In one pioneering study, some people were asked to eat radishes while others received freshly baked chocolate chip cookies before trying to solve an impossible puzzle. The radish-eaters abandoned the puzzle in eight minutes on average, working less than half as long as people who got cookies or those who were excused from eating radishes. Similarly, people who were asked to circle every “e” on a page of text then showed less persistence in watching a video of an unchanging table and wall.
Ok. Stop laughing. Don’t we all test our willpower by staring at unchanging tables and walls? I know I do. And then, for fun, I break out the impossible puzzles, just for kicks!
The real problem here is that it’s hard to respect any article that mentions a study without providing references. I refuse to grant credibility to anyone using a study to support an argument without a reference. If the study was published I can read it myself and see what it actually says. Were the participants told the puzzle was impossible? How were they recruited? Were they paid? Did they accurately represent a typical urban population in age, education, etc?
As a baseline, anyone with above average willpower has a busy enough life not to have time to participate in psychological surveys. It’s a shallow, half-baked story that’s told here, and even at that, I’m not sure any conclusions can come from it. Speculation, yes. But a hypothesis, no.
I think I possess above average powers of will, but I would never test them against things I thought were pointless. Willpower works when I’m convinced of the value of the effort, or at a minimum, the value of the attempt. I can eat better or exercise more not because of some abstract force of will, but because my perception of the value grants me greater willpower.
And then the article obsesses about describing willpower in neurological terms, missing the point. For example:
No one knows why willpower can grow with practice but it must reflect some biological change in the brain. Perhaps neurons in the frontal cortex, which is responsible for planning behavior, or in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with cognitive control, use blood sugar more efficiently after repeated challenges. Or maybe one of the chemical messengers that neurons use to communicate with one another is produced in larger quantities after it has been used up repeatedly, thereby improving the brain’s willpower capacity.
What would a kung-fu master or sports trainer say about willpower? There are tons of higher level masters of teaching willpower, but since they don’t have neuroscience degrees, this article neglects to give them a voice (Yes, it’s a short article, but the above paragraph is basically an extended guess. Why use 10% of the article on a guess, when a phone call could bring an expert with data).
If we are creatures of habit and increase our abilities at just about anything through repetition, why are the mechanisms for the habits of willpower any different?
My question to you is how do you cultivate your own willpower? When do you feel most in control, and most out of control? How do you use this knowledge to serve you?