6 Reasons Why You Need to Rethink Willpower
You’ve probably heard that willpower is a finite resource. You only have so much. And if you use it up, you’re more likely to cave into temptations.
The theory also goes by the name “ego-depletion”, and it’s been one of the most popular theories in psychology. The idea even spawned a best selling book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
But here’s the thing. It might not be right. At the very least, the topic of willpower is getting an overhaul.
In the last couple of years, researchers have found that, despite it’s track record and popularity, the foundation of the theory isn’t as solid as many believed. Some experts argue that ego-depletion may not even exist.
It’s not that everything we’ve learned about willpower is wrong. It’s just that willpower is more complex. The simple analogy of a tank of energy that we can deplete is no longer sufficient. Researchers are finding too many holes in the ego-depletion theory.
So here are some of the key reasons why you need to rethink willpower. What you know and even what you believe.
1. Publication Bias in Willpower
In 2015, a blow was dealt to the ego depletion theory of willpower.
Researchers conducted a review of ego-depletion literature and published their findings the the Journal of Experimental Psychology. What they found in their analysis eroded the confidence in a long held belief that willpower is a limited resource.
When the team conducted their analysis, they found that there was an overwhelming number of studies published that only showed positive results. This was a red flag for publication bias.
Publication bias is the idea that it’s uncommon for journals to publish papers that don’t show results. A study that finds null results is basically saying, “We didn’t find any effect.” Journals prefer to print interesting and new findings, and a null result is far less interesting by comparison.
However, this means there could be legitimate studies that should be accounted for. So when the team searched for unpublished tests, they found 48 of them. And when they included these results in their analysis, they saw that the overall effect for ego-depletion disappear.
2. Difficulties In Replication
Several other groups of researcher have also set out to replicate ego-depletion studies. Replication is good science, and they wanted to see if the results would hold up.
But here too, the theory has run into issues.
A team from Australia led a replication effort across labs from multiple countries. All using similar methods as some of the classical ego-depletion studies. But the massive effort couldn’t find any evidence that ego-depletion was real.
Roy Baumeister, the psychologist behind the theory, responded to the study and took issue with some of the methods. But his rebuttal to that particular study may not hold up against other recent replication failures.
Two other recent papers have been published in the journal PLOS ONE, which came to the same conclusion as the Australian team. One which used a strong methodology in 2014, and another pre-registered study published in February 2016.
Despite these failed efforts, though, the experts agree that more replication attempts and real world experiments should help uncover a better understanding of willpower.
3. Adjusting Your Mindset Can Boost Willpower
Researchers are also finding that things like your belief in willpower can affect levels of self-control.
A team of psychologists, including Carol Dweck who is a well known mindset researcher, asked people about their beliefs about how willpower functioned. Basically, was it something that was limited or limitless?
Those who believed willpower was unlimited not only performed better in willpower tasks, but were better able to adapt to stressful situations.
Not only can the limitless mindset boost your self-control, it also has another great effect, which we talk about next.
4. Believing in Unlimited Willpower Makes You Happier
Believing that willpower is unlimited can have a positive effect in other areas. Specifically, it can have an indirect effect on your happiness.
Researchers asked college undergrads about their beliefs in willpower. Could it be used up during the day, or was it an unlimited resource?
Those who believed that they had unlimited willpower had a more positive outlook and were better able to adjust under pressure. This also led to higher levels of well-being.
5. We’re a Bad Judge of Willpower
Our judgment isn’t always the best. And when it comes to self-control we’re a bit overconfident in how much willpower we have.
One study that looked at this particular phenomenon, called self-restraint bias, found that we can’t accurately judge how strong our basic impulses can be.
This poor judgment leads us to expose ourselves to more temptation than necessary. And as a result we fail more often. Instead, they recommended that people avoid temptation. Which leads us to the next point.
6. Willpower May Not Be The Best Way To Reach Goals
Willpower gets a fair amount of mention in articles. And why not. Self-control has been linked to things like higher salaries and better grades.
The topic has even been covered by Roy Baumeister in his book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
But maybe we’re giving willpower a little too much credit. Other studies have shown that we commonly fail in willpower tasks. In other words, blunt willpower may not always be the best option.
A recent study that was conducted on real people outside of lab conditions. Randomly through the day, subjects were asked about how often they were tempted, when they used willpower, and if they failed. They were also followed up with months later to see how they had progressed on personal goals.
What they found that those people who reached goals successfully didn’t use willpower more often. But they were better at not being tempted in the first place.
There is also something to be said for having a bit of discipline. Research on how we plan and control our environment can have a direct effect on the things that tempt us. By better controlling our situations, we have to rely less on willpower to begin with.
This doesn’t mean that the theory of ego-depletion is completely wrong. It’s just that it’s more complex and nuanced. And there’s a lot that it doesn’t account for.
The good news is that this can help lead us to more effective strategies for willpower. To learn what really works and what doesn’t.
But here’s probably the biggest take away for most people. While willpower is still a useful trait, it may be best to use it only as a last result.
There are better, more effective strategies than believe that blunt willpower is the best way to change your diet, behavior, or habits.