How Willpower Works: The Psychology of Self-Control

Posted on September 27, 2012


Dogs maintaining remarkable self-control

Willpower, self-control, the strength to persevere is something most of us wish we had more of. If I only had a little more discipline and an iron will I’d eat healthy, go to the gym, quit smoking, write that book or whatever. We say this to ourselves and each other constantly. Often we blame not having time as the culprit or not being born with the sort of genes that make someone have such power of self-control. It’s true that some people are born with more self-control than others, but understanding how it works and knowing how to train it can have tremendous benefit for our lives.

What are the benefits of self-control and why do we have it?

People who have more self-control tend to be happier, healthier, more educated, wealthier, and have better relationships. People who lack it are more likely to have addictions and end up in prison. If fact an experiment was done where children had to resist eating a piece of candy for a time in order to double the amount of candy they’d get later. The kids who could resist ended up more likely to have a better job and a happier life in general. The children who ate the candy before the time was up were more likely to have lower paying jobs, become addicted, and were more likely to be in prison.

Teenage girls in general have more self-control than boys at that age, due to the fact that women’s brains and bodies mature faster, so they’re more developed frontal lobes are better at inhibiting impulsive behavior. This explains why even though men and women have similar IQ levels, women are now getting more and higher university degrees than men, because at college age their more mature brains keep them more disciplined.

So what is self-control and why do women crave sweets during PMS?

Self-control is the ability to inhibit our feelings and impulses, most often for social reasons. Social animals tend to have more self-control and humans have the most. It’s highly correlated with the size and activity of the brain’s frontal lobes, which are also involved in planning and decision making.

If we couldn’t control our impulses for sexual urges, emotional outbursts, eating other people’s food off their plate, and fighting we wouldn’t be able to organize into productive groups. So we must inhibit our desires for the benefit of the group, which ends up benefiting the individual more overall. That’s why dogs make such good companions, they socially have to inhibit themselves, so we can tolerate having them around more than other animals. It’s no wonder that dogs are our “best friend” and people who have the most self-control end up better off in society.

According to Dr. Roy Baumeister, a leading expert on the topic, willpower or self-control is a limited resource that we have to replenish everyday. It tends to be stronger in the first half of the day than in the second. It’s very closely correlated with glucose levels in the brain and can be strengthened and fatigued like a muscle. In his experiments he has demonstrated that people who have to resist a temptation, e.g. not laughing at something or resisting a piece of chocolate, will cause them to have less self-control in a later unrelated task like working at a difficult puzzle or learning a hard skill. They’ll give up sooner in the second task the more they had to resist in the first.

This partially explains why couples might argue more after a tough day at work. They have to inhibit their emotions when dealing with others at work, but when they get home their willpower muscle is tired and they can no longer inhibit these strong emotions and the fighting begins. It’s even worse if you’re hungry.

Interestingly, his lab discovered that increasing glucose levels in the brain when our willpower is low will give us a boost to help us carry through longer. People who are trying to quit smoking can resist longer if they give themselves a boost of glucose when they feel their willpower fading. That’s one of the reasons why energy drinks are so good when working out too. He also found that prisoners tended to have lower brain glucose levels than the general population.

It’s also helps explain why women feel difficulty regulating their emotions during PMS. The glucose in the body is being redistributed from the brain to the ovaries, and women start craving sugar as a result, and many find that this helps soothe their discomfort. Grapes work well as they are about half glucose and sucrose, so it’s absorbed more quickly in the brain. This shows why diabetics have trouble controlling impulses and dieting is so difficult, you’re actually making your willpower/ glucose decrease by restricting calories.

What can we do to improve our willpower over the long term?

Dr. Baumeister further showed that willpower can actually be strengthened. Even though it gets fatigued, exercising it over time has shown to increase it for other tasks, very much like a muscle. They investigated people who practiced correct posture as a means of self-control and found that when people do this they start spending less, study more, and are more in control of their emotions.

Simply forcing yourself to do something a little more difficult everyday like monitoring your posture, flossing your teeth, using your left hand instead of your right (doesn’t work as well for lefties because they have to do this already in a right-handed world) will increase your overall willpower. It’s something you have to slowly build over time, too much strain will tap your willpower out. He recommends starting in the morning and giving yourself a break in the evening when you start because you have more willpower after sleeping, especially if you had a good breakfast.

Take home message:

  • Willpower is a limited resevoir of energy that we must preserve. This energy is used for all sorts of things so we should use it wisely, don’t waste it. Stock up on willpower by taking it easy before trying something difficult, focusing on just on one or very few goals.
  • Remove distractions or temptations instead of trying to resist them to preserve your willpower.
  • When we don’t have the capacity, we can increase our willpower in the short term with a glucose boost.
  • We can increase it over the long term by constantly trying moderately challenging things that require increasing self-control.
  • To avoid after work fights, give breathing room and maybe eat something to get the glucose levels back up before discussing matters.
  • When dieting choose a slow-carb diet, e.g. the South Beach diet. This will keep your glucose levels higher in the brain over a longer time, making it less painful to resist temptation. Crash diets and fasting cause rapid drops in glucose and willpower.

So what are your strategies for getting things done that you want to get done?