We all know those people, the ones with self-control - those who, when a large plate of tasty but fattening food is set before them, they overcome the temptation and don’t eat a thing off of it. How could it be that there are people who can overcome temptation and not break down, while many others are unable to do so? For a long time it was common to think that some people could simply block their impulses, that is, they were blessed with willpower and they knew how to use it.
In contrast, according to the more accepted approach, those who can’t resist temptations have weak or unutilized willpower. However, you’ll be surprised to hear that this idea - that people with self-control simply "enjoy" more willpower – is slowly turning into a myth in the eyes of experts in the field. Why is this so? And if not willpower, then what is the driving force behind people with self-control? Keep reading to find out...
First, we’ll begin by clarifying the two main ways in which psychologists and researchers have examined and defined the extent of a person's will. The first has been by means of written questionnaires, which were given to the participants, in which they were asked to indicate their agreement with different sentences such as "I am good at delaying gratification," “I don’t know how to keep secrets." The second has been through various experiments, which examined participant's willpower by testing them in different situations, such as a 1998 study examining how different participant dealt with the smell of freshly baked cookies.
For years, the leading assumption was that these two measures - the written questionnaire and the practical test - were the same, and both had similar results. But as time went on this assumption lost its power. It is certainly possible that these two tests are not identical to each other, but rather are related to each other, and it is necessary to examine whether a person who defines him/herself in the questionnaires as having a high willpower indeed does. Michael Inzlicht, a psychologist at the University of Toronto in Canada, was trying to answer these questions, and together with his team, delved into the topic and uncovered surprising findings.
In a number of studies conducted by Inzlicht and his team, they examined more than 2,400 subjects who answered a questionnaire and then performed several tasks to test their self-restraint. For example, one of the most difficult tasks faced by participants is known as the "Stroop Task", where they received a list of written out colors and each color is written out in a color different from itself (as pictured below.)
The participants were asked to say the name of the color they saw with their eyes as opposed to reading the name of the color written. This task leads to a lack of coordination between what the mind sees and what it reads, and therefore requires the use of willpower which causes the mouth to speak the name of the color perceived by the eye rather than the word perceived by the brain.
So what can one expect from the results of these tests - will they see, as is commonly suggested, that those who testified in the questionnaires that they had great willpower also excelled in performing tasks that required self-control and restraint? The researchers discovered that this was not the case at all - no significant difference was found in the level of performance of the tasks between respondents who claimed that they had strong willpower and those who answered differently, and only a small correlation between the nature of the answers and level of performance was found.
Why were these the results? The main assumption of the researchers is that there is a possibility that the "willpower" needed to answer the questionnaire and to complete the task is different - that is, in order to succeed in the Stroop test our brains must mobilize a different form of self-restraint than we would need to stop ourselves from eating a plate of deliciously fresh-baked cookies; If they are right, then there is a possibility that psychologists and experts in the field need to redefine the concept of "willpower" - since it may be a broader definition that describes various kinds of self-control.
Inzlicht’s research, like a number of other studies, can teach us quite a bit about self-control and strong willpower. These are the four main conclusions regarding this matter:
A healthy lifestyle and eating right, learning hard or persevering in physical activity are all activities, tasks, and tests that to most of us seem challenging, strenuous and not always pleasant. However, for those who have high self-control, it's just fun. "I want" goals are much more attainable than the "I have to" goals - this is the approach adopted by people with high self-control, and the explanation for this is that "I want" goals lead to fewer temptations and strenuous effort to reach these goals. Remember that something you love to do is one that is much more likely to be repeated than something you hate.
In a study published in 2015 in the journal Personal and Social Psychology, which described a social experiment of more than 2,000 participants, people with better self-control tend to adopt better and more correct habits - from daily exercise through proper sleep and eating habits to everything related to work and study. The authors say that people with high self-control know how to organize their lives so that they aren’t put in situations where they have to make tough choices in terms of self-control.
Walter Michel’s “Marshmallow Experiment,” one of the most famous experiments in psychology, examined children's ability to delay gratification. Results showed that children from poorer socio-economic backgrounds were much less able to resist the temptation placed in front of them. Eric Berkman, a neuroscientist at the University of Oregon in the US, explains that people who come from poor backgrounds tend to focus on immediate rewards rather than long-term rewards because living in poverty leads them to believe that the future is less clear and secure than the present. So it can certainly be said that postponing gratification and self-control is more common in people who are financially secure as they can look to the future with great confidence.
There is often nothing to do to increase willpower, or to restrain our impulses - since they are simply genetically imprinted on us. This is what researchers who were responsible for a study published in 2015 believe. According to their theory, there are people whose genes make them more hungry and others who enjoy gambling or shopping because of the hereditary baggage passed on to them from their parents. This view is corroborated by a study conducted at the University of Illinois that revealed that people with a high level of conscientiousness - a feature largely determined by the genetics of each and every one of us - tend to lead healthier lives and be more diligent students.