What you need to know about willpower: The psychological science of self-control

Credit: www.apa.org

With more self-control would we all eat right, exercise regularly, avoid drugs and alcohol, save for retirement, stop procrastinating, and achieve all sorts of noble goals?

Many people believe they could improve their lives if only they had more of that mysterious thing called willpower. With more self-control we would all eat right, exercise regularly, avoid drugs and alcohol, save for retirement, stop procrastinating, and achieve all sorts of noble goals.

Take, for example, the results of the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America Survey. The survey asks, among other things, about participants’ abilities to make healthy lifestyle changes. Survey participants regularly cite lack of willpower as the No. 1 reason for not following through with such changes.


Determined woman In 2011, 27% of Stress in America survey respondents reported that lack of willpower was the most significant barrier to change. Yet although many people blame faulty willpower for their imperfect choices, it’s clear they haven’t given up hope. A majority of respondents believe that willpower is something that can be learned. Those respondents are on to something. Recent research suggests some ways in which willpower can in fact be strengthened with practice.

On the other hand, many survey participants reported that having more time for themselves would help them overcome their lack of willpower. Yet willpower doesn’t automatically grow when you have extra time on your hands.

So how can individuals resist in the face of temptation? In recent years, scientists have made some compelling discoveries about the ways that willpower works. This report will explore our current understanding of self-control.

Lack of willpower isn’t the only reason you might fail to reach your goals. Willpower researcher Roy Baumeister, PhD, a psychologist at Florida State University, describes three necessary components for achieving objectives: First, he says, you need to establish the motivation for change and set a clear goal. Second, you need to monitor your behavior toward that goal. The third component is willpower. Whether your goal is to lose weight, kick a smoking habit, study more, or spend less time on Facebook, willpower is a critical step to achieving that outcome.

At its essence, willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals. And there are good reasons to do so. University of Pennsylvania psychologists Angela Duckworth, PhD, and Martin Seligman, PhD, explored self-control in eighth-graders over the course of the school year. The researchers first gauged the students’ self-discipline (their term for self-control) by having teachers, parents, and the students themselves complete questionnaires. They also gave students a task in which they had the option of receiving $1 immediately or waiting a week to receive $2.

They found students who ranked high on self-discipline had better grades, better school attendance, and higher standardized-test scores, and were more likely to be admitted to a competitive high school program. Self-discipline, the researchers found, was more important than IQ in predicting academic success.

Delaying gratification

More than 40 years ago, Walter Mischel, PhD, a psychologist now at Columbia University, explored self-control in children with a simple but effective test. His experiments using the “marshmallow test,” as it came to be known, laid the groundwork for the modern study of self-control.

Mischel and his colleagues presented a preschooler with a plate of treats such as marshmallows. The child was then told that the researcher had to leave the room for a few minutes, but not before giving the child a simple choice. If the child waited until the researcher returned, she could have two marshmallows. If the child simply couldn’t wait, she could ring a bell and the researcher would come back immediately, but she would be allowed to eat only one marshmallow.

In children as well as adults, willpower can be thought of as a basic ability to delay gratification. Preschoolers with good self-control sacrifice the immediate pleasure of a chewy marshmallow in order to indulge in two marshmallows at some later point. Ex-smokers forfeit the enjoyment of a cigarette in order to experience good health and avoid an increased risk of lung cancer in the future. Shoppers resist splurging at the mall so they can save for a comfortable retirement. And so on.

The marshmallow experiments eventually led Mischel and his colleagues to develop a framework to explain our ability to delay gratification. He proposed what he calls a “hot-and-cool” system to explain why willpower succeeds or fails.