Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Willpower

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What is it and how can it be strengthened?

Overview[edit | edit source]

According to Mischel, Gollwitzer and Bargh (1996), “willpower” can make you smarter, healthier and wealthier. Willpower is therefore something that the majority of people would like to increase in their lives. But what is willpower, and how can a person get more of it?

Willpower is an elusive directive power that cannot be easily measured. Two centuries of philosophical analysis by the most brilliant minds could seemingly not pin it down (Reeve, 2015). Yet willpower, whatever it might be, seems to be an exceedingly desirable attribute. Something that gives direction and enables people to completed difficult tasks[grammar?].

Merriam Webster defines willpower as “the ability to control yourself: strong determination that allows a person to do something difficult (such as to lose weight or quit smoking)” or “energetic determination” (Merriam Webster, n.d). From a psychological point of view, willpower is best defined in behavioural terms as self-control (Baumeister & Theirney, 2011). This chapter discusses the science about willpower/self-control and addresses questions including: Are human beings born with a certain amount of self control, or is it like a muscle which can be strengthened and built up?

Willpower history[edit | edit source]

Aristotle first proposed the idea of will (350BC) arguing that the soul has free will and that the mind is a tabula rasa or blank slate[factual?]. Descartes argued that people were motivated both by their will and by a type of animalistic instinct (Petri & Govern, 2004). Descartes’ notion of will became one of the grand theories of motivated action which was eventually abandoned when it became clear that it could be neither defined nor scientifically evaluated at the time (Reeve, 2015).

Although it is difficult to pinpoint definitively when the term was coined it seems that the earliest researchers can determine when the word “willpower” was in its usage by the abolitionist preacher La Roy Sunderland, who evinced interest in such topics as mesmerism and phrenology (Schmit, 2005). In Pathetism (1847) Sunderland wrote: “What Love most desires, the will-power executes ... When the Love is feeble, the will-power corresponds; hence, what the mind does not much desire, the will power is not much exerted to obtain” (p. 80). For Sunderland, willpower corresponded to the will exercising the ability to take action, as defined by the commonsense thinking of the day.

Willpower was originally defined as a kind of “firmness” in terms of phrenological powers and could thus be developed via phrenology, but was not a phrenological power in its own right. In fact it wasn’t until 1851 that Hoel, a well-known phrenologist, actually used the term “willpower” in a phrenological text (Kugelmann, 2013). By the end of the 1850s, phrenologists regularly used the term willpower, although not as a technical category. This brought the term into popular speech and eventually into the field of mind and personality (White, 2009). White (2009) concluded that phrenology informed “lay discourses on mind and personality” in the mid-[which?]century.

Baumeister and Tierney (2011) likewise noted that the term willpower originally became popular during the Victorian Age, when societal changes and the decline in religious fervour led people to become concerned about the upholding of moral values. According to Baumeister and Tierney (2011), “they began using the term willpower, because of the folk notion that some kind of force was involved - some inner equivalent to the steam powering the Industrial Revolution.”

However, May (1953) believed that the earlier cultural emphasis on “willpower” was an overly rationalistic approach to human action: “[R]eason was supposed to give the answer to any problem, will power was supposed to put it into effect” (p. 50). May (1953) argued that the concept of willpower was representative of the efforts of the arrogant Victorian man who believed in his superiority over all things, including nature and himself.

The demise of the concept of willpower was set off by Victorian excesses and hastened by a First World War prolonged by a mindset of duty and self-sacrifice which led to the deaths of millions of men, women and children. Willpower seemed to die an ignominious death at the hands of the Nazi war machine when they co-opted the term for their propaganda film The Triumph of Will (Baumeister & Tierney, 2011).

Given its representation in both oppressive regimes and Freudian-style repression it should come as no surprise that the concept was more or less abandoned as Freud’s “anti-will” psychoanalysis established itself (Kugelmann, 2013). As psychology separated from philosophy, theorists such as Freud (Kugelmann, 2013) and later Skinner (1938) made desperate attempts to abandon the folk concept of willpower for good. Freud (Kugelmann, 2013) attempted to replace the concept of choice with unconscious motives determined by the transformation of a person's base impulses during the intra-psychic wars waged between their Ego, Id and Superego. Meanwhile Skinner (1938) discounted willpower in favour of a type of environmental determinism.

Following World War II, a newly booming economy gave rise to an advertising industry which encouraged Americans to strive for the American dream of popularity and prosperity (Baumeister & Tierney, 2011). It seems that with this greater emphasis on positivity, the country’s collective willpower declined even more. In The Quest for Identity, psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis (1958) found that clients now had deeper insight into their neuroses, but conversely, as a result of declining self-discipline, they encountered more difficulty in actually making the required changes to their lives (Baumeister & Tierney, 2011).

During this period in time when psychologists shared the absolute conviction that willpower was just another fiction through which humanity tried to delude themselves (Kugelmann, 2013), George Kelly (1955) argued that human beings were more than simply organisms “driven” or motivated by the subconscious. Kelly (1955) proposed that people are also observers and interpreters of their own person and of their behaviour. Whilst Kelly (1955) did not believe that humans could change events, he did argue for humanities' ability to interpret and analyse these events in novel ways which would enhance the opportunity to exercise freedom and choice.

Although many tried to remove self-control (willpower) from the realms of psychological science, the concept continued to return in various guises to plague psychologists. Despite this it took a chance observation[explain?] during Walter Mischel's 1970s deferral-of-gratification studies for the concept of self-control (willpower) to experience a long-awaited resurgence as a powerful motivational force in human behaviour (Mischel, Gollwitzer & Bargh, 1996; Baumeister & Tierney, 2011).

Willpower, self-control, drive, resolution, resolve, determination, grit, self-discipline, single-mindedness, fixity of purpose, no matter what it is called, the ability to control oneself and determine one's actions and impulses is critical to achieving success (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999). Fiscal responsibility, healthy eating habits exercise, health lifestyle habits, all of these areas require the ability to apply the concept of self-control or willpower.

Theories[edit | edit source]

In The Cultural Animal, Baumeister (2005) noted that when anthropologists and neuroscientists studied the evolutionary causes of willpower, they concluded that humans developed the capability of self-control because of the need for social cohesion. If humans were not able to control urges for eating, mating and so forth it could cause friction between individuals and others in the immediate social circle. Imagine what would happen if, during an icy winter in European, a hungry human ancestor decided to eat all of the combined food stores? Imagine a world where humans do just exactly what they want to.

A Hot/Cool-system[edit | edit source]

In the 1970s, Walter Mischel ran a series of deferral-of-gratification studies to test willpower in young children (Mischel et al, 1996). Mischel later tracked the progress of those young children and found a positive correlation between the ability to delay self-gratification and a number of positive traits connected to willpower as adults, from higher SAT scores to higher salaries to a lower body-mass index (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999). Metcalfe and Mischel (1999) found that children who were good at delaying self-gratification were good at temporal discounting. They did not view the short-term reward as highly pleasurable (hot), but instead viewed it as “cold” (not highly pleasurable) and deemed the long-term reward “hot” (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999).

The Strength Model of Self-Control[edit | edit source]

In 1998 Baumeister, Braslavsky, Muraven and Tice conducted an experiment in which two groups of people were given a task which required them to persist at attempting to solve an impossible geometric puzzle. Prior to completing the task the participants fasted for three hours. One group was offered freshly baked chocolate chip cookies upon entering the locale whilst the other group was required to exert self-control in order to resist the wafting aromas of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and eat radishes instead. On average the participants who had to exert self-control could persist at the puzzle for an average of only 8 minutes in comparison to an average of 19 minutes for the participants who ate the chocolate chip cookies (Baumeister et al, 1998).

This experiment seemed to indicate that self-control might be more akin to energy than a skill. Self-control also seemed to exist in limited amounts and could be depleted by repeated attempts to exert self-control (Baumeister et al, 1998).

A 2012 study by Hofmann, Vohs and Baumeister of 205 [missing something?] found evidence to support the strength model of self-regulation and identified the same ego depletion after repeated exertion of self-control as was found in the 1998 study (Hofmann et al, 2011). Surprisingly, despite their reputation for causing strong addictive cravings, tobacco and alcohol had the lowest average desire strength. Participants however found it near impossible to resist desires for non-alcoholic drinks, alcohol, media use, social contact and work (Hofmann, Vohs and Baumeister, 2012).

Above-average levels of goal-conflict were associated with desires for spending, sports participation, media use, and tobacco as well as leisure activities and sleep. Interestingly, thirst was the least conflicted desire, except when expressly aimed at alcohol consumption work (Hofmann, Vohs and Baumeister, 2012).

The study further found that ego depletion only occurred in cases where the person was actively resisting temptation. Further analysis showed that the daily number of reported desires per participant had no effect on ego depletion, but that continued exposure to, and resistance of a stimulus, effected a type of "training" effect on the person with corresponding effects on ego depletion. They concluded that resources depletion did not affect motivation to exert self-control, but did affect the actual ability of people to exert self-control (Hofmann, Vohs and Baumeister, 2012).

Studies by Gailliot et al (2007) offered a possible origin for the phenomenon of ego depletion in glucose. Gailliot et al (2007) identified glucose as the limited energy source for self-control. Whilst initial levels of glucose were not a predictor of a loss of self-control, significant drops in glucose levels were found post a self-control test, and these were associated with a lack of self-control when attempting further tests. Furthermore, correcting glucose levels post the self-control test resulted in a better outcome in future tests (Gailliot et al, 2007). Gailliot & Baumeister (2007) further identified various areas of behaviour such as resisting impulsivity, coping, controlling aggression and abstaining from criminal behaviour, within which balancing out glucose levels improved future self-control.

Motivational Versus Metabolic Effects[edit | edit source]

A study by Molden et al (2012) challenged Baumeister et al’s 1998 Strength Model of Self-Control, proposing that the dopamine response to the anticipation of the high energy carbohydrate (sugar) reward, rather than the reward itself, was the motivational force behind self-control. Molden et al (2012) found that even when participants simply rinsed their mouths with a high-carbohydrate solution (which did not raise their actual blood glucose levels) their self-control increased dramatically.

Ego Depletion—Is It All in Your Head?[edit | edit source]

Job, Dweck and Walton, (2010) likewise found that the ego depletion of self-control evinced by the subjects in Baumeister, Braslavsky, Muraven & Tice’s 1998 experiment was worse in the case of people who believed, or were led to believe, that self-control was finite. In general those people who did not believe that self-control was a finite resource did not evince the same level of ego depletion after exerting self-control. It would seem that self-limiting expectations of self-control have a definite effect on whether or not people could continue exerting self control time after time.

Strengthening[edit | edit source]

According to Baumeister, Gailliot, DeWall & Oaten (2006) the everyday resistance of temptation/desire via the exertion of self-control is the norm rather than the exception for everyone. With odds like those[what?] the question of strengthening self-control becomes critical. Thankfully research has shown that self-control is a malleable quality which can be strengthened through regular exercise, much like a muscle. Participants who exercised regular self-control in the areas of posture control and healthy food did not experience the same amount of ego depletion as others after exercising their self-control in this manner for two weeks. Furthermore, improving self-control in these areas brought about improvements in self-control in other areas. (Baumeister, Gailliot, DeWall & Oaten, 2006).

Job, Dweck and Walton’s (2010) research into the effect of implicit theories about self-control identified the negative effect that belief about whether willpower is a finite or infinite resource can also affect the ability of people to exert ongoing self-control.

Nowhere is the mind-body connection of self-control as evident as in the research of Hung and Labroo (2011). By utilising theories of Embodied Cognition, Hung and Labroo (2011) showed that that the physical actions of firming muscles by clenching a fist, stretching fingers, tightening calf muscles, or firming biceps can enhance the ability of people to endure temporary discomfort or delay self-gratification for future gain. It would seem from these studies that cultivating a strong and healthy body (Hung & Labroo, 2011), having positive beliefs about self-control being an infinite resource (Job, Dweck & Walton, 2010), good blood glucose management (Gailliot, et al, 2007), along with exercising self-control on a regular basis will strengthen willpower and allow an individual to overcome many obstacles via the extended improvement of self-control in other areas (Baumeister, Gailliot, DeWall & Oaten, 2006).

Exercising Self-Control[edit | edit source]

Sripada (2014) defined willpower as:

a set of mental processes that serve to regulate (i.e., attenuate, suppress, block, or otherwise modify the motivational properties of) one’s own desires and other motivation-encompassing attitudes. Willpower is a form of synchronic self-control, and as such exercises of willpower regulate motivation - encompassing attitudes that are active at the very time that willpower is exercised." (p. 42)

Willpower involves cognitive processes aimed at motivating an individual to do something. Mischel noticed that those children in his experiment most successful at deferring self-gratification employed various strategies to distract from the craving caused by the proximity of the marshmallow (Mischel et al, 1996).

Willpower has a strong parallel with what psychologists term effortful control, which falls under the broader category of emotional regulation (Gross 1998). According to Sripada (2014) there are two ways of exercising self-control:

  1. Antecedent focused strategies, which rely on the person altering their perception or interpretation in regards to the environmental clues (Gross 1998b; Sripada, 2014) e.g. feeling like buying an ice cream after seeing an ice cream van, but then reconsidering the situation by deciding that the ice cream is instead a cone filled with unappetising lard-like substances, which will reduce the desire to buy a soft serve cone. In the case of the marshmallow the child might imagine that it is not a highly desirable food item, but a fluffy white pillow which is inedible.
  2. Response-focused strategies are strategies which rely on preventing the action entirely or the direct inhibition of motivation (Gross & Levenson 1993; Sripada, 2014). The direct inhibition of motivation might be accomplished by strategies such as distancing from one’s own motivation-encompassing attitudes by choosing to experience them from a third-person perspective which is detached from the emotion and motivational force (Gross & Levenson 1993; Sripada, 2014). Other distancing strategies that might have been employed by children in the Mischel study could include sitting on their hands or deliberately not looking at the marshmallow.

Each of these regulating strategies can be used individually, however in practice both are usually deployed in combination for the best result (Sripada, 2014).

See also[edit | edit source]

  • Self-Control and Health Behaviour (Book chapter, 2013)
  • Procrastination (Book chapter, 2010)
  • [[Motivation_and_emotion/Book/2013/Illicit_substances_and_motivation#Self-control_theory|Illicit substances motivation - Self-control theory (Book chapter, 2013)

Quotes[edit | edit source]

  1. “[R]eason was supposed to give the answer to any problem, will power was supposed to put it into effect.” - May (1953)
  2. “What Love most desires, the will-power executes. . . . . When the Love is feeble, the will-power corresponds; hence, what the mind does not much desire, the will power is not much exerted to obtain.” - Sunderland (1847)
  3. "You may fetter my leg, but Zeus himself cannot get the better of my free will." – Epictetus
  4. "Men can do all things if they will." - Leon Batista Alberti
  5. "Willpower is trying very hard not to do something you want to do very much." - John Ortberg
  6. "The will is the keystone in the arch of human achievement. It is the culmination of our complex mental faculties. It is the power that rules minds, men and nations." - Thomas Parker Boyd
  7. "Willpower is the key to success. Successful people strive no matter what they feel by applying their will to overcome apathy, doubt or fear." - Dan Millman

References[edit | edit source]

Baumeister, R. F. (2005). The cultural animal: Human nature, meaning, and social life. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1252-1265. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.74.5.1252

Baumeister, R. F., Gailliot, M. T., DeWall, C. N., & Oaten, M. (2006). Self‐Regulation and personality: How interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. Journal of Personality, 74(6), 1773-1802. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2006.00428.x

Baumeister, R. F., Heatherton, T. F., & Tice, D. M. (1994). Losing Control: How and why People Fail at Self-regulation. San Diego, California: Academic Press

Baumeister, R. F., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York, NY: The Penguin Press.

Gailliot, M. T., & Baumeister, R. F. (2007). The physiology of willpower: Linking blood glucose to self-control. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11(4), 303-327. doi: 10.1177/1088868307303030

Gailliot, M. T., Baumeister, R. F., DeWall, C. N., Maner, J. K., Plant, E. A., Tice, D. M., & Schmeichel, B. J. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(2), 325-336. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.92.2.325

Gross, J. J. (1998). Antecedent- and response-focused emotion regulation: Divergent consequences for experience, expression, and physiology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(1), 224-237. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.74.1.224

Gross, J. J. (1998). Antecedent- and response-focused emotion regulation: Divergent consequences for experience, expression, and physiology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(1), 224-237. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.74.1.224

Gross, J. J., & Levenson, R. W. (1993). Emotional suppression: Physiology, self-report, and expressive behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(6), 970-986. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.64.6.970

Hofmann, W., & Kotabe, H. (2012). A general model of preventive and interventive self‐control. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 6(10), 707-722. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9004.2012.00461.x

Hofmann, W., Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (2012). What people desire, feel conflicted about, and try to resist in everyday life. Psychological Science, 23(6), 582-588. doi: 10.1177/0956797612437426

Hung, I. W., & Labroo, A. A. (2011). From firm muscles to firm willpower: Understanding the role of embodied cognition in self-regulation. Journal of Consumer Research, 37(6), 1046-1064. doi: 10.1086/657240

Job, V., Dweck, C. S., & Walton, G. M. (2010). Ego depletion-is it all in your head? Implicit theories about willpower affect self-regulation. Psychological Science, 21(11), 1686-1693. doi: 10.1177/0956797610384745

Kelly, G. (1955). The psychology of personal constructs. New York: Norton.

Kugelmann, R. (2013). Willpower. Theory & Psychology, 23(4), 479-498.

Metcalfe, J., & Mischel, W. (1999). A Hot/Cool-system analysis of delay of gratification: Dynamics of willpower. Psychological Review, 106(1), 3-19. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.106.1.3

May, R. (1953). Man’s search for himself. New York, NY: Norton

Merriam-Webster. (n.d). definition of willpower. Retrieved from

Mischel, W., Gollwitzer, P. M. (Ed), & Bargh, J. A. (Ed), (1996). From good intentions to willpower. The psychology of action: Linking cognition and motivation to behavior (pp. 197-218). New York, NY: Guilford Press

Molden, D. C., Hui, C. M., Scholer, A. A., Meier, B. P., Noreen, E. E., D’Agostino, P. R., & Martin, V. (2012). Motivational versus metabolic effects of carbohydrates on self-control. Psychological Science, 23(10), 1137-1144.

Petri, H. L., & Govern, J. M. (2004). Motivation: Theory, research, and applications (5th Ed.). Australia; Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson.

Reeve, J. (2015). Understanding motivation and emotion (6th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Schmit, D. (2005). Re-visioning antebellum American psychology: The dissemination of Mesmerism, 1836–1854. History of Psychology, 8, 403–434. doi: 10:1037/1093–4510.8.4.403

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms. New York, NY: Appleton Century-Crofts.

Sripada, C. S. (2014). How is willpower possible? The puzzle of synchronic Self‐Control and the divided mind. Noûs, 48(1), 41-74. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0068.2012.00870.x

Sunderland, L. R. (1847). Pathetism. Boston, MA: White & Potter. Retrieved 11/10/2015;view=1up;seq=1

Wheelis, A. (1958). The Quest for Identity. London: V. Gollancz

White, C. G. (2009). Unsettled minds: Psychology and the American search for spiritual assurance, 1830–1940. Berkeley, CA: University of California press.

External links[edit | edit source]