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,”
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
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.