Willpower Doesn’t Work

I’ve spoken about this before but now felt like a good time to bring this back up. Willpower is a myth. There aren’t some people who have it more than others. In fact, no human being really has it. Giving into temptation is a human quality. It’s unavoidable. It’s in our DNA. So, why do some humans seem to do better at resisting the urge to snack on something sugary or neglect their work for Netflix? Well to answer that we have an experiment from Stanford University to look at. 

Stanford University conducted an experiment with a group of children. They put one child (ages 5-8) in a room and sat them at a table. On the table was a plate with ONE marshmallow. The children were given ONE directive. They were told that they could NOT eat the marshmallow. They were then told that the adult would come back in a little bit and if they didn’t eat the marshmallow they would be given a 2nd marshmallow to eat.

As you can imagine most of the children failed. One child funnily enough tried to fine print her way to a 2nd marshmallow by eating the insides of the marshmallow only in hopes to negotiate her way to a 2nd one. There were, however, a few children that succeeded. These children all ended up doing the same thing to avoid the temptation of the marshmallow. They covered their eyes. 

Many studies have been done on just exactly how much mental effort is exerted when resisting temptation. Human beings that are constantly barraged with temptation will experience decision fatigue. The act of reasoning with yourself to say “no” to something takes a toll on your brain. This is why even if you’re successful in the moment; you’ll largely fail the next time you’re presented with temptation due to the fact that your brain is tired from having put in so much effort from saying “no” the last time. 

The children who covered their eyes were able to “forget” about the marshmallow. They would cover their eyes and sing to themselves or count out loud. This act took their mind off of the marshmallow so that they didn’t have to be confronted with the decision of actively saying “no”. 

Human beings by and large are a product of their environment. I’ve mentioned this case study before. During Vietnam many American soldiers were getting hooked on opioids. However, they were having vastly different results from their rehab visits than John Q public here at home. 8 out of 10 of the soldiers who were attending rehab once they got home were able to kick their addiction. This was severely different than people who were not soldiers going back to their homes after rehab and almost 9 out of 10 were relapsing. 

The difference was their at home environments. The soldiers didn’t have access to opioids here in their normal home lives. It wasn’t present in the communities they lived in and so many of them didn’t have to deal with the constant temptation of it because it wasn’t present unless they were in Vietnam. There were no cues to trigger the cravings they had so they didn’t have to respond by rewarding themselves. The people who were not soldiers, however, readily found hard drugs in their communities. It was too hard for them to kick the habit because all their normal cravings would be triggered by their friends or dealers who were in their communities. Their environment didn’t allow them to successfully kick the habit. 

Eating better (meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and NO sugar) and exercising regularly are habits that have to become part of your environment in order for you to participate in them regularly. If you constantly have temptation nearby (sweets at home, Netflix already turned on when you get home) your motivation to continue is going to fall very short. 

The best option would be to STOP buying foods and drinks you know are not good for you. If you don’t have it at home, you’re much less likely to give in. The workout piece can be something as simple as setting controls on your tv or computer. There’s hundreds of apps today that won’t allow you to unlock certain programs (netflix or apple tv) until a certain time. You can also take your workout clothes with you to work or leave them by your door so when you get home you see them and are confronted with the fact that you already made plans to go to the gym. 

Human beings who presented themselves with less OBSTACLES for the things they wanted to get done were much more successful at getting those things done. And, again not because they had more willpower, it was solely because they set themselves up to have to make less choices. If you want it explained even better I strongly recommend watching this YouTube clip



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