The Psychology Behind Willpower

The Psychology Behind Willpower


There are two major elements that an individual requires to achieve success, intelligence and strength. When we talk about strength, we are talking about self-control or, as it is famously known, willpower. I call it strength because that would mean that it can be developed through regular effort and activity. That is exactly what willpower is. 

Willpower lets us change ourselves and gives us the strength to persist in the face of challenges. Willpower is like a muscle, it can be increased in quantity and developed in quality. Improving self-control is the surest way to a better life, as demonstrated by research. The most major problems of compulsive spending, procrastination at work, explosive anger, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise and chronic anxiety are indicative of poor self-control. 

According to research, willpower is the one character strength that people do not recognise in themselves. Instead, a lack of self-control is at the top of the list when asked about failures. In the world today, there exists a plethora of inescapable temptations. Your mind can escape at any point, heavily influenced by social media, which could lead to enough damage in a ten-minute online shopping spree to destroy your budget for the rest of the year. 

What is Willpower? 

According to the American Psychology Association (APA), “Willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations to meet long-term goals”. It is the mental energy/strength that we develop to make choices that are beneficial to us in achieving success. True willpower lies in managing the cognitive system of your brain, which evaluates long-term benefits when the emotional system leads you to do what feels good at the moment. 

Psychological Theories and Experiments. 

CAPS Theory 

Researchers say that people spend at least about 4 hours a day trying to control their urges- the urge to eat, sleep, leisure in the face of work, check social networking sites etc. In a classic study by Walter Mischel, children were asked to wait to eat a marshmallow to get another marshmallow, thus getting 2 treats instead of one. Some of the children in the experiment immediately ate the first marshmallow, whereas the others were able to use self-control by distracting themselves to wait for the second marshmallow. 

The key element here is the distraction that was used by these children. The Cognitive-Affective Processing System (CAPS) Theory states that 2 systems exist- the “know” system which is cool and cognitive and the “go” system which is hot and emotional.

Using cognitive strategies like distracting yourself and re-framing your thoughts can help you manage the frustration that comes with self-control. For example, you are trying to stick to a diet. Instead of focusing on impulsively eating a piece of cake, you might distract yourself by going for a walk or reframe your thoughts to see the cake as an important step in achieving your fitness goals. These tactics make resisting temptation less unpleasant and strengthen “willpower.” 

Thus, the children who engaged with the cognitive system and avoided eating the first marshmallow were found to have better grades, test scores and high educational attainment. This theory tells us about the importance of regulating the emotional and hot system in the face of stress and thus staying focused on your long-term goals. These strategies may help people to avoid impulse spending, eating etc. 

Read More: Know About Shopping Addiction, Difference Between Impulsive and Compulsive Behavior

Ego Depletion Theory 

CAPS theory leads us to the theory of ego depletion which states that self-control is a limited resource that can get used up after heavy usage. So, if you use a lot of self-control to avoid eating a cookie, you might find it harder to resist watching TV instead of studying later. Trying to control your temper, or ignore distractions all use up the same source of strength. 

Thus, when you get into the habit of using distraction or cognitive reframing, you can save up your energy thus reducing the effects of diminishing self-control. For example, if you are tired after a long day and have an urge to skip your workout, you may use these strategies to help you find motivation without using up your limited self-control reserves.

Ego Depletion Theory was tested through a series of experiments by Roy Baumeister and his colleagues. In one experiment, participants who had to resist eating cookies and instead eat radishes gave up faster on a later difficult puzzle compared to those who hadn’t used up their self-control on the radishes. This experiment illustrated that using willpower in one task can leave us with less for the next, much like a battery that depletes with use. 

Nonlimited Theory of Willpower 

Contemporary research on willpower has a slightly different perspective which challenges the ego depletion theory. Job and colleagues did lab experiments which showed that only people who believe that willpower gets used up easily show ego depletion. People who do not accept willpower to be limited, but hold the belief that putting in the mental effort energizes one for other challenging tasks, show no signs of ego depletion. 

Thus, this theory is called the nonlimited theory of willpower. The findings imply that it is the belief of the people about their self-control energy resources that causes them to see it as limited or unlimited. There is no true lack of resources. 

How to Strengthen Willpower?

  1. Intentional decision-making: Take time to consider the consequences of your choices. For example, before buying a new phone, take some time to consider how it impacts your budget and long-term financial goals. Think about potential scenarios and outcomes to make informed decisions. Practice mindfulness to become aware of conflicting wants and needs, helping you make intentional decisions. 
  2. Stick to your commitments: If you have committed to a healthy lifestyle, you must resist the temptation to skip your daily workout no matter how you are feeling. Make decisions that align with your goals and stick to them. 
  3. Set clear and realistic goals: Developing specific, achievable goals helps to strategize for consistent willpower. For example, set a goal to lose 1-2 kgs per week instead of aiming to lose 10 kgs in a month. Achieving small successes encourages bigger goals. 
  4. Positive reinforcement: Reward yourself whenever you show self-control to reinforce the behaviour. For example, reward yourself with a movie night after sticking to your study schedule for a week. 
  5. Modify the situation: If you are easily distracted, change locations to environments free of distractions, like a library for studying. Tidying up your workplace is always a good idea. 
  6. Reframe how you think: Change how you think about difficult tasks. For instance, remind yourself how your daily workout gets you closer to your fitness goals instead of dreading it. Seek support from a therapist if needed to help change your perspective. 
  7. Meditation and Exercise: Begin your day with a ten-minute meditation session. Meditation attention, focus, stress management, and impulse control are important skills for willpower. Adjust in your routine to a daily 30-40 minute walk. Physical exercise boosts brain function important for willpower and improves your mood. 
  8. Establish habits and rituals: Stretching and journaling in the morning might help create a positive outlook for the day. To keep your attention on the important things, make it a routine to go over your priorities and goals before going to bed.
  9. Improve your way of life: Enroll in a fitness class to improve your physical well-being and create meaningful social support networks. Be in the company of friends who encourage you to achieve your objectives. 

Willpower on Various Aspects of Your Life 

Willpower affects your health, relationships, work habits, and academic performance. Higher self-control people are more likely to succeed academically because they can put studying ahead of hanging out with friends, according to research. Furthermore, willpower is important for offering emotional support in relationships. For example, you could be able to show willpower over your exhaustion and actively listen to your partner even after a hard day at work. 

Read More: The Psychology Behind Hard Work

Similar to this, you might be able to take a minute to evaluate your feelings and respond professionally to feedback on a project at work rather than becoming upset or displaying negative emotions. 

In summary, willpower is the capacity to resist immediate temptations to accomplish long-term objectives. It’s linked to both increased health and academic success. Impulses are more likely to win out when your willpower wanes. But techniques like resisting temptation and making a strategy ahead of time might be useful. It resembles a muscle that can tire yet becomes stronger with use. You may gradually strengthen your willpower and lead happier, healthier lives by concentrating on one objective at a time and maintaining your motivation. 

References +
  • Murnan, A. (2022, August 22). Willpower: What it is and how to improve it.
  • What you need to know about willpower: The psychological science of self-control. (2012, December 1).
  • Baumeister, R., & Vohs, K. (2003). Willpower, choice, and Self-Control. ResearchGate.
  • Willpower in a cognitive-affective processing system: The dynamics of delay of gratification. (n.d.).
  • Job, V., Walton, G. M., Bernecker, K., & Dweck, C. S. (2015). Implicit theories about willpower predict self-regulation and grades in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(4), 637–647.
  • Steakley, L. (2023, October 31). The science of willpower. Scope.
  • Hagger, M. S., Wood, C., Stiff, C., & Chatzisarantis, N. L. D. (2010). Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136(4), 495–525.

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