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Sep 2013 by PCI College

Understanding Willpower as a Mental Muscle

Dr Derek Dorris questions what exactly is willpower and how it effects our everyday lives.

The concept of willpower has fascinated psychologists and philosophers alike for centuries as it lies at the heart of our wider conceptions of free will, individuality, and autonomy (Vohs & Baumeister, 2004). In western cultures in particular, where self identity has been increasingly shaped by powerful conventions of individuality, self-confidence, and personal ambition (Wang and Brockmeier, 2002), the concept of willpower has in recent years seeped into mainstream culture to be heralded as one of the most esteemed human virtues. Athletes assert their self-perceived abundance of it (even if they don’t always demonstrate it!), therapists attempt to harness it, and rows and rows of self-help books offer (often subjective) advice on how to improve it. But what is willpower exactly and why does it lie at the root of a wide variety of life’s failures whether they be sporting, work-related, social, or personal?

Willpower has traditionally been understood to be the sharp end of the consciousness stick. That is, with the capacity for conscious awareness comes the ability to take charge of one’s situation and direct one’s behaviour in accordance with one’s desires. Thus, willpower has been understood as the mental resource that drives our intentions. It is associated with purposeful action and viewed as the opposite to automatic or unconscious behaviour. Automatic behaviour runs in the absence of intention and according to a preset neural programming that allows it to unfold in a mechanical and dispassionate fashion. Automaticity does not only run in the absence of intention, but it also often runs against it. For example, when we experience unwanted thoughts or succumb to unhealthy impulses, it is automatic processes that drive those unwanted experiences. Thankfully, willpower allows us to overcome these failures by resisting inappropriate impulses and persisting with appropriate behaviour (Baumesiter, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994). Unfortunately, however, this does not always work as some behaviour is more difficult to resist than others (Hull, 1943). For example, the urge to withdraw from a painful stimulus is typically more difficult to override than the urge to yawn.

Many of the society’s most prominent problems have been attributed in part to absence or decreased amounts of willpower. Anti-social behaviour can certainly be related to socio-economic factors and/or peer influence but there is little doubt that failures in willpower play a role too (Baumeister et al., 1994). Balancing more primal or unconsciously motivated impulses with moral codes which affect us on a cultural level requires effortful control and when one’s behaviour tilts in favour of the former, willpower is generally understood to be compromised. “Living healthy” too often requires one to force oneself to engage in less appealing or appetising behaviour (e.g., exercise, healthy eating) while resisting more self-gratifying tendencies. When one fails in this regard, that failure is often attributed primarily to willpower. Personal battles with harmful addictions are also considered to involve willpower and where one continues to succumb to those addictions, willpower is one of the primary culprits (Vohs & Baumesiter, 2004).

For a long time, the reasons as to why willpower fails were not been properly elucidated in the field of psychology relative to the investigation that went into the automatic side to cognition. Automaticity is relatively easy to investigate empirically because it produces pre-programmed effects (so we know what to look for), it operates according to a timeframe of milliseconds (so it has little time to be corrupted by secondary processes), and it’s generally easy to predict (because it relies on an internalised programme which can be manipulated to behave in a precise fashion). Consciousness on the other hand has always been difficult to define in black and white terms, which makes it extremely difficult to operationalise for purposes of empirical measurement. That said, in the last 10 years, a theory and accompanying methodology has emerged which has allowed us to outline an empirical model of willpower.

Over the years, failures in self-control have been attributed to a variety of factors from individual differences in willpower to the kind of “pros and cons” analyses people perform subjectively when deciding if a difficult task is worth doing (Baumeister et al, 1994). However, in recent years, a new explanation has emerged which has reshaped our understanding of self-control and willpower. This “strength hypothesis” likens willpower to a “mental muscle” which relies on a finite amount of mental energy and where different types of behaviour are believed to vary in the amount of energy required to control them (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998). The strength hypothesis has received empirical support in many areas of psychological activity (see Baumeister, 2002; Baumeister, et al., 1998; Muraven, Tice, & Baumeister, 1998; see also Vohs & Baumeister, 2004 for review) where impaired performance on self-control tasks (usually measured as an inability to persist) is attributed to the prior depletion of willpower, giving rise to a state referred to as “ego depletion”.

Ego depletion is a term coined by Baumeister at al. (1998) to describe the cause of failures in willpower according to the strength hypothesis. Borrowing the notion of Freud’s (1923, 1961) “ego”, they were clearly pointing at the process responsible for balancing the needs of inner impulses with outer conventions and attributing that process to a limited resource. They theorised that if willpower operated like a strength then as is the case with our physical muscles there would a) be some tasks that required more effort than others (just like heavy objects require more physical effort to move than lighter ones) and b) after periods of mental exertion, there would come a time when one would just have to give up (just as one can only carry a heavy object so far before giving up). Baumeister et al. (1998) demonstrated this phenomenon using a series of cleverly constructed experiments which measured the effect of prior effort on subsequent tasks of willpower. For example, they observed that when participants resisted the temptation to eat tasty food (freshly baked cookies) and instead forced themselves to eat less tasty food (a plate of radishes), they showed less persistence on a subsequent puzzle (which unbeknownst to the participants was unsolvable and, therefore, could have prompted an indefinite amount of persistence) than participants who were allowed to eat the tasty food. They concluded that the former group exhausted their mental muscle for willpower as they resisted the temptation of the tasty food and thus had less energy to persist at the subsequent anagram task than the latter group which was permitted to indulge their temptation to eat the tasty food.

For a field of research with high relevance to the social behaviour of human beings, Baumeister’s research into ego depletion has been of massive importance as he has provided us with the most comprehensive and empirically grounded explanation of willpower to date. Moreover, the demonstration of ego depletion has some important psychological and philosophical implications for our concept of willpower. For example, one of the most important implications to emerge from the research into ego depletion is that the willpower resource seems to act as a general-purpose asset which the mind relies on whilst executing a wide variety of tasks. This has been corroborated by a recent meta-analysis of the strength hypothesis literature (Hagger, Wood, Stiff, & Chatzisarantis, 2010) which analysed 198 ego depletion experiments throughout 83 studies and found that ego depletion effects did not vary between identical and different spheres of psychological control. In other words, the effort expended completing one task involving willpower can have a profound effect on subsequent willpower tasks even if they are completely different in focus and nature. So for example, if people find themselves succumbing to the temptation of unhealthy food, alcohol, etc. in the evening time, it might be that those failures can be directly attributed to stress encountered at the office earlier that day.

Another important revelation regarding ego depletion is just how weak the willpower resource is. Ego-depletion has been demonstrated to occur after only minor conscious engagements of willpower. For example, Baumeister, et al. (1998) demonstrated that the simple act of choosing to engage in one particular task over another impaired participants’ subsequent persistence compared to those who were given no choice and simply told which task they would complete. Such findings have serious implications for the way in which we view human endeavour because conscious willpower is intuitively believed to be at the heart of much of our day to day activity. However, choice making is another term for intention formation and if the mere act of intention formation can impede subsequent efforts at willpower then purposeful control over the enactment of our intentions would be quite often very difficult to achieve. This would imply that willpower is probably less responsible for our day-to-day behaviour than we would intuitively guess and that unconscious processes are much more involved in what was traditionally viewed as purposeful goal-directed behaviour (Dorris, 2009a & 2009b). When discussing unconscious goal-pursuit, Fitzsimons and Bargh (2004) come to a similar conclusion when they state that ‘‘because even the simplest acts of conscious self-control.. .deplete this limited resource, it would seem that most moment-to-moment self-regulation must occur nonconsciously.. . if it is to be effective” (p. 152). Thus, Baumeister et al’s (1998) research may have profound implications for our notion of individuality and autonomy as willpower is a far more limited ability according to their reformulations.

So where does this new perspective on self control and willpower leave us? Well, in the first place, it would appear that these concepts are more complex than traditional perspectives held. Willpower, it seems is not simply something that differs across individuals but it is a limited resource which also differs within individuals depending on how much of it they have recently used and how much they have in reserve. It would also appear to be much weaker than we ever realised and perhaps even dependent on the support of closely interwoven unconscious support processes. Thus, whereas failures in self control have traditionally been viewed as a failing of the individual by both lay-people and psychologist, we may now have to begin looking at self control and willpower from a purely cognitive/mechanical standpoint.

Dr. Derek Dorris
Head of Academia & Head of Psychology, PCI College


References, Further Reading:

Baumeister, R. F. (2002). Ego depletion and self-control failure: an energy model of the self’s executive function. Self & Identity, 1, 129-136.

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252–1265.

Baumeister, R. E, Heatherton, T. E, & Tice, D. M. (1994). Losing control: How and why people fail at self-regulation. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Dorris, D. (2009a). Self-regulation and the hypothesis of experience-based selection: Investigating indirect conscious control. Consciousness and Cognition,18, 740-753.

Dorris, D. (2009b). Supporting the self-regulatory resource: does self-regulation incidentally prime nonconscious support processes. Cognitive Processing, 10, 283-291.

Fitzsimons, G. M., & Bargh, J. A. (2004). Automatic self-regulation. In R. F. Baumeister & K. D. Vohs (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation (pp. 151–170). New York: Guilford Press.

Freud, S. (1961). The ego and the id. In J. Strachey (Ed. and Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 19, pp. 12-66). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1923)

Hagger, M. S., Wood, C., Stiff, C., & Chatzisarantis, N. L. D. (2010). Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: a meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 495-525.

Hull, C. (1943). Principles of behaviour. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Muraven, M., Tice, D. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Self-control as a limited resource: regulatory depletion patterns. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 774-789.

Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (2004). Understanding self-regulation: An introduction. In R. F. Baumeister & K. D. Vohs (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation (pp. 1–12). New York: Guilford Press.

Wang, Q. & Brockmeier, J. (2002) Autobiographical Remembering as Cultural Practice: Understanding the Interplay between Memory, Self and Culture. Culture & Psychology, 8(1): 45–64. London: Sage.

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