The Science of Willpower

Secrets for self-control without suffering

This Week in Willpower

A round-up of willpower news, scientific studies, and oddities on the web.

Each week I scour the web for a round-up of interesting news stories, scientific studies, and oddities on the web. Ladies and gentlemen, this was the week on willpower:


Author/blogger Jonah Lehrer considers whether living in a city drains brain power (and willpower) by exhausting mental resources, especially the prefrontal cortex. OK, but I'm not sure suburbia has done much to strengthen my self-control.

Then enjoy this extremely well-written, laugh out loud opinion piece by cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, who decries the mass panic over how technology is eroding our attention and thinking. My favorite paragraph:

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"Critics of new media sometimes use science itself to press their case, citing research that shows how 'experience can change the brain.' But cognitive neuroscientists roll their eyes at such talk. Yes, every time we learn a fact or skill the wiring of the brain changes; it's not as if the information is stored in the pancreas. But the existence of neural plasticity does not mean the brain is a blob of clay pounded into shape by experience."

OK, Pinker might be talking to people like me, so -- point taken. Less hysteria. [And bonus points to anyone who wants to condense Pinker's argument into a 140-character tweet.]


The Washington Post explores how a school increased fruit consumption by 54% in 2 weeks, just by changing where and how they displayed those apples and bananas. Once again demonstrating that it's easier to make healthy choices when the environment gently pushes you in that direction.

And while we're talking about kids eating healthy, there's the recent FTC smackdown of Kellogg's, makers of the fine breakfast cereals Frosties, Coco Pops, and Rice Krispies. Apparently those claims you might have seen on their cereal boxes -- for example, that Frosted Mini-Wheats are "clinically shown to improve kids' attentiveness by nearly 20%" -- are not as scientifically grounded as they sound. In the Mini-Wheats study, the control group was a bunch of kids who got only water for breakfast. So, yeah, I'm guessing they might have been a bit cranky and distracted.

Finally, a new paper in the journal Evolutionary Psychology is going to send shock waves through the field of self-control research, if it holds up. Author Robert Kurzban argues, on the basis of neuroscience and new analysis of previously published data, that the dominant model of self-control as an exhaustible resource is, well, a bunch of baloney. This article deserves a blog post of its own, but for now, you can read it for yourself. And I'm going to spend some time rethinking what I thought I knew about the biological basis of willpower.

See you next week.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist at Stanford University.

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