Is Willpower a Finite Resource?

Is willpower a finite resource?

Those familiar with Roy Baumeister’s research would likely agree.  They would advise people to eat breakfast and prioritize difficult tasks in the morning when willpower reserves are high.

Others like Jocko Willink would object, positing that spending willpower creates an upward spiral of momentum.  In other words, self-control begets more self-control.

Just like made free throws beget more made free throws.  Perfect practice cannot make perfect because we can never have a perfect practice.  But we can be good if we sustain deliberate, informed effort.

The true answer may, in fact, lie somewhere in the middle.

First, we must define willpower.

Willpower (also known as self-control or self-regulation) involves exerting conscious cognitive influence over one’s behavior, emotions, or decision-making.

Biologically, the prefrontal cortex lights up to override the “autopilot” behavior of the limbic system.

Anecdotally, it involves resisting the impulse to punch an annoying co-worker, choosing a sensible salad over a tempting tart, or persisting on a difficult work project while Netflix is only one button away.

If we use this definition, then willpower is not an unlimited resource.

For example, I can use willpower to hold my breath.  My prefrontal cortex to tells my diaphragm to let in air and then tells my abs to resist exhaling.  Some people have trained themselves to do this for upwards of 15 minutes.

For me, trying to hold my breath too long leads to developing a boxy body and flowers sprouting in my stomach.  So I gave up.

However, as I turn blue in the face, my brainstem will eventually wrestle away control.  I would involuntarily breathe. My willpower would fail.

The same is true for sleep.  One could use self-control (along with pots on pots of coffee) to resist sleep for upwards of two days.  However (without the use of stronger stimulants), most people would run out of willpower and doze off before suffering death by sleep deprivation.

Willpower is a finite resource because our brains will not allow the prefrontal cortex to will its own death (intentional or not) through unassisted asphyxiation or sleep deprivation.

So the real question may be “what are the limits of our self-control?”

“Can we excuse Diet-failing Dans, Sedentary Sallies, and Lazy Larries because of “willpower exhaustion”?

Not quite.

When I see my students study as hard as they do while still finding time for extracurriculars (like busking), I have to question the limits of my own willpower.

While Baumeister’s studies do convincingly show that one’s self-control is reduced after resisting food temptations or flexing cognitive muscles, his studies contain methodological concerns.

For one, his early research did not account for intrinsic motivation.  He measured subjects’ willpower by the amount of time they spent on unsolvable puzzles.

But what if someone does not find puzzles interesting or engaging?  It is no surprise that we exhaust more mental energy while engaging in boring or unfulfilling tasks.

Other research has shown, in fact, that engaging in intrinsically-motivating activities can  negate this “ego depletion.”

Other research also shows that simply believing in the infinitude of willpower causes people to exert more effort after “depleting” activities.

This is one proposed limitation to the “strength model” of self-control.  This model compares self-control to a muscle. Muscles fatigue with constant use and inevitably fail after intense uninterrupted exertion.

Just like leaves inevitably yellow, redden, and then die.

However, not all activities deplete one’s willpower.

In fact, sometimes intrinsically-motivating activities can boost willpower reserves.

Suzanne Segerstrom and colleagues build upon the strength model by introducing a “governor.”

Weightlifters frequently debate the value of muscular failure.  This is the point at which a lifter can perform zero additional reps during a given set.  In other words, you lift until you cannot physically move the weight.

Some researchers believe “muscular failure” is, in fact, neural rather than skeletal.  They theorize a kind of mental “governor.”

In motor vehicles, a governor is a device that restricts a vehicle’s top speed.  In other words, no matter how hard you mash the gas, a governed vehicle will never exceed a particular speed.

The same may be true of our both our muscles and our willpower.

A neural governor on our muscles makes a lot of sense. Without such a psychological construct, muscle tears would become exceedingly common.  In other words, our brains do not trust us to know the physical limits of our skeletal system. Therefore, it restricts our ability to produce force (except in emergency situations).

Segerstrom and colleagues propose an analogous system for self-control.  In other words, our minds restrict our conscious use of self-control to prevent neurological injuries and to maintain an “emergency reserve” of willpower in the case of emergencies.

Taking a moment to appreciate the sunrise as I leave the gym often helps strengthen my willpower reserves as I prepare for a day of classes.

So is willpower a finite resource?

Yes.  Kind of.

It is exceedingly difficult to work ourselves to death absent extreme coercion.  Our bodies have mental stop-gaps that prevent us from over-exerting ourselves.

However, most people do not reach this limit.  Most of us are capable of working harder, making better decisions, and managing our emotions more effectively.

For many people, simply engaging in rejuvenating or intrinsically-motivating activities can provide a much-needed boost.

In other cases, we can manipulate our environment to reduce the “activation energy” of our willpower.  In other words, we can engineer our surroundings to nudge us towards more fruitful decisions.

Other people could push their limits by simply telling themselves that willpower is a bottomless well.

So test yourself.  Most of us are capable of more than we think.

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