Willpower, often stretched to its limits to resist junk food, alcohol or a forbidden relationship, operates like a muscle that is fueled by glucose, fatigued when overused and strengthened with practice, said social psychologist Roy Baumeister at a recent Elmhurst lecture.
Together with intelligence, the ability to exert self-control is the best predictor of a happy, satisfying and successful life, Baumeister told a packed audience in the Founders Lounge of the Frick Center on September 27. The talk was part of the College’s Science, Technology and Society lecture series.
“It is difficult to identify any major personal problems that do not have some element of self-control failure,” said Baumeister, the Francis Eppes Professor of Psychology at Florida State University. “It goes to the statement that this can be considered the greatest human strength.”
Drawing on decades of cutting-edge research, Baumeister, along with New York Times writer John Tierney, authored the 2011 bestseller Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, a book that shares lessons on how we can focus our strength and redirect our lives by building up willpower.
The author of 30 books, Baumeister said his goal with Willpower was to help people live better lives—to be better parents, stay organized, lose weight more wisely, or have a close-knit family or satisfying career. Strengthening our willpower is the key, he said, and it’s possible to do because willpower has a physical basis.
Baumeister described a variety of ingenious social experiments that tested willpower. Subjects who were forced to control their impulses—resisting warm chocolate chip cookies after not eating for four hours, for example—had difficulty in subsequent tasks that also required willpower, such as completing a difficult puzzle or squeezing a handgrip.
Other experiments proved that glucose, or food, is a biological key to strengthening self-control in decision making. In one study, researchers found that judges making parole decisions were likely to grant parole roughly 65 percent of the time after a meal break, but rarely approved parole right before one.
Of course, the role of glucose in strengthening self-control involves a certain irony for those trying to lose weight. To diet, one needs willpower; for stronger willpower one needs glucose; but to obtain glucose, one needs to eat. Baumeister advises people to use their willpower to work toward a healthier diet, rather than deprive themselves of food.
“Restraining urges to eat food that is bad for you, to not smoke, to refrain from alcohol … it all draws on the same resource within us,” he said. “There is one stock of willpower and it is limited. If you spend it all on one thing, you have less for others.”
However, people can strengthen their self-control through daily habit-breaking exercises, he said. Use your weaker hand to control a mouse, speak in complete sentences and without swearing, track your eating or exercising for several weeks. Rest when you are ill, eat throughout the day, and avoid making important decisions when your willpower resource is depleted.
“There are a dozen published studies that show your capacity for self-control increases with exercise,” he said. “Exert self-control every day, and that will indeed build character; it will improve your capacity to deal with other challenges.”
After speaking for an hour, Baumeister took questions from the audience. In response to a woman who asked how to apply his research to parenting, Baumeister criticized society’s obsession with building children’s self-esteem instead of teaching them self-control.
“Praise self-control,” he said. As a case in point, he referred to research begun in the 1960s by psychologist Walter Mischel, who studied how children learn to defer gratification. Researchers gave preschoolers a choice: They could eat one marshmallow now, or they could wait 15 minutes and eat two marshmallows. Decades later, Mischel tracked down the children and found that the participants who had demonstrated the most willpower in the experiment had achieved more success. They were more popular, they earned higher salaries, they were less prone to weight gain and they were less likely to report problems with drug abuse.
Studies don’t confirm whether good self-control is inherent or learned, but people with good self-control use it throughout the daily moments that make up their lives.
“Self-control isn’t something that just happens in the heat of the moment,” he said. “People with good self-control have set up their lives that way. Self-control operates by means of establishing good habits and getting rid of bad habits, rather than to bail you out of some problem.”