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SOEL: Chapter 3: The Myth of Willpower

Monday, December 16, 2019

Chapter 3: The Myth of Willpower
This is a hard chapter for me to put into my words, mainly because it covers so many studies that were done concerning willpower. ~ Big snore~ Not really, it was all quite fascinating. I hope I do the chapter justice with my notes:

Hardly anyone has enough will power to resist tempting foods if they are routinely confronted. However, dieting requires you to resist temptation every time.

“It’s not that different people don’t have different aptitudes for self-control. We all fall somewhere in the spectrum between rampant self-indulgent and monk-like self-denial.” (p.34) I guess that covers everyone and every level of self-control.

The author looked for studies where a questionnaire was given to determine self-control. They found 500 and then within those to look for studies where they put that self-control to the test. (p. 26) They tested resisting potato chips and there was no difference between those who scored high for self-control and those that scored low – ALL ate the chips. “Self-control ability did not matter much.” (p. 35)

Studies where they examined how self-control ability correlated with the inhibition of various types of behavior: schoolwork, grades, even happiness and depression – self-control played major role, but eating was far less influenced, they found it only mattered half as much as other behavior.

When measuring self-control, they did a test called “delay of gratification test.” Maybe you have heard of this test? It is where they put children in a room with a marshmallow on the table. They were told they could get another if they can resist the first marshmallow until the researcher returned back into the room. In other words, the longer the child resisted, the better their self-control.

It was found through studies that self-control ability has a connection with success and well-being 10 years later in life. Also, they found that self-control in younger years also relates to body mass later in their adult life, 30 years later, but it should be noted that this relationship is small. They found it was an even smaller connection when they performed a questionnaire. They found that while self-control is important for many things in life, but it does not play that big of a role when it comes to body weight.

Note: the author seems contradictory here (p. 36-37) but her point is that self-control has a small role in one’s body weight.

Self-control depends on your circumstances not your ability. Some people who look like they are doing a great job resisting something may just be that they are not being tempted by that particular item. We need to distinguish between self-control and did not want it in the first place.

What sabotages will-power? First thing you do is tell yourself that you wish you had more of THAT.

There are lots of variables that influence your ability to control yourself == circumstances which make you distracted, stressed, in a bad mood or a good mood, tired, having to control yourself all day.

Distraction and Multitasking
They conducted a study to measure how much people (included those who were dieting and those who were not) ate when distracted. The subjects were given plenty of snacks while being told to watch a slide show and listen for a particular tone. When they heard the tone, they were to push a button on the floor. They were told the snacks were there to put them in a good mood while doing the study so they were unaware that the study was actually about their eating. The second group were to just listen for the tone, with no slides to watch.

The nondieters ate 30% less when distracted. The dieters ate 40% more of the candy and chips when distracted with the slide show compared to those that just had to listen for the tone.

Researchers thought maybe the distraction kept the dieters from noticing how much they ate. But, no, they were aware of how much they were eating even while distracted.

Good moods can mess you up as much as bad moods. Test participates were told they were going to receive a shock, either painful or mild. Then gave them ice cream while they waited for the anticipated shock. Dieters who were stressed about receiving a painful shock ate more than dieters who were told they’d receive a mild shock. Non-dieters ate less when stressed.

Dieters tend to eat when stressed and often choose food high in calories and/or fat. They did a study where participants were given a beeper that beeped once an hour (during waking hours) for 4 days and they had to record their mood and eating. No matter the mood, eating occurred: bad mood they ate because of stress and good mood they ate because they wanted to reward themselves.

Controlling One Thing Makes it Hard to Control Another.
One reason self-control matters so little when it comes to eating is no matter how much will-power you have, it is a limited resource. You can only use it for so long and then it runs out and it will take some time to replenish it. For instance, when you are working a muscle, you can push that muscle to failure when exercising and then have to wait for it to replenish its strength.

Although self-control is not a muscle, it works much the same way. Also if you rely on the strength of will-power to control one thing you’ll be less able to exercise self-control over the next thing that comes along.

“Making choices has been shown to deplete self-control resources, leading to worse self-control on a subsequent task.” (p. 46) This includes all the choices we make throughout the day: what products to buy, activities to do, friends to call, recipes for dinner, etc. Most of the time, we are making a choice about something. If making a choice causes us to fail at subsequent tasks that require self-control, then we are in trouble when it comes to more than just dieting.

What can we do? Limit the number of decisions we need to make, then we may be able to protect ourselves from making impulsive decisions.

The author goes on to say that we know self-control can be depleted they do not know exactly why it happens. Without knowing why it happens, there is not much we can do to enhance it. In other words, we cannot train our will-power like a muscle to make it stronger. We cannot train ourselves to get better and stronger at self-control.

The amount of will-power you need is larger than what you have, and the amount you have is too easily depleted by nearly everything you do.

She ends the chapter by saying, “If your cannot be strong, you must be smart.” The solution to the will-power issue is to use your brain to make sure you don’t need to exercise self-control.

My explanation of this chapter:
Every day we are confronted with food to eat for some it is temptation after temptation and if we are dieting (meaning following a particular food plan that restricts certain foods and limits the amount of calories to eat); those foods require lots of will-power (self-control) to resist. But, we have limited resources to do this all day long and our power starts to wane until it is depleted. Then what do we do? Eat without care, abandon all efforts to resist… yep, that is me. I do well in the morning and then at night and abandon all efforts in the evening. They call this “decision fatigue”.

I did a search for this and found I did a blog on this back on September 22, 2018 and even found this article by Melissa Rudy:
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    I'm joining this blog series late, but I appreciate your summaries. Self control, will power, or decision-making are incredibly hard to define, much less to study scientifically. I find the research studies fascinating, so please include them if it serves you well and helps your understanding.
    54 days ago

    Comment edited on: 1/1/2020 9:55:17 PM
    Will power is an interesting subject. I have never heard of this book. I simply do the best I can each day. If I mess up, I start again that day!

    67 days ago
    I have read similar things - will-power is exhaustable and decision-making uses it up, so make plans instead so you don't have to make decisions later.
    68 days ago
    Thank you very much for sharing.
    For myself I am considering to create a rule that says 'no eating at night after the evening meal, except on special occasions'. I hope that making it a simple rule it will be easier to follow (not having to decide every night if I'll have something or not, and next, what to have, and how much). And, my thought is that if I don 't start eating at night, I also don't need to muster the will power to STOP... emoticon

    I recently read a very interesting book by Roy Baumeister (and someone else) about will power. It seems that our brain needs sugar in order to be able to provide 'will power' (in other words, make good choices). So, that's hard: in order to resist eating sugary foods our brain needs a certain level of sugar! One of the tips in the book was to, when faced with a situation that requires will power, first eat something! Oh my. But the advice was also to avoid refined sugars and try to have steady blood sugar levels.
    69 days ago

    Comment edited on: 12/17/2019 5:00:19 AM
    @MollieMac - Sorry you find the studies cited in the SOEL to be offensive, I personally did not see anything wrong, but perhaps I did not communicate well with my words of what I read vs. what was written. As far as my understanding goes, all participants volunteered and were willing to do the study. The only one I found questionable was the one were the participants were told they were going to receive a shock -- but my understanding is that they were studying the anticipation rather than the shock itself and that shock never came. Hope this clarifies
    70 days ago
    "The most important decision you can make for yourself is to achieve a healthy lifestyle". That is the opening sentence of the last paragraph on Melissa Rudy's article. That action has become my mantra and it serves me well. I find the experiments cited in SOEL to be the equivalent of testing lab rats, very offensive.
    70 days ago
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