation. Cognitive capacity is essentially your working memory, which you employ when resisting a temptation ... or holding a string of numbers in your head. A 1999 study from then University of Iowa professor Baba Shiv found that people tasked with remembering a two-digit number held out better than people remembering a seven-digit number when tempted with chocolate cake [source: Raskin]. The idea was that if you distract the brain with a more difficult task (memorizing seven instead of two digits), it would be harder for participants to also make a healthy food choice.

Cognitive load and ego depletion produce similar effects on human willpower. Luckily, as we'll discuss on the next page, there are ways to recharge.


Recharging Your Willpower

Is it really that easy, Popeye?
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Baumeister's groundbreaking study was something of a downer with its talk of "a potentially serious constraint on the human capacity for control ..." On the other hand, it also presented willpower as something like a muscle. Use it too much and, in the short term, you wear it completely out. In the long term, however, the practice makes you stronger [source: Carr].

That's all well and good in the long term, but what about right now? Isn't there a way to boost our faltering resolve as the villainous cupcakes and sleazy neon signs close in on us? According to Baumeister and "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength" cowriter John Tierney, we can always turn to our good friend glucose.


Glucose is a simple sugar found naturally in various plants -- and somewhat unnaturally in various snack items. It tastes great, sure, but it also energizes the body and brain. The writers say that a shot of sugar in the form of a quick juice box partially restores willpower (as well as cognitive capacity), much like a power-up in a video game.

But don't start stockpiling granola bars just yet! According to Stanford University psychologists Gregory M. Walton and Carol Dweck, our belief system also plays a vital role in how long our willpower holds out against desserts and decadence. The Stanford duo, along with psychologist Veronika Job, found that test subjects on the lookout for signs of willpower fatigue tended to slack off when they felt their resolve wavering -- while people who felt their resolve was limitless pressed on, wearied but relentless [source: Walton and Dweck].

These experiments provide a little insight into the mind-body connection -- that it's not merely a Platonic case of rational intellect versus base urges. A shot of sugar can help the restore diminishing will, but so can the intense belief that willpower is inexhaustible. Maybe a little of both strategies provides the perfect strategy.

Either way, we arrive on the shores of another fascinating question: Do some people possess more willpower than others?


Power of the Will

The irresistible lure of the marshmallow ...
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In the lab, researchers measure willpower based on people's persistence with a given task -- be it solving a puzzle or abstaining from a chocolaty delight. Beyond this method, there's no universal measurement for human will.

Individual levels of willpower fluctuate throughout the day depending on diet, activities and other factors. Still, some folks experience a definite advantage. Roy Baumeister contends that there's likely some genetic component to human willpower, as self-disciplined parents tend to have self-disciplined children, but upbringing undoubtedly plays a strong role here as well [source: Economic Times].


This is where the marshmallows enter the picture. During the late '60s, the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment placed children ages 4-6 one at a time at a table in front of a tempting marshmallow. They were free to eat the alluring sugar puff, but there was a catch: If they resisted eating the marshmallow for a whole 15 minutes, they'd earn a second marshmallow.

As you might expect, most of the children broke after less than three minutes. The marshmallow was simply irresistible. Yet some of the children held out the entire 15 minutes, and these children went on to snag SAT scores 210 points higher than their sugar-happy counterparts [source: Lehrer]. The marshmallow gobblers, on the other hand, struggled with stress, relationships and attention as adults [source: Lehrer].

Since 1968, researchers have conducted various takes on the marshmallow test. For instance, a 2012 version from the University of Rochester primed the children to feel they were in ether an unreliable or reliable situation before the marshmallow test. Half the kids experienced a broken promise from a tester regarding additional art supplies, while the other half actually received them. When it came time for marshmallows, the rewarded children held out four times as long than the spurned children on eating the treat [source: Severns].

A new riff on the marshmallow test suggests kids will wait longer — on average twice as long — for that second marshmallow if they have good reason to believe that it will actually come.

So what are we to make of willpower? Some of us possess more than others, but it's a finite commodity. We can press on through ego depletion fatigue and believe ourselves inexhaustible. We can boost ourselves with sugary snacks. We can make deals with ourselves concerning long-term rewards. Or we can even threaten ourselves with punishments for failure, lashings ourselves to the figurative mast in what we call a Ulysses pact.

In the end, however, it's just you and the thing you simultaneously desire and loathe. So set obtainable goals. Remain conscious of limited willpower reserves, yet don't fall back on it as an excuse for caving.

But if all else false, just remember the words of Oscar Wilde:

"The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it."


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Willpower Works

Willpower victories and failures happen every day. Even as I was writing this, I observed my dwindling reserves of willpower in my own life. Following some research and planning, I wrote the first page on a Monday afternoon. The following day, I started bright and early, powering through the rest of the first draft. But then came Wednesday.

Wednesday is the day that Julie and I record episodes of "Stuff to Blow Your Mind," so the entire morning consisted of last-minute additions to notes and time in the studio. By the afternoon, my brain felt a bit drained. So when edits came back to me from Allison, I managed to kill an hour tending to my work social media pages and tending to listener mail. After that, I still didn't have the willpower to dive back into the edits.

And that's when I spied the giant jar of gummy bears. They gleamed like globs of liquid rainbow in the afternoon sun. And I remembered they were left over from the office holiday party. I gobbled down one handful. Then, to my shame, I reached in again.

Now, riding a wave of restorative glucose, I'm finally finishing the article up. That's science in action for you.

Related Articles

  • Baumeister, Roy et al. "Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?" The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1998. (Dec. 18, 2012)
  • Bruyneel, Sabrina. "The Role of Cognitive Processes in Overcoming Self-Control Failures." Advances in Consumer Research - North American Conference Process. January 2008.
  • Goodier, Robert. "Brain's Willpower Spot Found" Live Science. May 29, 2009. (Dec. 19, 2012)
  • Gots, Jason. "The Neuroscience of Success." The Big Think. Aug. 7, 2011. (Dec. 18, 2012)
  • Hansen, Mogens Herman. "Democratic Freedom and the Concept of Freedom in Plato and Aristotle." Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 50. 2010. (Dec. 18, 2012)
  • Kroen, Gretchen Cuda. "Kid's Sugar Cravings Might be Biological." NPR: The Salt. Sept. 26, 2011. (Dec. 17, 2012)
  • Lehrer, Jonah. "The secret life of self control." The New Yorker. May 18, 2009. (Dec. 18, 2012)
  • Lieberman, Daniel E. "Evolution's Sweet Tooth." The New York Times. June 5, 2012. (Dec. 17, 2012)
  • O'Connor, Timothy. "Free Will." Free Will: Critical Concepts in Philosophy. Routledge. Nov. 11, 2005.
  • Raskin, Andy. "How to lead your customer into temptation." CNN. May 4, 2006. (Dec. 19, 2012)
  • Severns, Maggie. "Reconsidering the Marshmallow Test." Slate. Oct. 16, 2012. (Dec. 18, 2012)
  • Tierney, John. "Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?" The New York Times. Aug. 17, 2011. (Dec. 17, 2012)
  • Villarica, Hans. "The Chocolate-and-Radish Experiment That Birthed the Modern Conception of Willpower." The Atlantic. April 9, 2012. (Dec. 18, 2012)
  • Walton, Greg and Carol Dweck. "Willpower: It's in Your Head." The New York Times. Nov. 26, 2011. (Dec. 18, 2012)
  • "Willpower: How to increase it, how to measure it." The Economic Times. Oct. 9, 2011. (Dec. 18, 2012)