Lots and lots on willpower

Oh, hello. Don’t mind me. I’ll be out of here in a moment.

Ok, well if you must know, a conversation my friend and I were having turned toward the concept of willpower. There’s some interesting research on the subject and I wanted a place to keep the links. Here, let me show you what I have…

Students given a difficult memorization task will be less likely to turn down cake in favor of salad than if they had an easier task. Conversely, when people were suffused with the smell of chocolate cookies but were asked to eat radishes instead, they were less tenacious in trying to solve a puzzle afterward than those that actually got cookies. The interpretation is that willpower, or more specifically the ability to do something you would prefer not to is a finite resource. Like a parent worn down by a misbehaving toddler, each time you leave your desires metaphorically holding their breath  makes you more likely to cave in on the subsequent tantrum. The crazy thing is that there seems to be a strong link to sugar in all of this. One study found that rinsing your mouth with (but not swallowing) a sweet drink was enough to restore willpower levels after a tedious task. The similarity of willpower to a muscle stretches (heh) to cover the fact that you can apparently exercise your capacity for self control with unrelated tasks. This whole thing is generally wrapped up in the Ego Depletion model of human behavior.

There are some interesting implications for all of this. The famous Marshmallow Experiment found that children who were able to put off eating a marshmallow for 15 minutes in order to get 2(!) marshmallows performed better academically and professionally and even had lower BMIs in adulthood. It is interesting that such a physiologically-linked process can have predictive patterns manifest at such an early age, although a recent replication of this study found the environment the child experiences right before the test had a very large impact on how long they waited. From a larger, social perspective I wonder if this is linked to the (oft disputed) model that doing good things makes us worse people (for instance how buying “green” products makes you more likely to later cheat at a computer game).  This goes by the term Moral Licensing and is considered a separate phenomenon, but I wonder whether it’s just an example of how doing something because you feel you have to makes you more likely to do something you want to later.