Is Your Willpower Limited Or Unlimited?

Willpower has many names: drive, resolve, determination, self-discipline, self-control, and simply ‘will’. All mean the same: the ability to resist short-term temptations to achieve long-term goals. Click To Tweet

A 5-year-old hears from her parents she can get anything in life if she only has the willpower.

Now, imagine, how frustrating it is for that child to keep towing the weight of that second-hand belief as she makes her way through life’s obstacles? Is her willpower limited or unlimited?

As adults, we get the same pill of advice — that strong willpower is all we need to outsmart life’s tough challenges. When we’re struggling to break away from a dead-end habit like smoking.

Or when trying to avoid a bite of that tantalizing tiramisu while on a diet. And when we’re finally trying to start a gym routine that we had plans on for years.

How many of us suffer the free advice that strong willpower can beat everything that’s​ tough and trying in life?

We follow the handed-down wisdom. But we still keep failing. What are we doing wrong? Is our dependence on willpower the reason we keep failing?

Is willpower an overrated concept? Is our willpower limited or unlimited?


Can You Deplete Your Limited Willpower?

Willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations to meet long-term goals.

But conventional wisdom says this ability to resist can often grow weak. That you don’t receive willpower in plenty all the time. And if you keep drawing​ from its limited reservoir, it finally runs dry.

Chasing the goals and obligations of your lifestyle, wears down your willpower. No matter who you are.

Years back, in 2009, Kathleen Martin Ginis, associate professor of Kinesiology at McMaster University, found in a study that if you use your willpower in one task, it exhausts your willpower for another, different task. She said, “Cognitive tasks, as well as emotional tasks such as regulating your emotions, can deplete your self-regulatory capacity to exercise.”

  • This weakening of willpower is one reason people following willpower-based self-help programs often end up disappointed. Because the strength of their will often doesn’t help them reach their multiple goals. Willpower alone can’t help us carry through our hard decisions — our weight-loss or quit-smoking goals, or bigger, ultimate goals of life.
  • Fueled by willpower, this constant pressure to keep moving makes us run out of energy. The resulting fatigue is not only of your body, it is of your brain too. And when your brain gets overwhelmed, your willpower gets depleted.

“People whose willpower was depleted by self-control tasks showed decreased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region involved with cognition. When your willpower has been tested, your brain may actually function differently,” the American Psychological Association reports (PDF).

Is Your Willpower Like A Muscle?

Is your willpower like a muscle that you can train or drain?

It was the famous psychologist Roy F. Baumeister who first gave this “strength model of self-control” a wide broadcast. He co-wrote a book on this with science-writer John Tierney called Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

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Speaking of willpower to NPR back in 2011, John Tierney said, “In the last 15 years we’ve discovered that it really is a form of energy in the brain. It’s like a muscle that can be strengthened with use, but it also gets fatigued with use.”

So, discharging the willpower battery for one purpose means there’ll be less left over for others. For example, by forcing yourself to a late evening workout when you would rather be watching TV, you may find it hard to resist the siren call of an icy beer at night.

Way back in the 1960s, there was a willpower experiment by psychologist Walter Mischel. The results that came out of that experiment showed that a lot of our success as grown-ups depends on how strong our willpower was as children. Mischel also argued that all children can learn to have stronger willpower.

Mischel later wrote a successful book on it: The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success. In the book, he explains why the ability to delay gratification is critical for a successful life.

One of the most influential theories of modern times says willpower is like a muscle. It weakens with exertion but strengthens with practice.

In his book, Mischel explains how self-control can apply to challenges in everyday life. He also suggests that we can learn to train our willpower to become stronger.

[Find out what secrets Kelly McGonigal reveals about willpower in these 20 picture quotes.]

Cookies And Radish | The Willpower Experiment

In a groundbreaking 1996 experiment, published two years later (PDF) in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Baumeister and his colleagues brought in two groups of willing psychology students, and put them in a room filled with the aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Not just the aroma, the cookies were there too.

Then they saw two bowls. One filled with fresh chocolate cookies, and the other with red and white radishes. The researchers then instructed them to eat from only one bowl without touching the other. So, they could only eat either the cookies or the radishes, as assigned.

In the second part of the experiment, after 15 minutes, the participants received a group of puzzles to solve, not realizing that these were actually impossible to solve.

The Baumeister team reasoned the radish-eaters would have used and exhausted their limited self-control reserves while resisting the cookies. And this is reflected in the results, beautifully.

Those who had cookies kept trying the puzzles for an average of 19 minutes each before giving up, while those who ate radish gave up after only 8 minutes. Understandably, the radish-eaters gave up earlier because they had already eroded their willpower while resisting the cookies.

Thus was born the theory of Ego Depletion.

cookies radish willpower

Rise of Ego Depletion | Does Willpower Come In A Limited Supply?

Our self-control or willpower is a limited stock warehouse. And we can deplete it by overuse. That, in essence, is the influential theory of ego depletion.

Ego depletion says we have a limited supply of willpower. Overusing it to fight temptations runs it dry. Click To Tweet

Suppose you want to bring in a slew of improvements in your life this summer. The theory advises you to choose and focus on only a few changes at a time. If too many, they’ll compromise one another by each drawing off from your willpower for its own use.

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If you plan to exercise 30 minutes + meditate 20 minutes + play tennis 45 minutes + write 1,000 words + read 15 pages + learn French 1 lesson, each day, you will get nowhere with most of them. Focus on one or two, and you would fare fine.

If you had a bad day at work, then you’ll have a hard time resisting your third drink and fifth cigarette on your way back home. Why? Because you don’t feel guilty about those enough.

Look close. You’ll find ego depletion at work there. When your willpower draws empty during the day, your ability to feel guilty about indulging in a self-harming habit at the day’s end gets hampered. You are simply too fatigued to care.

Habitual dieters are another case, who are trying to resist their food cravings all the time. Chronic fatigue is often the result in them . Ego depletion is at play again.

Fall of Ego Depletion | Is Your Willpower Unlimited?

Here’s the problem with the ego-depletion theory: Your willpower may not have muscle-like properties at all. So, overusing your self-control may not exhaust it after all.

The brain is an organ, not a muscle, and thus does not consume extra energy the way a muscle would. Your brain uses the same number of calories per waking minute whether you’re working on calculus equations or watching cat videos.

— Nir Eyal, author of Hooked – How to Build Habit-Forming Products

But why do we say that?

Actually, there is no direct scale to measure ego depletion. Every study is a measure of persistence at the second task after a demanding first task. Scientists call it a sequential-task paradigm.

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And ever since that original experiment, scientists around the world have sporadically failed to get the same results when they re-enacted the experiment in their own labs. Scientists call it replication failure.

  • In 2013, Carter and McCullough found the ego depletion effect was much smaller than reported. They said it may actually even be zero. They published their meta-analysis report with this contentious title: Is ego depletion too incredible?
  • In 2013 again, Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success and her team published a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They observed that only those test subjects who believed willpower was a limited resource, showed ego depletion. Those who did not see willpower as a limited resource did not show ego depletion.
  • study published in PLOS in February 2016 found ego depletion not worthy of scientific curiosity. It wrote: “These findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting ego-depletion is not a reliable phenomenon.”
  • Perhaps the biggest blow to ego depletion came in July 2016. Twenty-three labs studying over 2100 participants found that draining self-control at one task had almost zero effect on people’s capacity for self-control in a later task. All the experimenters failed to find any evidence for the theory.

The authors of the 2016 study published the upsetting results with these words in conclusion: “Results from the current multi-lab registered replication of the ego-depletion effect provide evidence that, if there is any effect, it is close to zero.”

Close to zero. This was a sharp jab and added fire to the raging credibility crisis in psychology.

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Apparently unhappy, Baumeister shot back, blaming the experimenters squarely. He said they failed to get the same results as his original cookie-radish experiment because the project coordinators of the Registered Replication Report allowed none of his suggestions, and they rejected his original protocol.

Baumeister’s published statement carried the title Misguided Effort With Elusive Implications. Now that is akin to ‘thermonuclear’ in academia.

Sugar Theory of Self-Control | Can Sugar Refuel Your Willpower?

Have you heard about the Sugar Theory of Self-control?

A 2007 review found that blood glucose is an important energy source for willpower. It suggested that doing things that need self-control sap large amounts of glucose from the blood.

And when the blood glucose is low, the brain doesn’t get enough of it. Which, in turn, makes the brain fail on further tasks of willpower.

However, if we restore glucose to a sufficient level, it improves our willpower or self-control. Because the hardworking and hungry brain now has enough glucose to flex its power.

APA mentions this experiment: “One study, for example, found that drinking sugar-sweetened lemonade restored willpower strength in depleted individuals while drinking sugar-free lemonade did not.”

In simple words, according to those researchers, the brain powers itself on blood sugar. And when you’re using your willpower too much, burnout follows. When your brain is working hard to keep up control, you become willpower depleted. In such times, it starts consuming glucose at a faster pace than it can replenish itself.

By the way, here’s the turn-off. The idea that sugary drinks can replenish your willpower, is dead.

In a paper titled The Bitter Truth About Sugar and Willpower, Miguel Vadillo and his team reviewed 19 published papers and found the relationship between glucose levels and self-control as unreliable.

So, you no longer have to gulp down a glassful of sweetened water to tank up your self-control again — it’s useless.

Final Words

In a November 2016 article, Nir Eyal, the Israeli-American author who writes about how psychology, technology, and business interact, asked in an article: Have we been thinking about willpower the wrong waySo, have we been doing that?

Maybe willpower isn’t a limited resource after all. And that twenty-year-old idea that so many of us hold tight needs a rethink now. Maybe it’s time we stopped using willpower to tie up our impulsive behaviors, and rather focus on other things that bring us to the brink of those temptations.

Hey, don’t blame us for we couldn’t give you a definite yes or no about the question we started out with: Is willpower limited or unlimited? Science works that way – it never rests and declares, “This is the final truth!”

Maybe it's time we stopped using willpower to tie up our impulsive behaviors. Click To Tweet

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By the way, do you know how your kid’s willpower could determine their future?

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder and chief editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.

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