Willpower in its simplest definition is described as the ability to deliberately do something that exerts our resources or in contrast, the ability to entirely refrain from doing something against our impulses. Overall having willpower is considered to be a strength. For instance great athletes who endure gruelling training processes to reach their goals as well as long-term cigarette smokers who give up smoking with first time around, can both be considered as having excellent willpower. Many people view willpower as some mysterious and powerful thing that can help them to live healthier, work harder and perform better. Willpower is often also viewed as a finite resource, something some of us have more or less of than others. For some, not having the willpower necessary to say no to that extra slice of cake is seen as an unavoidable weakness. Research however has begun to shed light on this elusive quality and has demonstrated that willpower is not a finite resource and is instead at least somewhat dependent on how we view it.

In a series of psychological experiments, Dr Veronika Job from the University of Zurich and her team explored the effects that one’s implicit beliefs regarding willpower, had on their impulse control behaviours.  Their experiments generally required participants who fell into groups depending on which theory of willpower (e.g. limited resource theory which posits that willpower is a limited resource or non-limited resource theory with reflects the opposite belief) they believed, to complete stepped tasks and/or questionnaires that explored their implicit thoughts regarding events/tasks that involved exertion of varied amounts of effort. These experiments revealed that having an initial mindset posed towards viewing willpower either as a limited or unlimited resource affected that individuals levels of willpower significantly. Those who fell into the limited resource condition for example appeared to view tasks as involving more physical exertion and demonstrated more resting behaviours in contrast to their unlimited resource counterparts.

What these findings illustrate is that manipulating an individual’s beliefs regarding their own willpower can lead to changes in their performance of tasks that involve using this willpower. This is turn signifies that willpower may be more dependent on motivation than on actual self-control. Believing that your will-power is limited increases your desire to rest, or take things easier. This idea of prolonging your limited resource actually causes you to perform less optimally. Thus adopting an opposite frame of mind and viewing your willpower as an infinite resource, may make it easier for you to give up that old habit or run one more lap of the track. Of course, willpower involves more than this component of thinking and research continues to broaden our understanding on this interesting topic. Nevertheless these recent findings highlight how our beliefs can drastically shape our behaviours and inform us further on how to maximise this particular strength.

Ms Niamh Allen, M.A. B.Sc.

Willpower – our beliefs matter

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