Willpower revisited


Fascinating article from Nir Eyal on new findings related to willpower.

Over the past decades the theory of ego-depletion had gained traction:

Psychological researchers have a name for this phenomenon: it’s called “ego depletion.” The theory is that willpower is connected to a limited reserve of mental energy, and once you run out of that energy, you’re more likely to lose self-control.

If you’ve ever been told to have a sip of lemonade when you were getting mentally fatigued, you’ve been on the receiving end of this theory.

However, new research is finding this isn’t the case at all.

Previously we’d thought that the brain was a muscle, and got fatigued after being used. However, new findings indicate:

The brain is an organ, not a muscle, and thus does not consume extra energy the way a muscle would. Your brain uses the same number of calories per waking minute whether you’re working on calculus equations or watching cat videos.

And now:

New research proposes another explanation for why we run out of steam. In a study conducted by the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dweck concluded that signs of ego depletion were observed only in test subjects who believed willpower was a limited resource. Those participants who did not see willpower as finite did not show signs of ego depletion.


It appears ego depletion may be just another example of the way belief drives behavior. Thinking we’re spent makes us feel worse, while rewarding ourselves with an indulgence makes us feel better. It’s not the sugar in the lemonade that produces the sustained mental stamina, but rather the placebo effect at work.

Instead, here’s a new way to think about willpower:

Michael Inzlicht, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and the principal investigator at the Toronto Laboratory for Social Neuroscience, believes willpower is not a finite resource but instead acts like an emotion. Just as we don’t “run out” of joy or anger, willpower ebbs and flows based on what’s happening to us and how we feel.

Some practicalities:

Most studies to date have looked at willpower as a force that helps people do things they don’t want to do, or that helps them resist temptations they’d rather give in to. But if we adjust the perspective and treat willpower as an emotion, it could instead be seen as providing insights about what we should and shouldn’t be spending our time on.

and finally:

Fundamentally, we give up on tasks that don’t engage us. Doing unsolvable puzzles per the order of a social scientist in a lab coat isn’t fun, nor is it purposeful. Same goes for the mindless tasks too many people suffer through each day at work. We can power through unenjoyable tasks for a while, but we’ll never be our best if we ignore what our feelings are telling us. By listening to our lack of willpower as we would an emotion — as a helpful decision-making assistant working in concert with our logical capabilities — we can find new paths that may not require us to do things we fundamentally don’t want to do.

I love it when our understanding of the world changes. Read the full article here.

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By Craig Bailey