Challenging the long-held theory that willpower is a limited resource, a new study by Stanford psychologists shows that it is actually a person’s beliefs about willpower that determines his mental stamina.
Up until now, many researchers have asserted that the only way to stay focused during projects that require intense concentration is to seek occasional restoration with physical distractions such as food, rest, or other activity. They believe this will help a person feel recharged and get back on task.
Apparently, this isn’t the case, says the Stanford research team. Instead, they found that during a task requiring intense concentration, individuals who had the mindset of willpower being a continuous flow outlasted individuals who believed it to be limited.
“If you think of willpower as something that’s biologically limited, you’re more likely to be tired when you perform a difficult task,” said Veronika Job, lead author of the paper and 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.”
Job co-authored the paper with Stanford psychology Professor Carol Dweck and Assistant Professor Greg Walton.
In the study, Stanford students’ beliefs about willpower were tested and manipulated during a set of experiments. While performing a tiresome task, participants who believed or were prompted to believe that willpower is a limited resource did worse on standard concentration tests than students who thought of willpower as something they had more control over.
Interestingly, in the moments leading up to final exam week, students who believed in the theory of willpower being a limited resource ate junk food 24 percent more often than those who believed they had more control in standing up against temptation. Also, the limited resource believers procrastinated 35 percent more than the other group.
“The theory that willpower is a limited resource is interesting, but it has had unintended consequences,” Dweck said.
“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 Stanford team believes their findings may help individuals who have a hard time concentrating or who may be fighting temptation—such as diabetics following strict diets, addicts trying to break a habit, or employees struggling with tight deadlines.
“This is an example of a context where people’s theories are driving outcomes,” Walton said.
“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.”
This paper is published this week in Psychological Science.
Source: Stanford University