Self-Control

Is Willpower the New Self-Esteem?

Willpower is not what we wish it were.

Posted Nov 22, 2019

Ana D/Shutterstock
Source: Ana D/Shutterstock

The concept of willpower—the self-control one exerts to restrain impulses and to direct behavior toward chosen goals—is getting much play of late. Many people assume that the key to improving their lives is strong willpower. If only we could find it in ourselves to exercise better self-control, we would surely be able to finally quit the junk food, cut back on dessert, exercise regularly, clear that pesky to-do list, and keep all our New Year’s resolutions. Indeed, research has shown that childhood measures of self-control predict an assortment of positive adult outcomes.

This concept of willpower embodies a common fantasy of laypeople and psychology researchers alike: to discover, and get possession of, the key to life success. As such, willpower seems poised to become the new self-esteem—a magical individual trait that facilitates success and that we can all be taught to possess. However, just as in the case of self-esteem, which began with great promise and fanfare only to fizzle out eventually, a word of caution is warranted about the actual power of willpower to deliver on the hype.

For one, our understanding of willpower is far from complete, and much of what we thought we knew has been put into question of late. For example, Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow studies, in which children were offered a choice between one marshmallow provided immediately or two if they waited, have sparked wide interest in the topic, particularly after subsequent work found that children who were able to wait longer for the second marshmallow tended to have better life outcomes.

Alas, as Mischel himself has recently noted, “the specific cognitive information processes that enable delay of gratification have not been well characterized.” In other words, while measures of self-control may predict success, prediction is not the same as causation. Having yellow teeth may predict lung cancer, but yellow teeth don’t cause cancer. Willpower, likewise, may be a mere proxy or correlate of as-of-yet unknown causal factors. 

Moreover, recent research has suggested that what appeared at the time to be willpower effects (the ability to wait for a delayed reward) may have been something else entirely—namely the power of experience, expectations, and social status. Specifically, children from more privileged backgrounds (and hence less chaotic, more predictable environments) may learn that waiting is reliably rewarded. Children from poor, more chaotic environments may learn that "getting while the getting’s good" is the rational strategy.

A newer line of research from the psychologist Roy Baumeister has advanced the argument that willpower is a limited resource that gets depleted by heavy usage, as a muscle would fatigue after prolonged exertion. Derived from this idea is the notion that practicing self-control—working out the muscle—should improve ability. Both ideas have come under criticism of late. New studies, some using more rigorous measures of both temptation and resistance, found no significant depletion effects. Some studies have also suggested that practicing self-control does not lead to the expected improvement.

The debate regarding the exact nature of willpower goes on. Yet, regardless of how willpower is viewed, the ambition it embodies—of finding one inner resource that can on its own change the life course—inhabits shaky grounds.

For one, life outcomes are multi-determined, and the effects of any one trait (like any one gene) tend to depend on which, and how, other factors are in play. Moreover, conceptually, any analysis of internal processes (such as willpower) is incomplete and insufficient without a thorough discussion of specific social contextual factors. As the great Jerome Kagan has articulated, psychologists court trouble when they use abstract words to signify covert psychological processes while failing to specify “the type of agent, the situation in which the agent is acting, and the source of evidence for the ascription."

Using abstract concepts (like willpower) sans context begets confusion, as the actual experience of one agent in one context is qualitatively different from that of another. Just as it is nonsensical to say that a rat’s anxiety, denoted by a startle in response to a loud noise, is akin to the anxiety felt by a bride on her wedding day, so it makes little sense to think that the willpower of a child eyeing a marshmallow is the same thing as the experience of an alcoholic attempting sobriety.

And even if we agree to suspend this rule, for the purpose of simplification, and look at internal processes and environmental contexts separately, it is the latter that wins the outcome influence competition. To the extent that those can be separated, our behavior is under situational control more than it is under the control of our inner traits. How fast you travel from city to city depends more on the roads, traffic laws, and the available means of transportation than on your personality traits.

This holds for willpower. In fact, research appears to show that people who are good at life—sidestepping behavioral traps and risky temptations, keeping persistent and goal-directed effort, exercising sound judgment—report that they rely on willpower less than those who struggle, or whose lives have derailed in some way. The benefits of self-control appear to be delivered by the tendency of high self-control individuals to adopt better automatic habits for life, thus reducing exposure to situations where self-control is needed.

The weakness of the willpower fantasy is further evident when you look at commonly considered "willpower challenges." Take obesity, for example. By intuition alone, the likelihood that the current obesity epidemic is due to some catastrophic sudden decline in average willpower in the population is small. And evidence for it is lacking. The American food environment, on the other hand, has changed dramatically and manifestly. Your weight gain has little to do with your willpower and much to do with your food environment.

Attributing a person’s failure to resist temptation to a failure of willpower is typically misguided, and often amounts to nefarious victim blaming. “The reason you failed to change your behavior is because you lack willpower” is a rather asinine formulation, reminiscent of the, “you were raped because you failed to resist sufficiently” argument of yore. This willpower argument may also serve to deflect attention from more important, contextual outcome determinants, such as social inequality and oppression. The focus on willpower as the culprit, it is worth noting, is convenient for those who hold institutional power in the culture and wish to keep it. So long as you blame yourself for your myriad failures, you are less likely to look for the social structural impediments that are actually undermining your progress.

In sum, surrounding yourself with cookies and counting on your willpower to prevent you from indulging is not your best strategy in the long term. Good planning (take a homemade snack for the road so you’re not yearning for cookies), good habits (take the route home that doesn’t pass by the cookie store), and arranging the environment in helpful ways (don’t keep a cookie jar in your lap) will beat straight-up willpower every time.