The willpower muscle is a driver of productivity and self control. When it’s flexing at full strength it can help us perform the most arduous tasks and maintain focus, however, like all muscles, the willpower muscle is prone to fatigue and can lose its power when stretched to far. Fortunately though, it also responds and adapts well to a good training program!
In part 1 of this essay I’ll try and shed a bit of light as to what willpower is, and in part 2, I’ll aim to give some pointers for training it, and managing its fatigue, so that it’s in tip top shape for when it’s needed!
Being a Personal Trainer, I suppose I have a certain sense for the tax on people’s willpower, especially when it comes to starting a new exercise and nutrition program. Tests of willpower confront many of us on a regular basis. In the context of my job, I often hear examples such as…
…‘I know I should go out and do some exercise, but I’m tired and I don’t have the motivation for it’
…‘I know I should cut down on my drinking, but after work, it helps me relax’
Willpower is thought of as a sense of self-determination, an ability to exert self-control, and an ability to resist temptation.
Formally it has been characterized as
- The ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.
- The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling or impulse.
- The ability to employ a ‘cool’ cognitive system of behaviour rather than a ‘hot’ emotional system.
- Conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self.
- A limited resource capable of being depleted.
The first studies into Willpower focussed on it as an ability to delay gratification. A famous experiment known as The Marshmallow Test, looked at this aspect of Willpower in children.
Children aged between 3 and 6 years old were instructed to sit at a table with a treat of their choice, such as a marshmallow, being placed in front of them. Also on the table was a bell. If the children wanted to eat the treat, all they had to do was ring the bell.
However, they were also told that if they could hold out from ringing the bell for 15 minutes, they could have two treats instead of one.
For many of the children, particularly the younger ones, the delicious treat that sat right in front of them proved too much of a temptation to resist. Although most of the children attempted to resist eating their treats for at least some amount of time, only about a third managed to hold out and delay their gratification for the whole 15 minutes.
It was observed that the children displayed a range of behaviours in their attempts to resist temptation. Some of the behaviours included things such as moving the bell out of reach, swinging in their chairs, reminding themselves of having 2 treats instead of one, studying the treat, closing their eyes, singing songs, making up games, and using their imaginations and thinking about the treat in different ways.
One boy even used his cunning to try and deceive the experimenters by separating the top and bottom of his Oreo cookie to eat the filling inside. He then carefully put the Oreo cookie back together again and waited out the remaining time!
Many of the more successful children displayed behaviours that could be summed up as distraction techniques and / or abstractly re-framing its significance.
In a follow up study, the original children of the Marshmallow Test, now adults, were tested again inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner (FMRI) so that brain activity could be observed.
The FMRI highlighted two key areas of the brain showing activity during their willpower experiments. These were the Ventral Striatum and the Prefrontal Cortex.
The Ventral Striatum is associated with functions such as reward and motivation. It also has strong connections with the brains emotional centres. Activity in the Ventral Striatum was coined the ‘hot system’ by the researchers.
The Prefrontal Cortex is associated with cognitive control and executive functions such as reasoning, planning, decision-making and conscious thought. Activity in the Prefrontal Cortex was coined the ‘cool system’ by the researchers.
These experiments indicated that highly tempting stimuli activate the ‘hot system’ and emotional drivers.
However, the experimenters also observed that participants who were better able to delay gratification showed greater activation of their ‘cool system’.
By actively reasoning through their thought processes these participants would involve their conscious processing to a greater degree, and thus they were better able to cool their ‘hot system’ down, delaying their gratification for longer.
It seems that in the face of a temptation, we have a greater chance of success if we can actively employ our ‘cool system’ and come up with strategies to offset the load on our willpower.
In another set of experiments conducted by Dr Mark Muraven looking Willpower in self-control, he observed how an initial emotional self-control task lead to poorer results when a subsequent physical self-control task was undertaken.
Muraven asked participants to regulate their emotional response whilst watching an emotionally stirring film depicting animals in distress. After the film, he tested the participants’ self-control ability in a physical endurance task using a handgrip test.
There were 3 groups in this experiment, an amplify emotional response group, whose instructions were to “really get into the movie”, a stifling emotional response group, whose instructions were to “not let the movie get to them” and a control group, where there was no instruction given as to emotional regulation when watching the film.
After watching the film the participants were asked to complete a ‘Brief Mood Introspection Scale’ to measure their mood states and arousal level, as well as rating their effort and fatigue on a 7-point scale (1 = not tired 7 = extremely tired).
In all three groups the participants mood states didn’t vary respectively, suggesting that any differences in self-regulation was not due to differences in the groups emotional or arousal states. However, both the Amplify and Stifle groups were shown to have exerted significant levels of effort as a result of controlling their emotional response to the film and had shown significant levels of fatigue.
When these results were compared with the control group, who had no emotional-regulatory instruction, the control group were shown to have exerted less effort and felt less fatigue.
In the second part of the experiment the participants were asked to perform a test of self-control with regard to physical endurance in the form of a handgrip test.
To squeeze the handgrip for as long as possible, is a test of willpower in that a certain amount of self-control and self-determination is required to maintain the squeeze on the grip.
The results showed that the Amplify and Stifle groups led to a reduction in endurance on the handgrip test whereas the control group showed no change from their pre-test baseline measures.
The results indicated that using willpower as a means of self-control is an effortful and fatiguing process and that willpower is also a finite resource.
Similarly to our muscles in exercise, it seems that when using willpower, it’s level of intensity, duration and rest, have significant effects on being able to perform tasks optimally.
A good training programme manages these variables. It would seem that if we could recognise tasks that require willpower effort, and apply similar training principles, we might be able to manage tasks in such a way as to use our willpower most efficiently and hopefully improve our productivity.
I hope this first part hasn’t sent you to sleep…In the second part I’ll talk about methods in managing willpower and offer other tips that may help strengthen it too!