Willpower: What is it really?
Why do you sometimes choose that scrumptious chocolate desert even when you are full? Why is it that you are sometimes drawn in by the lure of the couch and TV when you should be exercising or at least reading a good book? And why do you lose your patience when you are hungry or tired? Do these situations have anything to do with a weak will?
What is willpower anyways? Perhaps it is your ability to heed the advice proffered by that virtuous and angelic voice in your head as you silence the hedonistic diabolical voice that goads you toward the pleasures of sloth or sin. Or perhaps, as Sigmund Freud once contended, it is your ego strength that enables you to forgo the emotionally and impulsively driven urges of the id. These images resonate so well with us because it often feels as though there is a tug-of-war going on inside our heads as we consider difficult or sometimes even routine choices. Often, reason prevails, and other times it does not. What is really at play here? Is it truly willpower? Is it really a matter of strength or even of choice?
As it turns out, like all issues of the human mind, it is complicated. Studies within the disciplines of psychology and neuroscience are offering increased clarity regarding this very issue. It is important to understand however, that the human brain is composed of a number of modules, each of which are striving to guide your choices. There really isn’t a top down hierarchy inside your brain with a chief executive who is pulling and pushing the levers that control your behavior. Instead, at various times, different modules assert greater amounts of control than others, and thus, the choices we make, do likewise vary in terms of quality over time. As a result of advances in technology and understanding, we are becoming increasingly aware of the key variables associated with this variation.
At a very basic level we know of two major (angelic v. diabolical) driving forces that guide our decisions. Within and across these forces there are multiple modules emitting neurotransmitters that ultimately influence the choices that we make. Broadly, the two forces are reason and emotion. As I discussed in previous posts, What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does not Rule and Retail Mind Manipulation, there is not actually a true competitive dichotomy between these two forces; instead, there appears to be a collaborative interplay among them. Regardless of their collaborative nature, we do experience a dichotomy of sorts when we choose the cheeseburger and fries over the salad, the chocolate cake over the fruit salad, or abstinence over indulgence.
Now that I have clouded the picture a bit, lets look at one study that may help reintroduce some of that clarity that I mentioned.
At Stanford University, Professor Baba Shiv, under the ruse of a study on memory, solicited several dozen undergraduate students. He randomly assigned the students to two groups. For conveniences sake, I will label the groups the 2 Digit Group and the 7 Digit Group. The students in the 2 Digit Group were given a two digit number (e.g., 17) to memorize whereas those in the 7 Digit Group where tasked with a seven digit number (e.g., 2583961). In Room-A, each individual, one subject at a time, was given a number to memorize. Once provide with the number they were given as much time as they needed to commit the number to memory. They were also told that once they had memorized the number that they were to go to Room-B, down the hall, where their ability to recall the number would be tested. As each individual student made the transition from the first room to the testing room, they were intercepted by a researcher offering them a gratuity for their participation. The offer was unannounced and provided prior to entering the testing room (Room-B). The offer included either a large slice of chocolate cake or a bowl or fruit salad.
One would expect, given the random nature of group assignment, that those in the 2 Digit group would select the cake or fruit salad in the same proportions as those in the 7 Digit group. As it turned out, there was a striking difference between the groups. Those in the 2 Digit Group selected the healthy fruit salad 67% of the time. On the other hand, those in the 7 Digit Group selected the scrumptious, but not so healthy, cake 59% of the time. The only difference between the groups was the five digit discrepancy in the memorization task. How could this seemingly small difference between the groups possibly explain why those saddled with the easier task would make a “good” rational choice 67% of the time while those with a more challenging task made the same healthy choice only 41% of the time?
The answer likely lies in the reality that memorizing a seven digit number is actually more taxing than you might think. In 1956, Psychologist George Miller published a classic paper entitled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” whereby he provided evidence that the limit of short term memory for most people is in fact seven items. This is why phone numbers and license plates are typically seven digits in length. Strings of letters or numbers that are not logically grouped in some other way, when approaching seven items in length, tend to max out one’s rational processing ability. With seven digits, one is likely to have to recite the sequence over and over in order to keep it in short term memory. It appears that those in the 7 Digit Group relative to the 2 Digit Group had reached the limits of their rational capacity and were less likely to employ good reason-based decision making with regard to the sweets. Those in the 2 Digit Group were not so preoccupied and were likely employing a more rationally based decision making apparatus. They made the healthy choice simply because they had the mental capacity to weigh the pros and cons of the options.
An overtaxed brain is likely to fall back on emotional, non-rational mechanisms to make choices and the outcomes are not always good. When you are cognitively stressed – actively engaged in problem solving – you are less likely to make sound, reason-based decisions regarding tangential or unrelated issues. That is one of the reasons why we “fall off the wagon” when we are overwhelmed.
And if you compound cognitive preoccupation with fatigue and hunger – then you may have more problems. You know those times at the end of the day when you are tired, hungry, and really irritable? Your muscles are not the only tissues that fatigue when they are not well nourished. Your brain is a major consumer of nutritional resources – and it, particularly the reasoning portion of your brain, many scientists believe, does not tolerate glucose deficits. Your grumpiness may be the result of the diminished capacity of your brain to employ reason in order to work out and cope with the little annoyances that you typically shrug off.
So, it seems, willpower is one’s ability to use the reasoning portion of your brain to make sound healthy decisions. Studies like the one above, suggest that willpower is not a static force. We must accept the limits of our willpower and realize that this source of control is in a near constant state of fluctuation – depending on one’s state of cognitive preoccupation, fatigue and perhaps blood glucose levels. It is very important that you know your limits and understand the dynamic nature of your rational capacity – and if you do, you may proactively avoid temptation and thus stay in better control of your choices. Relying on your willpower alone does not provide you with dependable safety net. Be careful to not set yourself up for failure.
Krakovsky, M. (2008). How Do We Decide? Inside the ‘Frinky’ Science of the Mind. Stanford Graduate School of Business Alumni Magazine. February Issue
Krulwich, R. & Abumrad, J. (2010). Willpower And The ‘Slacker’ Brain. National Public Radio: Radio Lab. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122781981
Lehrer, J. (2009). How We Decide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York.
Miller, G. (1956). The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. The Psychological Review. Vol. 63, pp. 81-97.