Roy F. Baumeister is the Frances Eppes Professor of Psychology at Florida State University and author of the New York Times bestseller Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
I spoke with him about how self-control works, what makes New Year’s resolutions succeed and how to increase willpower.
When we did the laboratory tests, it consistently turned out that after people exerted self-control in one task and then came to a different self-control task, they would do worse on the second one. It really seemed like they had depleted some energy, some kind of resource in the first test, and didn’t have as much available for the second one. That has been found over and over again, and indeed lots of different laboratories have now shown similar effects, too.
The principle here is that you have one stock of willpower or one self-control muscle. It’s a “domain general resource” as people say. It’s not specific to any one activity. People say, “I have good willpower for washing the dishes but not for getting my work done.” That’s wrong. It’s the same willpower. You may allocate it to one thing or the other, but it’s all coming from the same stockpile.
Making choices depletes willpower and afterward your self-control is impaired. If you have people exert self-control and deplete their willpower and later on have them make decisions, then their decision-making is of poor quality. They’re more willing to try to dodge the decision, postpone it, or skip it. They go with very simple strategies like the status quo. They pick things that are more indulgent. They don’t compromise. A compromise is a mentally complex decision. When they’re depleted from exerting self-control, they tend to simplify the task and make a very simplistic sort of decision. Also, there are some kinds of irrational bias that creep into the decision process more if people are depleted.
One thing you can do to take the load off is to make fewer decisions. President Obama, or more likely somebody on his staff, read about our decision fatigue research. Obama decided he was just going to wear blue or gray suits. He said, “I don’t want to waste any time deciding what to wear or what to eat. I have difficult decisions to make.” It’s a very good application of our strategy. The more you follow a routine, plan in advance, or operate on the basis of habit, the less moment-to-moment strain there is, and the less demand for willpower.
Depleted doesn’t mean that your willpower resource is gone. It’s just like being a little bit tired when you’re exercising. The body naturally goes into an energy conservation mode. You still can run just as fast as you could before. The energy is still there. It’s just the natural tendency of the body to conserve it when it’s a little bit depleted.
Beyond that, there are a variety of things that our labs and other labs have been showing that can produce short-term improvements in self-control.
All these things suggest that when you first start to get depleted, it’s just a natural reaction to conserve your energy. It’s not that the tank is empty. You can still do it if you want to.
The same glucose energy used for self-control is also used by the immune system to fight illnesses. What I used to do, if I started getting sick, I would make myself continue to work. Even if I got sick and a person said, “You should go lie down and take it easy.” “No. I’m just working. I’m not digging ditches, or carrying heavy loads or anything. I’m just sitting at a computer. That shouldn’t be bad.” I made myself keep on working right through the illness.
In the long run, that was not really very efficient. The reason you’re sleepy is your body wants to use all of its energy to fight the disease. What I’ve started doing is at the first sign I’m getting sick, I try to disengage from work. If I can, I just go to bed and sleep around the clock for a day or two. Again, that lets the body use all its energy, all its willpower, just to fight the disease. Then you don’t get sick.
Just eat something. In the lab we use sugary snacks, which I don’t really recommend people use in their own life because they’re not that good for you. We use it in the lab because we need something that works really fast and sugar gives you a quick burst of energy. Unfortunately, it’s then followed by a quick crash. Your metabolic energy goes up and then it comes down again in a big way. Eat something, like protein, that your body will burn over a longer period of time.
Rest is good. In general, self-control problems and difficulties seem to show up with people who don’t get enough sleep. The longer people have been awake, the more self-control problems happen. Most things go bad in the evening. Diets are broken at the evening snack, not at breakfast or in the middle of the morning. Impulsive crimes are mostly committed after midnight.
People will make five New Years’ resolutions. Each time you work on one, you’re taking away your capacity to work on the other. You don’t have any more willpower magically. You have the same amount. If I say I’m going to use it to eat more healthy food, and stop yelling at my romantic partner, and I’m going to read some books, and stick with an exercise program, and stop swearing, the energy I put into one will take away from the success of others. No wonder that New Years’ resolutions have such a dismal reputation for failure.
Instead of making them all at once, make them in sequence and start with the easiest one. If swearing is the easiest, then do that one first because that will strengthen your willpower and increase your capacity when you move onto the harder ones. If you make this resolution and you actually keep it, your body gets used to exerting self-control and it becomes stronger and more ready to take on another challenge.
Psychology has just really found two traits that predict success across a broad range of occupations, and activities. One is intelligence, and the other is self-control. The key difference to me is that it’s very difficult to improve intelligence. There were a variety of strategies tried with Head Start and things like that. Those don’t really seem to produce any lasting gains in intelligence. Whereas self-control can be improved, even in adulthood. This is a great avenue by which psychology can maybe help people and make a positive difference in lots of people’s lives.
In one of the chapters of your book, you refer to dieting as a “perfect storm” in regard to willpower. Can you speak a little bit as to why that is?
The catch is that you need willpower to resist the food. To have willpower you have to eat. So you actually need food to diet successfully.
I think the idea people sometimes get is they’ll just deny themselves and they won’t eat any food over a long period of time. Then they’re hungry, and they run low on energy, and they’re cranky because they’re not exerting control over their emotions, they’re holding their tongue and their temper, and all those negative things. If you want to diet effectively, start by filling up on healthy food so that you will have the energy to exert self-control. That will be better for you in the long run. Not eating anything and constantly denying yourself doesn’t work very well.
People have said for centuries that you can build character by making yourself do things you don’t want to do, that by exerting self-discipline you can make yourself into a stronger person. That does appear to be correct.
We have a number of studies we’ve published, and other laboratories as well, indicating that when people engage in regular self-control exercises, even just for a couple of weeks, their self-control is improved to the extent that you can pick it up on the laboratory test that has nothing to do with the exercises they did. If you strengthen willpower with one set of exercises, it will be stronger for anything.
In our first study that worked on this, the assignment was we just told people to try to work on their posture, “Whenever you think about it, stand up straight, sit up straight.” They did that for two weeks. Then we gave them a bunch of lab tests that had nothing to do with posture, but they showed significant improvements in willpower compared to the control group. You can really improve your capacity for self-control.
We have found in a series of studies that self-control performance is linked to glucose, which is a chemical in your bloodstream that carries energy from the digestive system and also from your fat stores to the muscles and into the brain in particular. You have plenty of glucose in storage and so you can get more, but the body doesn’t like to give up too much of its stored energy so it resists that. If it gets a signal that more energy is coming in, then it’s more willing to expend energy and use up some of its glycogen stores. Some of these studies will have people do the first test to deplete willpower and then we give them a second task where they usually show an impairment. But if they get a snack in between, something rich in glucose, they tend to do better on the second task. The impairment is washed away. That might really give them back some of the energy from glucose that they burned up.
It also can be just signaling. If you have a taste of something and spit it out, there’s an improvement there as well. What’s probably happening is they get a little of that in their mouths and they taste it, and at some level the body says, “Aha. Good. Energy is coming. I’ll be able to replenish my stores so I can go ahead and devote more energy to whatever I’m doing right now.” And so performance improves on the task they’re busy with.
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