I can resist anything except temptation- Oscar Wilde

In an experiment, some 4-5 years old children were taken into a private room turn by turn and each child was offered a Marshmallow but with a choice. The researcher told the child to take one Marshmallow right away or if he/she could wait for 15 minutes, he/she would get two Marshmallows. The experiment aim was to check whether the willpower or the ability to delay temptation for a bigger reward can predict more success in future. The researchers followed the children for 40 years and found that those children who waited and delayed the gratification were more successful in life.

We might credit that our greatest strength is our intelligence, humor, kindness, creativity or bravery but what often goes unacknowledged by most of us, is the perhaps the greatest virtue i.e. self-control. The authors Roy Baumeister and John Tierney in their book, Willpower provide understanding and insight into the coveted human virtue of self-control. The underlying cause of compulsive spending, impulsive violence, procrastination, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, chronic anxiety, drug abuse or mindless scrolling is the lack of self-control or willpower. They propound that whatever we need to achieve in life from financial, physical to social security, it is not possible without the greatest human virtue of self-control or Willpower.

In another experiment, some hungry students turn by turn walked into a laboratory. Some students were given freshly cooked chocolates cookies and bowl of radishes while some ‘unlucky’ students were given only radishes in laboratory suffused with aroma of chocolate chip cookies. Then all the students were taken into another room and were given, supposedly an unrelated exercise, to solve a geometry puzzle. While the students solved it for average 20 minutes, but the ‘unlucky’ students who resisted the temptation of cookie and ate only radishes, gave up in 8 minutes.

This experiment along with some other experiments and cutting edge research by Authors demonstrated two important lessons about our Willpower:

  1. We have finite amount of Willpower that becomes depleted as we use it.
  2. We use the same stock of Willpower for all manner of tasks

The Radish experiment cleared a very important point that even two completely unrelated activities, resisting chocolate and working on geometry puzzles, drew on same source of energy and depletion of willpower can seriously alter the outcome of unrelated activity also. So you can imagine, how our decision making is unconsciously altered as we use the same supply of willpower to deal with frustrating traffic, office workload, tempting food, annoying colleagues, demanding bosses, family disturbance or resisting any other desires.

Before we dig deeper, let’s start with a foremost question from where does Willpower come from? The answer is simple from Glucose. The foremost source of energy is glucose produced from the digestion of food and our brain, heart, liver etc. all use glucose. The old advice about eating a good breakfast is still relevant today as it helps in starting our day physically and mentally alert. You must have felt when you are tired, you crave sweets/desserts. The reason is simple as it is the quickest way to get energy from sugar we crave it, but that instant gush of energy given by sugar is followed by a crash that leaves us more depleted, therefore it is not a good long term strategy. So, to maintain steady self-control we are better off eating food with low glycemic index stuff like vegetables, nuts, raw fruits etc. 

The next question pops up into mind is which kind of mental processes depletes the will power the most? Obviously not automatic processes like multiplying 4 times 7 equals to 28, because it comes very easily into mind.  The answer is the decisions or processes which requires more mental effort and strain on our thought process. Decision making depletes our will power and once our willpower is depleted, we are less able to make rational decisions which we otherwise would not have made. If your work requires you to make hard decisions all day long, at some point you’re going to be depleted and start looking for ways to conserve energy and you will look for the easiest and safest option which is often to stick with the status quo or postpone or to evade decisions which is often termed as ‘decision fatigue’.

Decision Fatigue

Judging is a hard mental task and judges make one decision after another which creates decision fatigue. In a very interesting study, Jonathan Levav of Columbia University along with his team, reviewed more than one thousand decisions made over the course of 10 months by Israeli Parole Board. Each judge approved parole/bail for only 1 out of 3 prisoners but researchers found there was a striking pattern in the decisions of all the judges. The prisoners case which appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time and the cases which appeared late in the day, won parole even less than 10 percent of the time. So, it was concluded that once decision fatigue sets in, judges tend to settle for the default option i.e. to leave the prisoner in jail. This is primarily due to decision fatigue because they have to make lot of decisions involving huge mental energy and it is also combined with glucose depletion by lunch time. The depletion of glucose caused decision fatigue as it can be inferred from another pattern which was observed that in cases listed just after lunch, the chances again rose to more than 60 percent.

If judges are prone to such decision fatigue, then we can admit that Willpower depletion has very wide implications for us in our day to day decision making. You can now better understand the logic of a marital therapist who advises the couples, who fight on trivial issues every evening after work, to go home early as he suspects that the long hours at work drains there willpower and all they see after reaching home is annoying habits of their partners.

Clever marketers also exploits decision fatigue, as we as shoppers are so much tired navigating the aisles of supermarket by choosing among thousands of nutritious foods and products, that when you reach the cash counter, chocolates bar greets us and our fatigued brain wants a quick dose of glucose and we purchase the unwanted chocolate bar. We now might also understand the logic why meetings are kept in morning because to attend those so called important meeting, we need to avoid strenuous mental exercise beforehand. A word of caution here is when you are glucose deprived or fatigued, don’t go into any meeting, get into any argument or fight with your partner or take any important decision only to regret it later.

Solutions

But if we know this is how we act, is there any way to strengthen our Willpower? The Authors conclude that Willpower is like muscle which is fatigued by its use but can be strengthened by self-control.

Self-control can be achieved by following steps-

  • The first step involves setting clear and specific goals as people with clear goals tend to forge ahead and make progress.
  • The second step in self-control is to increase self-awareness by knowing one’s tendencies and limits of where one won’t be able to resist the temptation.
  • The third step is public announcement of one’s goals because people care more about what other people know about them than what they know about themselves. A personal goal can seem more real once you speak it loud, particularly when you know where audience will be monitoring you. There is a reason why religious people are less likely to develop unhealthy habits like smoking, drinking or drugs because they have to conform to religious norms of the society which condemns such activities. So if you’re looking to lose the weight, vow it before your family, friends or peers.

Another way to improve self-control to make a pre-commitment. The essence of this strategy you recognize that you will succumb to temptation as soon as you face it, so you make the trigger impossible. A gambler is better staying away from the casino, a diabetic person is better staying away from sweets or you better disable the notifications of the shopping apps if you cannot resist impulsive spending. Eventually what will begin as a pre-commitment, will soon turn into something permanent and valuable habit.

Exercising self-control in one area of life will have spilling effect over other domains of life and can yield much larger benefits. Research says that improving your body posture, switch from right hand to left hand to do daily chores like brushing your teeth, carrying any object, opening door etc., change your speech habits like try to speak in complete sentences can increase Willpower. The point in these changes is that these activities requires effort to modify because we are trying to change a habitual behavior. These exercise could be a good warm up for tackling a bigger challenge, like quitting smoking and changing lifestyle.

Takeaway

We often think willpower is a single heroic act in a crucial moment of life like enduring an injury, dealing with a crisis, beating the impossible deadline, doing a selfless act in a tragedy etc. but that one feat will remain in memory and make a good story only. But it is the small acts of enforcing good habits, resisting desires and temptations persistently over a long period of time which creates a difference in our lives.

Before saying adieu…

Finally, I think I might have led you to believe that willpower in us is a limited resource but don’t worry the recent developments in this field partially debunks this claim and shows that signs of willpower depletion was observed only in those people who believed that willpower was a limited resource and such depletion was caused by self-defeating thoughts. So, always believe your willpower is not a limited resource and don’t lose hope if sometimes you give in to temptations, because failure is the part of learning.

So, next time to make better decisions, try to articulate your reasons before you take a decision and recognize that you might succumb to willpower depletion.

Stay tuned for the next book review till then stay home, safe and curious.

Happy Reading!

Amit Malani