Is willpower about your biology or your brain? Are we constrained by the narrow limits of our biology?
After nearly a two-week hiatus from blogging--and Thanksgiving week in glorious Boston with my kids, spending some of that time going over my grandson’s list of potential colleges, I’m back home again. So I chuckled to see Carol Dweck and her associate, Greg Walton, reporting still more of their ground-breaking practical research in Sunday’s NYTimes.
The Stanford profs have studied another important issue of human capital: willpower. And they’ve found that we can actually manage our willpower.
The authors begin by posing two important illustrations of the problem, both depicting the popular belief that willpower is about biology not mindset. In one, they quote a recent nutrition book, arguing that because of how the brain’s hypothalamus works, it is a “myth” that anyone can will himself to lose weight. A second illustration from a just published book concludes that willpower is “limited and depends on a continuous supply” of glucose. Dweck and Walton’s assessment is spot on: these theories attribute our failures of willpower to our fixed biology—and wrong.
The theories, as Dweck and Walton point out, have an obvious appeal: attributing failures of willpower to our fixed biological limits justifies our procrastination as well as our growing waistlines. Not only that, we also get to consume more sugar.
In stark contrast, their research has found that what’s limiting our willpower is our mindset. And when people believe that willpower is self-renewing and work hard, they’re energized to work more.
Recognizing that many people are skeptical about renewing willpower, their research found the following:
When the initial task was easy and willpower wasn’t required, people did well on the tricky cognitive task, making few mistakes. But when the initial task was hard and involved self-control, people who believed that willpower was limited made almost twice as many mistakes on the tricky cognitive task as did the group that performed the initial easy task. This finding replicates many studies by Dr. Baumeister and others that have been interpreted as evidence that willpower is limited and easily depleted. But, strikingly, we found that people who believed that willpower was not limited continued to perform well on the second task, making few mistakes, even after facing the difficult initial task. They were not “depleted” and kept on doing well.
This study and others put the lie to our common notions about the limitations of willpower. They also reinforce the well-known research that shows that the more we learn, the better and the faster that we can learn.
You may contend that these results show only that some people just happen to have more willpower — and know that they do. But on the contrary, we found that anyone can be prompted to think that willpower is not so limited. When we had people read statements that reminded them of the power of willpower like, “Sometimes, working on a strenuous mental task can make you feel energized for further challenging activities,” they kept on working and performing well with no sign of depletion. They made half as many mistakes on a difficult cognitive task as people who read statements about limited willpower. In another study, they scored 15 percent better on I.Q. problems.
When faced with skepticism about this kind of research I remember that old dogma dies hard. Once concepts are deeply embedded, a superstructure of assumptions and ideas grows around it. Rejecting a dogma means that many ideas are now questionable, and . . . as a result a close read of a book or thoughtful analysis of a new and complex idea is impossible. As an acquaintance of mine said about these ideas: "I don't believe it. I can't believe it. Everything I've ever learned about intelligence and achievement would go out the window." He tuned out. It was a losing battle I chose not to fight.
This research reminds parents of some very important truths for their children—and themselves as adults, businesspersons and professionals.
At stake in this debate is not just a question about the nature of willpower. It’s also a question of what kind of people we want to be. Do we want to be a people who dismiss our weaknesses as unchangeable? When a student struggles in math, should we tell that student, “Don’t worry, you’re just not a math person”? Do we want him to give up in the name of biology? Or do we want him to work harder in the spirit of what he wants to become?