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What is Willpower?

Instructor: Sharon Linde
What is willpower? Are you born with a set amount of willpower, or is it possible to increase it? What outcomes are possible with larger amounts of willpower? This lesson goes over these and other aspects of this fascinating subject.

Willpower Definition and Synonyms

It is quite common for people to lament about the amount of willpower they have: 'I would be able to quit smoking / lose weight / make more money if I had more willpower'. You've probably even had instances like these yourself. But what is willpower? It turns out defining willpower and understanding what it does for us is a tricky thing. Let's take a closer look at what the experts know about this common concept.

One definition of willpower is 'determination required to do something difficult'. The American Psychological Association has many definitions, including:

  • an ability to resist immediate temptations in order to meet stated longer term goals
  • a limited and deplete-able resource
  • conscious self-regulation
  • governing ones actions using cognitive processes instead of emotional ones

Some synonyms for willpower are self-control, self-discipline, grit, and resolve. These definitions and synonyms give us a clearer picture of what willpower is, but it still seems like the edges of this concept are fuzzy.

What Does Willpower Enable Us to Do?

Whatever you call it, can this thing we call willpower really enable us to reach our goals? It turns out it can.

Two psychologists from the University of Pennsylvania, Angela Duckworth, PhD, and Martin Seligman, PhD, ranked the self-discipline of students by asking teachers, parents and the students to fill out surveys. They also gave students the option of gaining $1 now or getting $2 next week. Students that scored higher on the self-discipline spectrum skipped school less often, earned higher grades, and did better on standardized tests. In fact, this study showed that willpower was a better predictor on all of these measures than were IQ scores.

A different study by Terrie Moffit, PhD, from Duke University followed 1000 people from birth into their early 30s. This entire group was rated by teachers, parents, and themselves in their ability to exercise self-control. Those that rated higher on this scale at a younger age were much better off in their adult years:

  • they were physically and mentally healthier
  • they had lower rates of substance abuse and criminal misbehavior
  • they were financially more secure

Most notably, the above results still held when the controls were added for income levels and intelligence measures.

As you can see, willpower actually can have impactful results on many aspects of our daily lives. Also, although it is difficult to define, it is quite possible to recognize willpower in ourselves and in others.

Is it Possible to Deplete Willpower?

Have you ever felt at the end of your willpower rope? We know it is possible to decrease willpower reserves because of several studies that have shown just that. For example, three different studies showed that participating in willpower intensive tasks led to less desirable results later on, such as:

  • drinking more beer before a driving test (Muraven, Collins, Neinhaus)
  • giving up sooner on tough physical challenges (Muraven, Tice, Baumeister)
  • giving up sooner on tough mental challenges (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, Tice)

Is it Possible to Increase Willpower?

Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we need to find more willpower. Maybe there's a deadline at work, or a paper due at school. Is it possible to increase your store of willpower?

Unfortunately, the jury is out on this one. There are some experts that believe it is possible to increase willpower and others that don't. Benjamin Franklin once said, 'A penny saved is a penny earned.' And so it is with willpower. The experts do agree there are ways to avoid depleting willpower reserves and that doing so has the effect of raising willpower levels for when you need it, gaining you the exact same benefits as having more willpower would.

Here are some suggestions for conserving your willpower:

  • Avoid willpower draining situations

For the same reason athletes do not work out all day, it's not a good plan to have to use your willpower all the time. Muscles and willpower both need to take breaks to function at their peak level.

If you are trying to save money, walking past your favorite shop three times a day is going to wear you down. Changing your route will drain your willpower less - leaving you with more willpower to resist those urges that go against your long-term goal.

  • Use your conscious brain to retrain your unconscious thoughts

For the next 30 seconds, try thinking of anything but the front door of your workplace.

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