Summary on this article "why willpower is overrated"

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 Relying on willpower is a recipe for failure.

Psychologists increasingly think effortful restraint is not the key to the good life. So what is?  By Brian Resnick @B_resnick [email protected] Updated Jan 2, 2020, 11:15am EST

Why willpower is overrated

| Getty Creative Images

People with a lot of self-control — people who, when they happen upon a delicious food

they don’t think they should eat, seemingly grin and bear the temptation until it passes —

have it easy.

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But why? For a long time, the thinking was that these people are good at inhibiting their

impulses. That they have a lot of willpower and they know how to use it.

People who are bad at resisting temptation, meanwhile, supposedly have insufficient or

underexploited willpower, a view with deep cultural and moral roots. (Think Adam and Eve

and the original sin.) It’s also deeply embedded in the pop psychology of reaching goals

and self-improvement. “People are happiest and healthiest when there is an optimal fit

between self and environment, and this fit can be substantially improved by altering the

self to fit the world,” argued an influential 2004 paper that proposed a questionnaire to

rate people on self-control.

But this idea, that people have self-control because they’re good at willpower, is looking

more and more like a myth. It turns out that self-control, and all the benefits from it, may

not be related to inhibiting impulses at all. And once we cast aside the idea of willpower, we

can better understand what actually works to accomplish goals, and hit those New Year’s


The idea of willpower has withered as the scientific tests for it have gotten better

There are two main ways to measure a person’s level of self-control.

One is with the self-control scale first published in 2004. This asks participants to agree or

disagree with statements like “I am good at resisting temptation” and “I don’t keep secrets

very well.” (See the whole questionnaire here.)

It’s a pretty simple measure, and it does a remarkable job at predicting success in life.

“Those self-report scales are really meaningful; they predict ‘the good life,’” Michael

Inzlicht, a University of Toronto psychologist who studies self-control, said in early 2018.

People who score highly on this scale have better relationships, are better at abstaining

from binge eating and alcohol, do better in school, and are generally happier. (A 2012

meta-analysis with more than 32,648 participants found compelling evidence that these

links are solid.)

A second way to measure self-control is to actually test it, behaviorally, in a situation. In a

classic (and increasingly challenged) self-control study, psychologist Roy Baumeister had

participants resist the smell of just-baked cookies.

Today, it’s much more common for psychologists to use brain teasers that create internal,

cognitive conflicts that participants have to use willpower to overcome.

For many years, Inzlicht explains, psychologists assumed that the self-control measured by

the questionnaire measured the same thing (or something overlapping) as the behavioral

tests of willpower.

Inzlicht and his collaborators wanted to answer a simple question with rigorous methods:

Do these two measurements of self-control relate to each other? That is, are people who

say they are good at self-control in the broad sense (and have the positive life outcomes to

prove it) actually good at summoning willpower in the moment?

They ran a series of studies with more than 2,400 participants, who took the questionnaire

and then completed a task designed to test their powers of inhibition.

One of these tests is called the Stroop task, and it is very hard. In it, participants are given

words of colors, but the font of those words is a totally different color. Here’s an example.

It hurts my brain just looking at it.

An example of the frustrating color-word jumble of the Stroop task. Looking at this makes my head hurt.

Participants have to indicate which color they see and ignore what the word actually says.

“When the meaning of the word conflicts with the color of the word, you have a conflict,”

| Wikipedia

Inzlicht says. And, the thinking goes, you have to use self-control to power your brain

through this conflict and come to the right answer.

Other trials used what’s called the Flanker task, which poses a similar brain twister.

Participants see a row of arrows and have to indicate which direction the central arrow

points. This becomes very hard when the central arrow points in the opposite direction of

all the others. You have to use effortful restraint to avoid the temptation of assuming all the

arrows point in the same direction.

Again, you’d assume people who say they are good at self-control excel at these tasks that

demand a lot of restraint, right?

That wasn’t the case. The results, published in the journal Collabra Psychology, showed

“there’s either a very small, almost trivially sized, relationship between these two types of

measures or there’s no relationship at all,” says Blair Saunders, a University of Dundee

psychologist and the lead author of the study. “I think that’s the strongest conclusion you

can make.”

So think about that. In these rigorous tests, people who say they’re great at self-control

aren’t much better at controlling themselves than the rest of us.

There are a few possible reasons why.

1) Perhaps the self-control we employ when struggling through the Stroop task is not the

same as when we’re resisting the urge to eat a plate of delicious cookies.

If this is the case, psychologists need to go back to the drawing board and redefine “self-

control” in more careful terms. It’s often been assumed that the self-control questionnaire

and these cognitive tasks measure the same or similar thing. It could be that “self-control”

as we think of it is much too broad a concept, and needs to be broken down into simpler


2) The self-report scale is picking up on something else besides willpower to inhibit

thoughts and feelings — things like habits, personal preferences, or the result of people

living in a less tempting environment.

3) It could also be due to something researchers call the “reliability paradox.” Basically,

on a hard test like the Stroop, there isn’t a huge range of scores. That lack of variation can

make it difficult to use the test to access individual differences.

So which one is it? “I‘d say it is a scientific puzzle that needs to be sorted out and that

could lead to new research and some interesting insights,” Sanjay Srivastava, a University

of Oregon personality psychologist who wasn’t involved in the research, says in an email.

Other studies find willpower doesn’t work

The case against willpower as a means of achieving goals is growing in the published


Take a 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which

tracked 205 people for one week in Germany. The study participants were given

BlackBerrys that would go off at random, asking them questions about the desires,

temptations, and self-control they were experiencing in the moment.

The paper stumbled on a paradox: The people who were the best at self-control — the

ones who most readily agreed to survey statements like “I am good at resisting

temptations” — reported fewer temptations throughout the study period. To put it more

simply: The people who said they excelled at self-control were hardly using it at all.


More recently, Inzlicht and his collaborator Marina Milyavskaya (also a co-author on the

latest paper) confirmed and expanded on this idea. In their study, they monitored 159

students at McGill University in Canada in a similar manner for a week.

If resisting temptation is a virtue, then more resistance should lead to greater

achievement, right? That’s not what the results, published in the journal Social

Psychological and Personality Science, found.

The students who exerted more self-control were not more successful in accomplishing

their goals. It was the students who experienced fewer temptations overall who were more

successful when the researchers checked back in at the end of the semester. What’s

more, the people who exercised more effortful self-control also reported feeling more

depleted. So not only were they not meeting their goals, they were also exhausted from


What we can learn from people who are good at self-control

So who are these people who are rarely tested by temptations? They’re doing something

right. Recent research suggests a few lessons we can draw from them.

1) People who are better at self-control actually enjoy the activities some of us

resist — like eating healthy, studying, or exercising.

So engaging in these activities isn’t a chore for them. It’s fun.

“‘Want to’ goals are more likely to be obtained than ‘have to’ goals,” Milyavskaya said in an

interview last year. “Want-to goals lead to experiences of fewer temptations. It’s easier to

pursue those goals. It feels more effortless.”

If you’re running because you “have to” get in shape but find running to be a miserable

activity, you’re probably not going to keep it up. An activity you like is more likely to be

repeated than an activity you hate.

2) People who are good at self-control have learned better habits.

In 2015, psychologists Brian Galla and Angela Duckworth published a paper in the Journal

of Personality and Social Psychology, finding across six studies and more than 2,000

participants that people who are good at self-control also tend to have good habits — like

exercising regularly, eating healthy, sleeping well, and studying.

“People who are good at self-control … seem to be structuring their lives in a way to avoid

having to make a self-control decision in the first place,” Galla tells me. And structuring

your life is a skill. People who do the same activity, like running or meditating, at the same

time each day have an easier time accomplishing their goals, he says — not because of

their willpower, but because the routine makes it easier.

A trick to wake up more quickly in the morning is to set the alarm on the other side of the

room. That’s not in-the-moment willpower at play; it’s planning.

This theory harks back to one of the classic studies on self-control: Walter Mischel’s

“marshmallow test,” conducted in the 1960s and ’70s. In these tests, kids were told they

could either eat one marshmallow sitting in front of them immediately or eat two later. The

ability to resist the immediate gratification was found to correlate with all sorts of positive

life outcomes, like SAT scores and BMIs.

More recent work has cast doubt on these findings. A recently published replication of

the marshmallow test study showed that the ability to delay gratification at an early age

isn’t correlated with better outcomes later in life, if you control for the kids’ family

background (i.e. socioeconomic status and parenting) and intelligence.

What’s more, the kids who were best at the test weren’t necessarily intrinsically better at

resisting temptation. They might have been employing a critical strategy.

“Mischel has consistently found that the crucial factor in delaying gratification is the ability

to change your perception of the object or action you want to resist,” the New Yorker

reported in 2014. That means kids who avoided eating the first marshmallow would find

ways not to look at the candy, or imagine it as something else.

“The really good dieter wouldn’t buy a cupcake,” Kentaro Fujita, a psychologist at Ohio

State University, said in 2016. “They wouldn’t have passed in front of a bakery; when they

saw the cupcake, they would have figured out a way to say yuck instead of yum; they might

have an automatic reaction of moving away instead of moving close.”

3) Some people just experience fewer temptations.

Our dispositions are determined in part by our genetics. Some people are hungrier than

others. Some people love gambling and shopping. People high in conscientiousness — a

personality trait largely set by genetics — tend to be healthier and more vigilant students.

When it comes to self-control, they won the genetic lottery.

4) It’s easier to have self-control when you’re wealthy.

When Mischel’s marshmallow test is repeated on poorer kids, there’s a clear trend: They

perform worse, and appear less able to resist the treat in front of them.

But there’s a good reason for this. As University of Oregon neuroscientist Elliot Berkman

argues, people who grow up in poverty are more likely to focus on immediate rewards than

long-term rewards, because when you’re poor, the future is less certain.

Why the myth of willpower is so troubling

As anyone who has struggled with a diet knows, willpower won’t work in the long run. And

failures of inhibition are too often confused for a moral failing. We blame willpower

failings for weight gain, even though it’s genetics and our calorie-laden environments

conspiring against out waistlines. We blame addicts for not restraining their urges, even

though their addiction has a biological hold on their brain.

And overall, psychologists are shying away from the concept, as years of work suggesting

that willpower is a finite, essential resource has come under intense scrutiny.

In a specific situation, sure, you can muster willpower to save yourself from falling back into

a bad habit. But relying on willpower alone to accomplish goals “is almost like relying on

emergency brake when you are driving your car,” Saunders says. “You should focus on

things that drive you toward your goals rather than stopping things that are in your way.”

What’s more, the human “emergency brake” that is willpower is bound to fail in some

instances, causing you to crash.

And it’s time we all took these lessons to heart. Focusing on failures of willpower leads to

shame, both public and private, and holds back our curiosity from finding and enacting

solutions that actually work.