The Psychology of Willpower: Part 1

8% of people10865206 achieve their New Year’s goals, while an estimated 46% Americans will abandon their resolutions by the first of February. It’s an ironic phenomena that has plauged ourselves, and endlessly explored by psychologies. Here in our two part Will Power series, we’ll reveal some findings from The Will Power Instinct, a fantastic book on self-control by Dr. Kelly McGonigal.

When it comes to willpower, it’s a limited resource.

It turns out that one of the problems with relying on willpower is that you have a limited supply of it. It’s not just constantly telling yourself “no” to the next slice of pizza that taps into your will power resource; “Many things you wouldn’t typically think of as requiring willpower also rely on —and exhaust— this limited well of strength. Trying to impress a date or fit into a corporate culture that doesn’t share your values. Navigating a stressful commute, or sitting through another boring meeting. Anytime you have to fight an impulse, filter out distractions, weigh competing goals, or make yourself do something difficult, you use a little more of your willpower strength,” McConigal writes. At some point in your process, the parts of the brain that make it possible for you to say yes to exercise or no to a cigarette, are tired of doing all the heavy lifting on their own.

In other words, don’t tell Nike, but there’s more to accomplishing a tough goal than “just do it.”

Willpower: A Backstage Look 

Screen-Shot-2015-01-05-at-9.54.33-PMThe prefrontal cortex, located in the area behind your forehead, is the part of the brain where self-control functioning originates and develops. McGonigal labels the prefrontal cortex’s three sections that regulate self-control: I will, I won’t, and I want. The “I will” section of the prefrontal cortex is what moved you to create a resolution in the first place. It’s also what keeps you going when the going gets tough, consciously urging you to follow through on behaviors that move you closer to your goal. “I will” keeps you from leaving Piloxing class early; convinces you to rise and shine instead of hitting the snooze button; or find the time to plan healthy meals.

“I won’t” is the section of the prefrontal cortex that acts as your internal honor scout, helping you keep promises you’ve made to yourself to not give in to certain behaviors. When you vow, “I won’t eat more than 1,800 calories per day,” or “I won’t smoke cigarettes after March 31,” it’s the “I won’t” section of the prefrontal cortex that keeps you honest.

To say no when you need to say no, and yes when you need to say yes, you need a third power: the ability to remember what you really want… when you’re facing temptation, or flirting with procrastination, you need to remember that what you really want is to fit into your skinny jeans, get the promotion… to exert self-control, you need to find your motivation when it matters. This is “I want” power.

-Kelly McGonigal, “The Will Power Instinct”

“I want” sits beneath the “I will” and “I won’t” sections of the prefrontal cortex and it knows you better than you know yourself. Maybe you think you just want to lose weight. The “I want” section knows you want to lose weight and that you want to feel better about your body and that you want to feel more confident when you meet new people – all the real reasons you want what you want. “I want” can steer you away from temptation when the more primitive parts of your brain are demanding exactly what you want to avoid.

Will Power is a Muscle

Brain scan studies at the California Institute of Technology showed that the activity in some people’s prefrontal cortexes indicate a higher level of self-control than others. No dieter who’s ever found himself in line at DQ to buy a Peanut Buster Parfait needs a scientific research study to tell him it’s hard to resist temptation. But the brain scans in the Caltech study also provided data about why willpower gives out and are part of an ongoing research and debate about willpower as a depletable resource.

Florida State University researcher Roy Baumeister conducted studies to support his theory that willpower fatigues when overused. He found that even in the short term, if you overtax the prefrontal cortex it needs to recover before it can work at optimum strength again.

Baumeister’s most famous study involved requiring test subjects to stay in a room until they solved a math problem. The subjects weren’t aware that the math problem was unsolvable and some of the subjects were required to resist a plate of cookies before beginning the math problem. The subjects who weren’t required to use their prefrontal cortexes to resist the cookies displayed limited frustration with the unsolvable math problem and worked at it until researchers told them to stop. But the subjects who resisted the cookies? After only a brief time resisting cookies, their prefrontal cortexes were worn out. They expressed substantial frustration with the unsolvable problem and many refused to continue working on the problem.

If a brief stint with a plate of cookies can sufficiently fatigue a prefrontal cortex so that it can’t function at optimum level for a mere hour longer, how can you expect it to keep you on track for a week, a month or even the rest of your life?

Like all great challenges, there are tricks, tactics and techniques that can build the strength of your prefrontal cortex and enhance your willpower to the point that you will be the person at next year’s New Year’s Eve party who reports success. Check back with us for Part 2 to find out what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to strengthening your willpower.