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Can Willpower Be Depleted?

Mood, beliefs, attitudes, and values play a significant role in willpower.

Anyone who has worked in the field of addiction has seen individuals, even the most severely addicted, after detox control their addictive behavior at least for a short period of time. Twelve-step programs emphasize the importance of avoiding people and places and things associated with the addiction. In other words, the avoidance of temptation. And individuals who do not heed this advice often find themselves relapsing into their addiction. Those who fall back into their addiction often say that it was just too hard to avoid the temptation. And, indeed, there is a growing body of research that shows that resisting repeated temptation takes a mental toll.

This theory, which is known as willpower depletion, likens willpower to “a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse.” But willpower depletion isn’t just physical fatigue. Recent research has suggested that when willpower has been repeatedly tested, your brain may actually function differently. Brain chemistry changes. Other research has suggested that individuals who are being depleted of willpower may be running low on brain fuel, e.g., glucose. Human subjects in one study who had exerted willpower in lab tasks had lower glucose levels than control subjects. In another study, the researcher found that drinking sugar-sweetened lemonade restored willpower strength in depleted individuals while drinking sugar-free lemonade did not.

Other factors also play a role. Central among these is one’s beliefs and attitudes. Individuals who are driven by their internal goals and desires may be more able to exert self-control and not be as easily depleted of willpower as people who are driven by goals or desires external to them, such as the desire to please others.

Mood and a person’s basic beliefs about willpower clearly play a role. In one study, volunteers who had been led to believe that willpower was a limited resource showed signs of ego depletion, e.g., decreased self-control, while those who had been led to believe that willpower was not limited showed no signs of decreased self-control.

So to answer the question that we began with, a variety of factors may deplete willpower, including being exposed repeatedly to temptations and the resulting changes that may occur in brain chemistry. One’s mood and beliefs, attitudes and values play a significant role in determining whether one’s willpower will be depleted. Whether factors such as beliefs and attitudes can sustain willpower over an extended period of time or only have a buffering effect in the early stages of
depletion is unclear at this time.

More about willpower in the next post.

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