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The Myth of Willpower

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As the holiday season comes roaring up to greet us with the full force of its excesses, many people are going to be surrendering to temptation with the explanation that they lack the willpower to resist. This word is used often to explain the inability of folks to stop themselves from eating, drinking, smoking, or even engaging in ill-advised trysts with those to whom they are attracted. “Willpower” is often considered to be a a character component that one has or lacks. It is also thought to be something that can be called upon and exercised if one wants to use it badly enough.

The idea of “willpower” is a handy one, but the truth is generally more complex. For one thing, each person is not born with equal capacity to exercise it. The famous “marshmallow experiment” conducted with child subjects by Walter Mischel at Stanford University indicates that some people are simply born with a better ability to resist than others. As part of the test, marshmallows were placed in front of young kids and they were told they could eat the few they had now, or they could resist and have more marshmallows after some time had passed. Some kids ate them and some waited. The test indicated that we are not born with equal “willpower.”

The psychological phrase for what is commonly referred to as “willpower” is “the ability to delay gratification.” That is, those who can delay gratifying their immediate desires demonstrate stronger “willpower.” While the marshmallow experiment shows that we’re not born with equal capacity in this regard, it does not mean the situation is hopeless for those who feel weak-willed when faced with a tray of Christmas cookies. Adults can undertake certain simple and effective exercises to build up their ability to defer gratification.

Building “willpower” is a matter of exercising a weak mental muscle so that it grows progressively stronger. Just as a natural-born athlete may have to exercise less than someone else to become an effective competitor, and a natural-born klutz may have to work doubly hard to be two-thirds as good, a person with weak resistance in the face of immediate reward will have to put in some stronger efforts to develop willpower.

The first step in building willpower is a small one, and it may seem inconsequential initially, but you can’t complete a mental marathon after a lifetime of being a psychological couch potato. Initially, all one has to do is impose a short but concrete waiting period on gratifying desire. When your coworker offers you a brownie and you feel you can’t resist, take it, but promise yourself to wait 15 minutes before taking a bite. After 15 minutes, have a bite, but be certain to fully inhabit the sensory experience of enjoying that bite. Smell the brownie, keep it on your tongue, and note the textural qualities. If you want to take another bite right away, put the brownie down and make yourself wait another five minutes before the next bite and, again, be sure to be extremely mindful of the experience of enjoying the next bite.

The next steps in building your willpower come from increasing the duration of the time you take delaying gratification. You can start with any time you like and just add five minutes to it whenever you feel you are ready. This may seem like a trivial exercise, but you are actually engaging in a type of behavior modification. You are building new pathways in your brain and training yourself to consider gratification in a different manner through time and small changes.

It’s important to keep in mind that this sort of “training” works both ways. This mental muscle will slowly atrophy if you cease to flex it. If you stop delaying gratification and start simply gobbling things down again on a whim, your thinking will gravitate back to where it was before and you’ll find yourself right back where you started from. If you keep it up, you’ll find that your overall ability to simply walk away from all of those things which you wish you could say “no” to will slowly increase.

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  • Usman Makhdum

    Sorry, this is a non-article.

    Shari Custer talks about ‘the psychological term’ for willpower as a presumed authority, but then goes on to talk about ‘mental muscle’, something modern psychology has clearly debunked and has thoroughly separated itself from. To the extent, even, that studies were done on the Nintendo Brain Age games, and the same conclusions came to – there is no mental parallel for physical muscle, workouts and atrophy.

    Last but not least, she also does a disservice to the marshmallow experiment she refers to. The researchers involved hardly thought that people are ‘born’ with varying levels of willpower. They, as do all serious researchers, give far more examination to foetal environment and infant/child history than black and white statements of heredity.

    If an article is to be posted here making use of psychological science, studies and terminology, please do so more accurately in future.