Is willpower just a mind game?

STANFORD (US) — Burning the candle at both ends? Think a break would help? The urge to refresh (or just procrastinate) might be all in your head.

In a paper published this week in Psychological Science, researchers challenge a long-held theory that willpower—defined as the ability to resist temptation and stay focused on a demanding task—is a limited resource.

A long held argument says that when willpower is drained, the only way to restore it is by recharging our bodies with rest, food, or some other physical distraction that takes you away from whatever is burning you out.

Not so, says the new study.

It is a person’s mindset and personal beliefs about willpower that determine how long and how well they’ll be able to work on a tough mental exercise.

“If you think of willpower as something that’s biologically limited, you’re more likely to be tired when you perform a difficult task,” says Veronika Job, the paper’s lead author, who conducted her research at Stanford University and is now a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Zurich.

“But if you think of willpower as something that is not easily depleted, you can go on and on.”

Researchers designed a series of four experiments to test and manipulate students’ beliefs about willpower. After a tiring task, those who believed or were led to believe that willpower is a limited resource performed worse on standard concentration tests than those who thought of willpower as something they had more control over.

They also found that leading up to final exam week, students who bought into the limited resource theory ate junk food 24 percent more often than those who believed they had more control in resisting temptation. The limited resource believers also procrastinated 35 percent more than the other group.

“The theory that willpower is a limited resource is interesting, but it has had unintended consequences,” says Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford.

“Students who may already have trouble studying are being told that their powers of concentration are limited and they need to take frequent breaks. But a belief in willpower as a non-limited resource makes people stronger in their ability to work through challenges.”

The findings could help people who are battling distraction or temptation: diabetics following strict diets, people trying to overcome addictions, employees facing a tight deadline.

“This is an example of a context where people’s theories are driving outcomes,” says assistant professor Greg Walton. “Willpower isn’t driven by a biologically based process as much as we used to think. The belief in it is what influences your behavior.”

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