Episode 8

In this episode, APA CEO Norman B. Anderson, PhD, defines willpower and discusses research that measures our capacity to resist temptation for long-term gain — better known as self-control.



Norman Anderson: Hi. I'm Dr. Norman Anderson. Welcome to This is Psychology.

Willpower — it's a characteristic we'd all like to have more of. Whether our goal is to quit smoking, shed a few pounds, or spend less, we all believe that with a little more willpower, we could reach our goal.

Psychologists across the country have studied the phenomenon we call willpower. Can willpower be learned? Can it be acquired through practice? Let's look at the research to try to answer these questions.

At its essence, willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations to achieve long-term goals. Over the years, psychologists have conducted numerous studies that measured our capacity to resist short-term temptation for a long-term gain; something psychologists call delay of gratification or self-control.

One well-known study gave elementary-age students the choice between $1 now, or $2 a week from now. Another study tested childrens' ability to choose to have one marshmallow now or two later.

The goal of this research was to better understand our ability to delay gratification, that is, to employ willpower. Research has shown that elementary-age students who measured high in their ability to delay gratification had better grades, better school attendance, and higher standardized test scores. They were also more likely to be admitted to a competitive high school program. At the college level, other studies have shown that students with higher willpower scores had higher grade point averages, higher self-esteem, and better relationship skills compared to their counterparts. They were also less likely to engage in binge eating or alcohol abuse.

Now, here's the question most of us have: Can I increase my willpower, or am I destined to succumb to the temptations of the moment?

A growing body of research suggests that the answer may be yes — your willpower, like muscle strength, can be increased. For example, psychologists have found that consistently practicing self-control can, over time, lead to stronger willpower — again, like building a muscle through exercise.

Researchers who study self-control suggest the following strategies to build your willpower:

Recognize situations that test your self-control and avoid them as much as you can. Be careful not to overestimate your ability to resist temptations.

Set small, incremental goals. Studies show that using rewards to reinforce your short-term sacrifices for long-term gain will help you to stick to a diet or other types of behavior change plans.

Believe in your ability to exercise self-control in order to achieve your goals. Studies have shown that being optimistic about your ability to reach a goal will help you stay the course.

Finally, focus on your goals and not on what tempts you. Research has shown that thinking about your core values — that is, what you ultimately want to achieve — can help you summon your willpower when you need it most.

Nevertheless, sometimes we find that despite our best efforts, temptation gets the best of us. What is actually happening when our willpower seems to be in short supply? The answer may depend on a phenomenon called willpower depletion. Willpower depletion is what happens when our ability to make better long-term choices, is worn down or depleted by having to resist small temptations on a day-to-day basis. A growing body of research suggests that resisting temptations can take a mental toll. It is as if we wear out our willpower.

Psychologists also want to know whether willpower depletion has a biological basis. Studies are beginning to show that when your willpower is depleted, particular parts of your brain may react and function differently than when your willpower is plentiful. Other investigators are studying the hypothesis that willpower depletion is connected to low blood sugar levels.

For more information on this and other psychology topics, including a new APA report on willpower, visit APA's website at apa.org.

Thanks for watching "This is Psychology."