Self-Control

You Have As Much Willpower As You Think You Have

Believing you have more willpower will give you more willpower.

Posted Sep 27, 2018

Some people believe that willpower is a limited resource. Others don't. The first group, the willpower conservatives, might be likely to try and save up their resources for times when they'll need them. They believe they need to take a break after they work hard, perhaps to unwind. The second group, the willpower liberals, just spend their willpower like mad and don't worry about the breaks.

Now guess who uses their willpower better in the long run? That is, who procrastinates less, is better at eating healthy, and gets better grades?

A study by Veronika Job and associates looked into this by following students at a university over a single term. 

The students received weekly questionnaires. They reported on their beliefs about willpower by answering questions like 

“After a strenuous mental activity your energy is depleted and you must rest to get it refueled again” 

and 

“Your mental stamina fuels itself; even after strenuous mental exertion you can continue doing more of it”

answering on a scale from 1 (strongly agree) to 6 (strongly disagree).

They also reported on workload and answered questions about behavior such as dietary choices and studying habits. This self-regulatory questionnaire asked questions like “How often did you meet friends instead of studying?” and “How often did you come late to an appointment?”.

The results showed that in demanding situations those who believe they have unlimited willpower did better at pretty much everything.  They were better at self-regulating (such as studying when they needed to study), better at eating healthy food, and better at avoiding procrastination.  They even got better grades.

Importantly, the effect on grades was largely mediated through procrastination. Students who procrastinated did worse. Also, Job et al. tested whether the effects were mediated by students self-reported self-control. It might be that students with more self-control also believe they have more willpower. But this didn't seem to be the case. Willpower belief was a better predictor of GPA than trait self-control. 

As Job puts it in the article, "Far from conserving their resources and showing strong self-regulation when needed, students who endorsed the limited
theory and who faced high demands over the term procrastinated more (e.g., watching TV instead of studying), ate more junk food, and reported more excessive spending as compared to students with a nonlimited theory about willpower."

In sum, people who believed they had unlimited willpower actually had more willpower. The moral may be that we shouldn't use our beliefs about our willpower may as an excuse to run out of it. We are as willpower liberal as we want to be.

References

Job, V., Walton, G. M., Bernecker, K., & Dweck, C. S. (2015). Implicit theories about willpower predict self-regulation and grades in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(4), 637.