The Willpower Muscle : Part 1

The willpower muscle is a driver of productivity and self-control. When it's flexing, it can help us perform the most arduous of tasks and maintain focus. However, like a muscle it is also prone to fatigue and loses power if it is stretched to far. Fortunately though it also adapts well to a good training program!

Part 1 of this blog post aims to shed some light and understanding as to what willpower is and its different aspects. Part 2 will highlight some practical tips on managing willpower and forms of training so that it is in tip-top shape for when it is needed!

Tests of willpower confront many of us on a regular basis. As a Personal Trainer I suppose I have a certain sense for the tax on peoples willpower, especially when it involves a new exercise regime or change in diet.

I often hear examples such as...

"I know I should do some exercise, but I don't have the motivation for it"


"I know I should cut down on my drinking, but it helps me relax after work"

In this context willpower may be tied in with self-determination, self-control and an ability to resist temptation.

Formally willpower has been characterised as;

  • The ability to delay gratification, resisiting short-term temptation 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.
  • Concious, 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 designed by Psychologist Dr Walter Mischel, known as The Marshmallow Test, delved into this aspect of willpower.

In The Marshmallow Test, children aged between 3 and 6 years old were instructed to sit at a table with a treat of their choice, such as marshmallow, being placed in front of them. Also on the table was a bell. The children were instructed that to eat their treat all they had to do was ring the bell. However, they were also told that if they waited for 15 minutes without ringing the bell they could have two treats instead of just one.

Most of the children found the temptation of the treat too much, although some did manage to hold out for the whole 15 minutes. The younger children were especially prone to the allure of the treats. They tended to satify their desire for immediate gratifiction and rang the bell in the shortest times. 

In the children's attempts to delay gratification, many creative methods were conjured up to try and resist ringing the bell. These behaviours included, moving the bell out of reach, swinging in their chairs, reminding that they could have two treats instead of one, closing their eyes, singing songs, studying the treat, making up games and imagining the treat as something else.

One girl imagined her marshmallow as a cloud. When asked why she didn't eat her marshmallow, she replied 'you can't eat clouds'!

Another boy used his cunning to try and decieve the Psychologists. He seperated the top and bottom of his Oreo cookie ate the filling inside and then carefully put it back together again and waited out the remaining time!

Much of the children's behaviour could be summed up as distraction techniques. It seems that through distraction the children could take their minds off the treats infront of them, at least temporarily, and therefore give their willpower a break.

In a follow up study adults were tested inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner (FMRI) so that their brain activity could be observed in the face of temptation. The FMRI highlighted two key areas of the brain as temptation was induced and the battle to resist it ensued. These areas 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 too. Activity in this area was coined 'the hot system' by the Psychologists. 

The Prefrontal Cortex is associated with cognitive control and executive functions such as reasoning, planning and decision making. Activity in this area was coined 'the cool system' by the Psychologists.

These experiments showed that temptations activate 'the hot system'. However, the Psychologists also observed that the participants of the experiment who displayed greater ability to delay gratification showed greater activation of 'the cool system'.

By actively involving our capacity for reasoning, planning and decision making we are better able to grasp the significance and importance of the 'bigger picture' which then helps us to resist the allure of instant gratification.

In seperate studies designed by Psychologist Dr Mark Muraven, willpower, as the ability to exert self control, was tested. Dr Muraven observed how an intial emotional self control task lead to poorer results when a subsequent physical self control task was undertaken.

The participants in the experiment were asked to regulate their emotional response whilst watching an emotionally stirring film, depicting animals in distress. Once the film had finished the participants were then asked to perform a physical self control task in the form of a handgrip test. The experiment design took form by dividing the participants into three groups. The first group were instructed to amplify their emotional response by really getting into the movie. The second group were instructed to stifle their emotional response by not allowing the movie to affect them. The third group were the control group who were given no instruction. After watching the film the particpants were asked to rate their percieved effort and fatigue associated with regulating their emotional states on a seven point scale.

It was observed that the groups amplifying and stifling their emotional states during the film had exerted signifficant levels of effort and had also experienced significant levels of fatigue when compared to the control.

In the second part of the experiment the particpants were asked to perform a test of physical self determination in the form of a hand grip test. The test requires the participants to squeeze a handgrip as tightly as possible for as long as possible whilst being timed.

The results indicated that the particpants who were instructed to amplify and stifle their emotional responses during the film performed less well in the handgrip test whereas the control group showed no change when the results were compared with their pre-test baseline measures (taken before watching the film).

These results suggest that willpower is indeed an effortful and fatiguing process and the depletion of willpower has knock on effects on subsequent and also unrelated tasks that may also require willpower.

In other words, unfortunately it seems that if you've used a fair amount of your willpower to go out and do some training you're more likely to find your hand in the cookie jar when you get back :-(

However...In part 2, I'll talk about methods to manage willpower and offer other tips that may help strengthen it too!