Willpower can be an unlimited resource, study says

Oct. 25, 2010, 2:29 a.m.
Willpower can be an unlimited resource, study says
(ERIC KOFMAN/The Stanford Daily)

You’re writing a paper on your laptop, but before you know it, you’re browsing Facebook. You promise yourself that you’ll stick to a healthy eating and exercising regime, but you end up eating a bag of candy as you watch a movie. This lack of control, Stanford researchers say, may all depend on your point of view.

In a study this fall in Psychological Science, Stanford researchers found that people who believe they have a limited source of willpower display a lower ability to exercise self-control than those people who believe their willpower is unlimited. The researchers believe the implications of these findings extend beyond just study habits and into therapy developments for drug rehabilitation facilities, diabetics and healthy eating and exercising regimes.

“The popular and influential theory in psychology was that willpower is very limited,” said psychology professor Carol Dweck, one of the study authors. “But what we found was that willpower gets depleted only if you believe it does.”

The previous ego-depletion theory suggested that willpower was a biologically restrained resource. Here’s how it went: as people work on strenuous tasks, whether studying, working or cleaning, they use their psychological resource. When they do not have any more willpower left to do subsequent things — that is, once they deplete their resource — they need to “take a break” until this resource is replenished.

“It’s a very bottom-up theory,” said psychology professor and study author Greg Walton. “It’s a theory about basic thought being physiologically based.”

Through a series of four experiments, the researchers found that this conventional bottom-up theory was in need of revision.

In one of the experiments, the researchers found that subjects who said they believed that their willpower was unlimited performed better on the second task after they had worked through a strenuous first task than those who believed their willpower was limited.

“People’s theories affect their behaviors,” Walton said. “So here, the hypothesis, then, is that this research…might really be operating perhaps as a function of people’s theories about this resource.”

The researchers then tested the top-down theory on Stanford students over the course of a quarter and found how students’ personal theories about willpower affected their tendency to procrastinate.

“First, we measured what theory they believed in,” Dweck said. “At the beginning and the middle of the quarter, the two groups didn’t look so different, but around finals time, when your demands on self-control are so high, the people who believed the limited theory started looking bad. They were procrastinating or going on Facebook when they should’ve been studying.”

The researchers believe that the difference in people’s conceptions of willpower lies in how they interpret the feeling of fatigue that inevitably comes with some amount of strenuous work.

“If you think willpower is limited, that fatigue is a signal to take a break,” Dweck said. “But what we found for the people who believed willpower was unlimited was that the fatigue meant nothing to them. It didn’t say, ‘Stop studying.’ The fatigue was irrelevant.”

Despite the findings implying that we do not need breaks, changing people’s personal theories may be a difficult task.

“It’s unrealistic to tell students they don’t need breaks because they think that they do,” said Adina Glickman, associate director for academic support at the Center for Teaching and Learning. “A break is a reward, and it’s a reward system, but I think it would be reasonable to tell students that the possibility exists that breaks are not necessary and that they have more control over what they do with the trajectory of their study.”

Dweck went on to clarify that the findings do not refute the necessity of all breaks but rather the repetitive breaks that disrupt one’s ability to be efficient.

“We’re not talking about people working for 10 hours,” Dweck said. “Yes, you do need a break — you can’t work night and day. The people who feel their willpower is not limited are not saying they never need a break or they never need a snack, but the people who think it’s limited were showing deficits after a 10-minute task.”

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