Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Great Willpower Debate: The Missing Piece

To activate your willpower, ask this simple question.

The Infamous Stroop Test

Let's say you've volunteered to participate in a series of psychological experiments. You show up at a lab on a university campus. First, in Stage 1, the researchers give you a frustrating task like the Stroop test, in which words for colors are highlighted in different colors. You must override your tendency to read words and focus solely on calling out colors. You don't realize it, but this task is meant to wear out (deplete) your willpower. In Stage 2, you must do another task as best you can. This second task might be:

  • Gripping a handgrip for as long as possible.
  • Keeping your hand in freezing cold water for as long as you can.
  • Working on a puzzle that doesn't seem to have a solution.

How motivated would you be to persist at one of the above tasks?

If you are like me, the answer would be "When's lunch?" The tasks seem meaningless. Who cares? Yet these are the kinds of tasks that researchers often give students in willpower experiments. Researchers compare the persistence of the experimental group, whose willpower was presumably depleted in stage 1, with the persistence of the control group, whose willpower was not depleted. Usually the control group does better, suggesting that willpower is a limited resource. (Flawed as these experiments might be, at least they help us think about willpower issues.)

I bring this up because the idea that willpower is a limited resource is now being hotly debated in the media, but unless you are a nerd like me, you might have missed it. Going head to head are two of my favorite researchers, Roy Baumeister and Carol Dweck. The debate, summarized here, is over this question: Is willpower like a muscle that can only do so many biceps curls before it wears out (Baumeister group) or is it a powerful mental idea that can give you almost unlimited energy (Dweck group)?

Both, in my opinion. To me, the nature of willpower is neither "it gets depleted" nor "it depends on how you think about it"--rather, these two positions seem to be a matter of degree, at different points on the same continuum. On the one hand, willpower can get worn down; on the other hand, dedicated people can persist against all--well, at least most--odds, at least up to the point of sheer exhaustion.

The key question is: What really strengthens willpower?

Here's my answer: To activate your willpower, you must be able to remind yourself WHY it's important for you to do something. Meaningless tasks do not activate willpower. When you have a purpose, you have the beginnings of willpower because you are committed to your goal.

Here are some experiments that back me up:

  • After depleting the self-control of study participants, individuals were asked to work on 2 frustrating puzzles. Group 1 was told: "Your work could help create new therapies for Alzheimer's disease." Group 2 was told: "Try your best." Which group performed best? Right, Group 1. The idea that they could be helping others gave their task some purpose.
  • In another experiment, participants were divided into two groups. One group's willpower was depleted by a task that required concentration. This group was then asked to do a self-control task and was paid according to how well they performed. Results: When motivated by money, depleted participants performed as well as non-depleted participants. News flash: Money can be a great motivator!
  • Various experiments performed at the Wharton school of business show that when employees see the positive impact of their work, they work harder and are more effective. For example, a group of paid call center employees had to phone potential donors to scholarship funds. One group met with scholarship recipients for 5 minutes; another did not. In the end, the group that met face-to-face with the scholarship students worked harder and earned more money for the scholarship fund.
  • The researcher, Adam Grant, did experiments in a variety of settings and found that "task significance" motivated people as diverse as lifeguards, resume writers, and mail-order pharmacy workers.

My conclusion: People can compensate for depleted willpower, at least to some extent, if they are motivated by something meaningful to them. So, when you want to achieve a goal, change your lifestyle, or exert self-control in any way, ask yourself: Why? Why do I want to do this? Why is it important to me?

(c) Meg Selig. All rights reserved.

I'm the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). Please "like" my facebook page here, and you'll receive periodic messages about habit change, motivation, willpower, books, and the good life. And/or, follow me on Twitter.


Muraven, M. & Slessareva, E. "Mechanisms of Self-Control Failure: Motivation and Limited Resources." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2003; 29; pp. 894 ff.

"Putting a Face to a Name: The Art of Motivating Employees,"

See also, "The Power of Why," by Harvey Mackay,

"Willpower: It's In Your Head," by Greg Walton and Carol Dweck.

More from Meg Selig
More from Psychology Today
More from Meg Selig
More from Psychology Today