The Effects of Willpower
Willpower is a very effective yet hard to control tool in the human arsenal. It is involved in our daily activities and in decisions that have more long-term effects on our lives as well. Some of these include whether we can have enough willpower to better our lives or if our willpower will give out and we recede into old patterns or even new patterns following failures that we hadn’t succumbed to before. There are many factors that can cause one’s willpower to be undermined when they believe otherwise. Author Kelly McGonigal explains some of these, referencing both her own research and trials conducted by other researchers as well as showing very firm associations. We will explore some of these today.
McGonigal goes into detail as to how one can fool themselves into the control they have of their own willpower and how it is detrimental to their desired goals. People tend to believe that they have high willpower and control themselves harder than others; however, upon doing this, they unknowingly make themselves more susceptible to failure as they drain themselves from trying to restrict their behaviors so much. A mechanism for this is exhaustion of resources as willpower is powered by the prefrontal cortex, which uses the most glucose out of all brain regions. Because of this, the more willpower one tries implementing in instances, the quicker they will drain their ability to exert willpower as they drain their glucose levels in their blood. This is why when in studies participants were given more sugar while exerting willpower, they were more likely to control themselves into going for long term benefits over short term gratification. The mechanism of energy supply quite clearly cuts into one’s willpower and should be looked into more, however it cannot completely account for one’s abilities due to the amount of sugar the prefrontal cortex needing being miniscule regardless of it being a powerhouse.
There are other methods in which one can also improve their willpower. In one chapter, McGonigal goes into detail as to how breathing techniques and meditation can help one in their quest to improve their willpower. Breathing techniques will teach the individual to relax beforehand so that they are better prepared for any actions they commit. Although not stated, it is possible that this can possibly cause less exertion that will save more glucose for the prefrontal cortex to use as the person practices their willpower. As for meditation, it teaches one to get on task whenever they stray as it utilizes breathing techniques to teach one to focus on what is at hand, or in the instance of them meditating, to control their breathing properly and notice whenever they are not breathing correctly. Even failed meditation is useful McGonigal says, as when the person is frustrated noticing they are not maintaining their breathing properly, they are also able to better realize that they are not focusing properly in real life on whatever they need to. Through these techniques, one can better improve their willpower to help keep themselves focused and on task, leading to long-term improvements towards their goals.
One last major thing that McGonigal discusses that can easily derail one’s willpower is their blinding of themselves into rewarding their progress through moral licensing. She first discusses moral licensing and how it affects people in general in that they believe they can continue the same actions they normally do if they “offset it” at the same time, such as people wasting more energy as they simply pay for more trees to be planted rather than cut back on their energy use. There was even an example of parents apparently being more likely to come arrive to pick their kids up late if they were charged a fee than if they were not, as the parents saw the fee as them being allowed to come late for their kids as long as they “paid for it”. In regards to willpower, this is applied in that if someone manages to hit short term progress towards their goal, they will halt and “reward” themselves as they believe them staying on track mandates them getting a break; however, the issue with that is these little rewards and breaks can cause one to either hinder their progress or even reverse it in some cases. In one instance, a woman was trying to lose 15 pounds for her wedding, going to the gym daily on the cardio machine. She made the mistake of looking at the amount of calories she burned and then proceeding to reward herself based off how many she had reached, eating deserts and other junk foods afterwards. In the end, she threw herself off track as her willpower was overridden by moral licensing, and even ended up gaining three pounds rather than losing any weight. This is why individuals must not fall into the mindset of moral licensing and rewarding themselves.
Overall, willpower is a very complex yet interesting subject. There are many factors that explain it and can influence one’s own as well as how well they can control it, whether it be biological or physical factors. People also can undermine their own willpower through self rewarding themselves when they believe they deserve it, causing them to not be able to make consistent progress as they trick themselves into thinking they are doing fine. Even meditation and breathing techniques alongside it can influence willpower as it teaches one to focus on tasks at hand and to not stray from them. Willpower is quite the subject and definitely something that should be looked more into by researchers and medical personnel alike.