What is willpower? Is it a skill or muscle? Definition of willpower goes like ‘the ability to control one’s own actions, emotions, or urges’. Below are the experiments described in the book ‘The Power of Habit’ by Charles Duhigg about willpower & its connection to success in life.
Experiment at Stanford
There was one famous experiment, conducted in the 1960s, in which scientists at Stanford had tested the willpower of a group of four-year-olds. The kids were brought into a room and presented with a selection of treats, including marshmallows. (Image credit pixabay)
They were offered a deal: They could eat one marshmallow right away, or, if they waited a few minutes, they could have two marshmallows. Then the researcher left the room. Some kids gave in to temptation and ate the marshmallow as soon as the adult left. About 30 percent managed to ignore their urges and doubled their treats when the researcher came back fifteen minutes later. Scientists, who were watching everything from behind a two-way mirror, kept careful track of which kids had enough self-control to earn the second marshmallow.
Years later, they tracked down many of the study’s participants. By now, they were in high school. The researchers asked about their grades and SAT scores, ability to maintain friendships, and their capacity to “cope with important problems.” They discovered that the four-year-olds who could delay gratification the longest ended up with the best grades and with SAT scores 210 points higher, on average, than everyone else. They were more popular and did fewer drugs.
If you knew how to avoid the temptation of a marshmallow as a preschooler, it seemed, you also knew how to get yourself to class on time and finish your homework once you got older, as well as how to make friends and resist peer pressure. It was as if the marshmallow-ignoring kids had self-regulatory skills that gave them an advantage throughout their lives.
Scientists began conducting related experiments, trying to figure out how to help kids increase their self-regulatory skills. They learned that teaching them simple tricks—such as distracting themselves by drawing a picture or imagining a frame around the marshmallow, so it seemed more like a photo and less like a real temptation—helped them learn self-control.
By the 1980s, a theory emerged that became generally accepted: Willpower is a learnable skill, something that can be taught the same way kids learn to do the math and say “thank you.” But funding for these inquiries was scarce. The topic of willpower wasn’t in trend. Many of the Stanford scientists moved on to other areas of research.
Experiment at Case Western Reserve
Everyone who walked into the room where the experiment was being conducted at Case Western Reserve University agreed on one thing: The cookies smelled delicious. They had just come out of the oven and were piled in a bowl, oozing with chocolate chips. On the table next to the cookies was a bowl of radishes. All-day long, hungry students walked in, sat in front of the two foods, and submitted, unknowingly, to a test of their willpower that would upend our understanding of how self-discipline works.
At the time, there was relatively little academic scrutiny into willpower. Psychologists considered such subjects to be aspects of something they called “self-regulation,” but it wasn’t a field that inspired great curiosity.
However, when a group of psychology PhD candidates at Case Western—including one named Mark Muraven—discovered those studies in the mid-nineties, they started asking questions the previous research didn’t seem to answer.
To Muraven, this model of willpower-as-skill wasn’t a satisfying explanation. A skill, after all, is something that remains constant from day to day. If you have the skill to make an omelet on Wednesday, you’ll still know how to make it on Friday.
In Muraven’s experience, though, it felt like he forgot how to exert willpower all the time. Some evenings he would come home from work and have no problem going for a jog. Other days, he couldn’t do anything besides lie on the couch and watch television. It was as if his brain—or, at least, that part of his brain responsible for making him exercise—had forgotten how to summon the willpower to push him out the door. Some days, he ate healthily. Other days, when he was tired, he raided the vending machines and stuffed himself with candy and chips.
If willpower is a skill, Muraven wondered, then why doesn’t it remain constant from day to day? He suspected there was more to willpower than the earlier experiments had revealed. But how do you test that in a laboratory?
Muraven’s solution was the lab containing one bowl of freshly baked cookies and one bowl of radishes. The room was essentially a closet with a two-way mirror, outfitted with a table, a wooden chair, a hand bell, and a toaster oven. Sixty-seven undergraduates were recruited and told to skip a meal. One by one, the undergrads sat in front of the two bowls.
“The point of this experiment is to test taste perceptions,” a researcher told each student, which was untrue. The point was to force students—but only some students—to exert their willpower. To that end, half the undergraduates were instructed to eat the cookies and ignore the radishes; the other half were told to eat the radishes and ignore the cookies. Muraven’s theory was that ignoring cookies is hard—it takes willpower. Ignoring radishes, on the other hand, hardly requires any effort at all.
“Remember,” the researcher said, “eat only the food that has been assigned to you.” Then she left the room.
Once the students were alone, they started munching. The cookie eaters were in heaven. The radish eaters were in agony. They were miserable forcing themselves to ignore the warm cookies. Through the two-way mirror, the researchers watched one of the radish eaters pick up a cookie, smell it longingly, and then put it back in the bowl. Another grabbed a few cookies, put them down, and then licked melted chocolate off his fingers.
After five minutes, the researcher re-entered the room. By Muraven’s estimation, the radish eaters’ willpower had been thoroughly taxed by eating the bitter vegetable and ignoring the treats; the cookie eaters had hardly used any of their self-discipline.
Important Puzzle In-between
“We need to wait about fifteen minutes for the sensory memory of the food you ate to fade,” the researcher told each participant. To pass the time, she asked them to complete a puzzle. It looked fairly simple: trace a geometric pattern without lifting your pencil from the page or going over the same line twice. If you want to quit, the researcher said, ring the bell. She implied the puzzle wouldn’t take long.
In truth, the puzzle was impossible to solve. This puzzle wasn’t a way to pass time; it was the most important part of the experiment. It took enormous willpower to keep working on the puzzle, particularly when each attempt failed. The scientists wondered, would the students who had already expended their willpower by ignoring the cookies give up on the puzzle faster? In other words, was willpower a finite resource?
From behind their two-way mirror, the researchers watched. The cookie eaters, with their unused reservoirs of self-discipline, started working on the puzzle. In general, they looked relaxed. One of them tried a straightforward approach, hit a roadblock, and then started again. And again. And again. Some worked for over half an hour before the researcher told them to stop. On average, the cookie eaters spent almost nineteen minutes apiece trying to solve the puzzle before they rang the bell.
Skill or Muscle!
The radish eaters, with their depleted willpower, acted completely different. They muttered as they worked. They got frustrated. One complained that the whole experiment was a waste of time. Some of them put their heads on the table and closed their eyes. One shouted at the researcher when she came back in.
On average, the radish eaters worked for only about eight minutes, 60 percent less time than the cookie eaters, before quitting. When the researcher asked afterward how they felt, one of the radish eaters said he was “sick of this dumb experiment.”
“By making people use a little bit of their willpower to ignore cookies, we had put them into a state where they were willing to quit much faster,” Muraven told me. “There’s been more than two hundred studies on this idea since then, and they’ve all found the same thing. Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.”
Researchers have built on this finding to explain all sorts of phenomena. Why good physicians make dumb mistakes (which most often occur after a doctor has finished a long, complicated task that requires intense focus). “If you want to do something that requires willpower—like going for a run after work—you have to conserve your willpower muscle during the day,” Muraven told me. “If you use it up too early on tedious tasks like writing emails or filling out complicated and boring expense forms, all the strength will be gone by the time you get home.”
“The world’s greatest achievers have been those who have always stayed focussed on their goals and have been consistent in their efforts.”- Dr Roopleen