Willpower is a concept that we take for granted, because it seems obvious: an impulse arises, we think it over, and then decide whether or not to act on that impulse. Simple. But willpower actually transcends this simplification. It is far more interesting, and far too important to be glossed over.
In research done 50 years ago at Stanford University, Walter Mischel offered children a choice between one small marshmallow as an immediate reward or two small marshmallows if they waited 15 minutes. Unsurprisingly, he found that many four-year olds succumbed to the temptation of immediate gratification. Of greater interest, the kids who were able to resist eating a marshmallow by the strength of their will subsequently grew up better adjusted, with higher self-esteem, fostered better relationships, and held more successful careers. Their peers not lucky enough to be born with ample willpower typically went on to lives that were much less satisfying. This experiment has been repeated many times; here’s one example on YouTube:
Seemingly kids can say “No” to a marshmallow once, twice, or three times, but with each exertion of their will, their will weakens.
And it’s not just kids. Recently we’ve come to understand just how willpower works at a neurobiological level, and perhaps surprisingly, it turns out that willpower actually is subject to fatigue; just as muscles respond less vigorously after prolonged exertion, if you turn down too many impulses, well, you’re much more likely to succumb to the next one.
All this has long been suspected, of course. Over two hundred years ago Ben Franklin made a list of 13 virtues that he wished to practice but he famously concentrated on only one virtue per week. Seemingly Franklin suspected what neuroscientists have now demonstrated at a cellular level: the exertion of willpower uses resources in anterior cingulate cortex of the brain, and, until these neurotransmitters are restocked, our ability to apply will power is diminished with each exertion. Franklin knew that if he turned down too many temptations, he’d likely succumb to the next one.
An understanding of this limitation is important, because it allows us to better arrange our lives. For example, suppose you wish to eat a healthier diet, devoid of snack food. If your house is stocked with plentiful snacks, well, you’ll have to decide many times each day not to have a potato chip, and it’s likely that, eventually, you’ll succumb. But suppose you make a single decision to not bring any snack food into your house. With no snacks available, it’s easy to keep your resolution. We can, in effect, hack our willpower by replacing many, effortful, individual decisions with a single consequential decision.
Another example: say you want to be more active. You could resolve to take a walk every day, but this requires that you make that decision every day. This may be easy some days, but other days might be rainy or cold. Alternatively, you could decide to replace your sedentary office chair with an active chair that requires you to move, just a bit, constantly while sitting. You need only swap out your chair once for a lifetime of benefit.
Behavioral economists sometimes conceive of this problem as a contest of wills: the will of our future self that wishes to be better off by avoiding snacks or being more active, and the will of our present self that just wants to eat potato chips on a Lay-Z-Boy. Perhaps surprisingly, our current self seems not to worry too much about our future self. But unfortunately, our current self is the one actually making the decisions. Fortunately, once we understand this dynamic we can restructure our lives to give our future selves a louder voice and a longer, healthier life.