Will power. It’s one of those ideas we all talk about pretty often—and not usually when things are going well. You don’t hear too many people talking about how they really gave their will power a good workout today, or how it’s responding so well to their efforts to strengthen it.
Nope—will power is that mysterious, ill-defined factor that always seems to be missing whenever we need it most: “I just don’t seem to have any will power at all when it comes to______” (you fill in the blank). And then everyone nods their heads sympathetically, and jumps in with their own latest will power horror story.
But if you asked 10 different people to define what “will power” actually is, you’d probably get quite a few different ideas.
In practical terms, most of us would probably agree that what we mean by “will power” is the capacity to stick to our own good intentions, goals, and responsibilities even when we’re faced with temptations to do something else instead. But what actually gives us that capacity? Is will power the same thing as motivation, or self-discipline, or focus, or determination? Does it come from inside or outside? Can you have very strong will power in some areas of your life (like getting yourself out of bed on time almost every day), but practically none in others (like resisting certain foods or staying consistent with exercise)?
And maybe most importantly, is will power something you can learn and develop over time, or is it just something you either have or don’t have courtesy of your genes?
So far, at least, scientists who study will power haven’t done much better than the rest of us at coming up with a definition. They also haven’t located a specific area of the brain that’s responsible for resisting temptations, or any genes that make it easier or harder to resist temptation and stick to your goals.
But they do know there’s quite a bit more we can do to resist our impulses and stick to our good intentions, beyond telling ourselves to “Just Do It.” According to the research, there are three reliable and proven ways you can boost your own will power.
The Marshmallow Test
The first and most time-honored strategy for resisting temptation is, of course, distraction. As described in this NPR story, Columbia University psychologist Walter Mischel did a series of famous experiments in the 1960s, where he put hundreds of young kids in a room, one at a time by themselves, with a marshmallow on the table. He explained to each child that s/he could eat the marshmallow right away if desired, or wait until Mischel returned to the room, in which case the child would get two marshmallows instead of just the one.
The results were pretty much what you might expect. Some of the kids could barely keep the marshmallow out of their mouths for a minute, while others managed to wait as long as 20 minutes and earn the second marshmallow. What Mischel did notice, though, was that virtually all the kids who were able to resist eating the marshmallow right away used the same strategy. They did everything but pay attention to the marshmallow—they wandered around the room, kicked the furniture, twisted their hair, talked or sang songs to themselves, and so on. The other kids often tried distraction for a little while, but kept coming back to the marshmallow until they finally ate it.
Turning the “Heat” Down.
In a different variation on this same experiment, Mischel tried to see if it would matter if kids were given some additional tools they could use to resist the “lure” of the marshmallows. One big reason a marshmallow (or any other treat) is so appealing is that we start anticipating the pleasure it will give us—the taste, the texture, the smell, memories of enjoying them previously, etc. When you bundle all these things together, you have what many psychologists refer to as a “hot” cognition—a thought that moves straight to center stage of our conscious attention, and becomes pretty hard to ignore or push aside. But what if you could use your imagination or your rational mind to take some of that emotional heat away? Would that make it easier to resist the temptation?
In this version of his experiment, Mischel gave his young test subjects the suggestion that they try to see the marshmallow as a cotton ball or a puffy cloud, instead of as a marshmallow. This simple suggestion produced a large increase in the number of kids who were able to resist eating the marshmallow.
Regular readers of this blog might recognize this as a very mild and user-friendly version of aversion therapy, where you try to take things one step further by not merely cooling down your “hot cognitions” but actually making them unpleasant and unwanted, so that you’re actively motivated to avoid them. Hopefully, you won’t have to resort to that. Another way to accomplish similar results would be to become an avid food label reader or calorie counter, so that you start looking at tempting foods not in terms of their emotional or sensory appeal, but in terms of their nutritional value and whether that one minute of pleasure on the lips is worth the consequences.
Pick your battles carefully.
A third effective strategy for boosting your ability to resist temptations is to simply recognize that you can’t resist all of them. As this research suggests, our ability to constantly regulate ourselves is very limited, and the more we struggle to control what we think or feel or say or do in one area, the harder it becomes to do it in another areas. This doesn’t mean that self-regulation is impossible or that it can't be improved--just that we need to be smart and careful about how we go about it. And it probably means that the approach that is most likely to succeed in real life is one based on moderation, balance, and planning ahead to minimize problems, not one based on trying to be a superhero and do everything perfectly.
Personally, I think the idea of “will power” is not all that helpful, mainly because it’s so easy to turn it into yet another example of what’s “wrong” with us—we’re missing some fundamental ingredient that makes it possible for people to be strong and avoid temptations. Or into an excuse for not taking a serious look at what we could be doing differently. The reality usually is that we just haven’t learned the skills and mental habits it takes to handle temptations more effectively—and it’s never too late to do that.
What do you think?