This Belief in Willpower Boosts Self-Control
We constantly use our willpower throughout the day.
You could be trying to adopt healthier habits. Or trying to remain calm and cool around ungrateful bosses or annoying coworkers. Maybe you’re just trying to avoid that doughnut in the break room.
But research has found that self-control spells better outcomes for our health, professional life, and personal lives. So naturally we want to find ways to boost it.
Well there’s one interesting trick that has recently garnered some interest from scientists. And it has to do with your mindset about willpower.
It might sound a little crazy, but what you actually believe about willpower and how it functions can, in turn, affect how much of it you have.
Is Willpower A Limited Resource?
There’s a popular theory about willpower that’s pretty common. And chances are, you’re familiar with it. It’s the idea that willpower is a resource which we can deplete with use.
It’s commonly referred to as “ego-depletion”. And the idea is that once we use our willpower for a task, subsequent tasks become harder. There’s even a best selling book on the topic, called Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
So if you resist those doughnuts all day at the office, and you won’t be able to stop yourself diving into that cookie jar when you get home.
But here’s the problem. A lot of recent studies have found holes in the theory, and researchers are finding the foundation of ego-depletion isn’t as solid as they once thought. Other experts don’t believe in it at all.
Belief in Willpower
So while the experts are debating the nature of willpower, another line of research has found that a person’s belief about willpower can affect self-control outcomes.
One of the first investigations on the subject was done by a group of researchers, which included Carol Dweck. If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably because she’s made a name for herself with the concept of the “growth mindset”.
The researchers found that people who believed in an unlimited supply of willpower didn’t suffer from the effects of ego-depletion. When testing two different groups, those people who believed in a limited amount of willpower had less self-control after difficult tasks.
The team also found that these beliefs could predict other self-control behaviors when it came to stressful situations. During exam week, students who believed willpower was limited were more likely to eat junk food, procrastinate, and use less effective study habits.
Conversely, students who believed in limitless willpower were more resilient to stressful situations.
More Research On Belief
Although the concept about how belief can affect your willpower is relatively new, there have been hints from other studies. But researchers have just started to pay attention.
One of the first signs was in 2002, when a study noted a curious effect when testing ego-depletion. When psychologists challenged participants’ belief of how willpower functioned, they noticed that performance increased. However, they also found that most people held the view that ego-depletion would affect their performance in later tasks. A kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Dweck and her colleagues also did a follow up study in 2013 to test a slightly different aspect of ego depletion. The theory that glucose (sugar) is the energy that drives willpower.
The team found that those who believed willpower to be limitless performed equally well on the tests whether or not they ingested glucose. People with the limited willpower mindset, though, showed typical signs of depletion.
(Sidenote: While you’ll see articles saying that drinking something sugary can boost your willpower, research has shown this to be iffy at best)
Why Belief Boosts Your Willpower
There’s more. And this gets at the heart of why belief in willpower helps give us a boost.
A study from 2016 took the research on willpower belief a step further. They found that the level of confidence a person had in their belief (limited or limitless) affected self-control.
When researchers manipulated a person’s level of confidence in their belief of willpower, they saw that self-control could be increased or decreased.
While confidence levels could be manipulated, researcher found that the driving factor that affected self-control was the perception of how mentally tired the tasks made them.
Here’s what the authors said from their paper:
Indeed, willpower theories elicit different perceptions of mental fatigue, such that unlimited theorists exhibited lower levels of mental fatigue than did limited theorists.
So people who thought willpower was limitless, ultimately perceived a task to be less mentally exhausting.
Believe In Limitless Willpower
Here’s the lesson. What you think about willpower matters. More importantly, if you believe willpower is unlimited, then you’ll do better at tasks which require it.
And the more confident you are in that belief the better.
What we believe and think about the world has a profound effect on our behavior and how we see the world. Willpower is hardly the only area that this applies, but the experts are finding out that it’s definitely one of them.
And when it comes time to face off against those doughnuts, believe in the limitless.