The Willpower Trick
By Jonah Lehrer*
January 9, 2012
Wired Science Blogs
January is the month of broken resolutions. The gyms are packed for a week, Jenny Craig is full of new recruits and houses are cleaned for the first time in ages. We pledge to finally become the person we want to be: svelte, neat and punctual.
Alas, it doesn’t take long before the stairmasters are once again sitting empty and those same dirty T-shirts are piling up at the back of the closet. We start binging on pizza and beer — sorry, Jenny — and forget about that pledge to become a kinder, gentler person. Human habits, in other words, are stubborn things, which helps explain why 88 percent of all resolutions end in failure, according to a 2007 survey of over 3,000 people conducted by the British psychologist Richard Wiseman.
The reason our resolutions end in such dismal fashion returns us to the single most important fact about human willpower — it’s incredibly feeble. Consider this experiment, led by Baba Shiv, a behavioral economist at Stanford University. He recruited several dozen undergraduates and divided them into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then, they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.
Here’s where the results get weird. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Shiv, is that all those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain — they were a “cognitive load” — making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the conscious mind is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before it becomes impossible for the brain to resist a piece of cake.
This helps explain why, after a long day at the office, we’re more likely to indulge in a pint of Häagen-Dazs. (In fact, one study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that just walking down a crowded city street was enough to reduce measures of self-control.) A tired brain, preoccupied with its problems and run down by the world, is going to struggle to resist what it wants, even when what it wants isn’t what we need.
The problem is only compounded by studies showing that the very act of dieting can make it even harder to resist temptation. In a 2007 experiment, Roy Baumeister — the influential psychologist behind the ego-depletion model of willpower and co-author of the interesting Willpower — gave students an arduous attention task, in which they had to watch a boring video while ignoring words at the bottom of the screen. Then, the students drank a glass of lemonade. Half of the students got lemonade with real sugar, while the other half got a drink made with Splenda. On a series of subsequent tests of self-control, the group given fake sugar performed consistently worse. The literal lack of sugar in their prefrontal cortex, that neural “muscle” behind willpower, made it even harder to not give in.
Is there a way out of this willpower trap? Are there secret exercises that can make it easier to stick with our new year resolutions? Not really. Baumeister has found that getting people to focus on incremental improvements, such as the posture of the back, can build up levels of self-control, just as doing bicep curls can strength the upper arm. Nevertheless, it’s not clear that most people even have the discipline to focus on their posture for an extended period, or that these willpower gains will last over the long term.
But there is a neat way to circumvent the intrinsic weakness of the will, which helps explain why some people have a much easier time sticking to their diet and getting to the gym. A fascinating new paper, led by an all-star team of willpower researchers including Wilhelm Hofmann, Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs, gave 205 participants in Würzburg, Germany a specially designed smartphone. For seven days, the subjects were pinged seven times a day and asked to report whether they were experiencing a strong desire. The participants were asked to describe their nature of their desire, how strongly it was felt, and whether it caused an “internal conflict,” suggesting that this was a desire they were attempting to resist. If a conflict existed, the subjects were asked to describe their ensuing success: Did they manage to not eat the ice cream? The researchers suggest that this is the first time experience-sampling methods have been used to “map the course of desire and self-control in everyday life.”
Christian Jarrett, at the excellent BPS Research Digest, summarizes the results:
The participants were experiencing a desire on about half the times they were beeped. Most often (28 per cent) this was hunger. Other common urges were related to: sleep (10 per cent), thirst (9 per cent), media use (8 per cent), social contact (7 per cent), sex (5 per cent), and coffee (3 per cent). About half of these desires were described as causing internal conflict, and an attempt was made to actively resist about 40 per cent of them. Desires that caused conflict were more likely to prompt an attempt at active self-constraint. Such resistance was often effective. In the absence of resistance, 70 per cent of desires were consummated; with resistance this fell to 17 per cent.But not everyone was equally successful at resisting the psychological conflict triggered by unwanted wants. According to the survey data, people with higher levels of self-control had just as many desires, but they were less likely to feel that their desires were dangerous. Their desires also tended to be less intense, and thus required less inner strength to resist.
These findings are incredibly revealing, as they document the banal secret of willpower. It’s not that these people have immaculate wills, able to stare down tempting calories. Instead, they are able to intelligently steer clear of situations that trigger problematic desires. They don’t resist temptation — they avoid it entirely. While unsuccessful dieters try to not eat the ice cream in their freezer, thus quickly exhausting their limited willpower resources, those high in self-control refuse to even walk down the ice cream aisle in the supermarket.
This experience-sampling study neatly confirms the influential work of Walter Mischel, which I wrote about in the New Yorker. ...
< Read the entire piece >
See also: Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?
The Marshmallow Test and Self-Control
*Jonah Lehrer scandals http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonah_Lehrer