February 15, 2012

Lack of Willpower May Be Obstacle to Improving Personal Health and Finances

New APA report explains the science behind willpower and self-control.

WASHINGTON—Almost everyone living in America made a resolution to change some aspect of their behavior in 2012, according to a survey released today by the American Psychological Association. Yet people consistently report that a lack of willpower is the top reason they fall short of their goals to lose weight, save more money, exercise or make other lifestyle changes.
 
The survey (PDF, 828KB), conducted online on behalf of the APA by Harris Interactive among 566 adults in December, found that 93 percent of people set a goal to change their behavior this year. The survey is a continuation of APA’s annual Stress in America™ poll, which found that many Americans report lack of willpower as a significant barrier to achieving their goals.

People can enhance their willpower if they can learn to deploy it more effectively, according to a companion report released by APA. "What You Need to Know about Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-Control" explores leading research into the nature and consequences of people's ability to exert self-control. This research suggests that willpower is correlated with positive life outcomes such as better grades, higher self-esteem, greater financial security and improved physical and mental health. The capacity for self-control appears to be persistent throughout a person’s life: research shows that those with better self-control as preschoolers tend to have better control as adults. But, just as muscles are strengthened by consistent exercise, regularly exerting self-control may improve willpower strength over time, recent studies suggest.

"Self-control can be learned and strengthened," said Steven J. Breckler, PhD, a social psychologist and executive director of APA's Science Directorate. "For example, avoiding the sources of temptation and planning ahead are effective techniques for maintaining self-control.  Research shows that exercising your willpower in one situation may drain your self-control for other situations that immediately follow.  So, just like with physical exercise, it is smart to avoid taking on too much at once. First, focus on one goal, strengthen your willpower, and then take on more goals over time."

The most frequently reported goals that people set for 2012 were those aimed at improving health (57 percent reported a goal to lose weight, 50 percent reported a goal to eat a healthier diet, and 41 percent reported a goal to start exercising regularly) or financial status (52 percent reported a goal to save more money, and 37 percent reported a goal to pay off debt), according to the follow-up survey. For adults trying to make a lifestyle change, however, willpower is an important factor.  The annual survey found that one in four reported that willpower (27 percent) or time (26 percent) prevented them from making the change they were trying to achieve. Despite difficulties with willpower, a majority of those responding to the annual survey (71 percent) believe that willpower can be learned, which is good news since psychological research demonstrates that this is true.

"It is reassuring to know that even though people view a lack of willpower as a hurdle in their quest to live healthier lives, they believe they can learn the skills they need to change their lifestyles," said psychologist Norman Anderson, PhD, APA's CEO and executive vice president. "Research shows that setting goals, as well as tracking progress and seeking out a community of support, can be tremendously effective in helping people increase their self-control and lead healthier lives."

Findings from the follow-up survey support psychological research that suggests having a plan to tackle behavior change can improve outcomes. Adults who reported that they are extremely or very motivated to make a lifestyle or behavior change were significantly more likely than unmotivated respondents to say they were doing an excellent or very good job of setting clear goals (62 percent vs. 17 percent). Those who were more motivated reported better monitoring progress toward goals (57 percent vs. 14 percent); avoiding people, things or situations that lead to temptation (44 percent vs. 24 percent); and postponing what they want in the short term to achieve longer term goals (47 percent vs. 6 percent).

To read the willpower report and findings from the Stress in America follow-up survey, visit APA's website.
Stress in America is part of APA’s Mind/Body Health public education campaign. For additional information on stress and lifestyle and behavior, visit the Help Center webpage and read the campaign blog. Join the conversation about stress on Twitter by following @apahelpcenter and #stressAPA.

Contact: Scott Rieder, Vanguard Communications, (202) 248-5476, Email

Methodology

The Stress in America™ survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of the American Psychological Association between Aug. 11 and Sept. 6, 2011, among 1,226 adults age 18 and older who reside in the U.S. The Stress in America follow-up survey was conducted online between Dec. 22 and 30, 2011, among 566 of the 1226 adults who participated in the earlier Stress in America survey. Results were weighted as needed for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income. To read the full methodology; visit the Stress in America website.

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world’s largest association of psychologists. APA’s membership includes more than 154,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants, and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession, and as a means of promoting health, education, and human welfare.

Harris Interactive is one of the world's leading custom market research firms, leveraging research, technology, and business acumen to transform relevant insight into actionable foresight. Known widely for the Harris Poll and for pioneering innovative research methodologies, Harris offers expertise in a wide range of industries including healthcare, technology, public affairs, energy, telecommunications, financial services, insurance, media, retail, restaurant, and consumer package goods. Serving clients in over 215 countries and territories through our North American, European, and Asian offices and a network of independent market research firms, Harris specializes in delivering research solutions that help us — and our clients — stay ahead of what's next. For more information, please visit the Harris Interactive website.