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Chapter One, Willpower

star5112 Balancing or falling? CC BY-SA 2.0Picture a group of twenty year-olds scattered around a dance studio, facing each other in pairs, leaning forward on their toes, noses touching. This was the first day of a Performance Studies class I took — for one day, before dropping it — called “Performance and the Body,” or something to that effect. Our introduction to the weekly, four-hour class was to stand as close to our partner for as long as we could, as still as we could. Afterward we debriefed on the challenges of this task, and many of us remarked that it was really difficult not to lob their partner with a big kiss. Nobody yielded to the temptation — one of my stranger feats of willpower.

As mentioned last week, I’m in the middle of reading Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, part history, part psychological study, part self-improvement book. Chapter one begins with a discussion of pop singer Amanda Palmer, a Dionysian, Lady Gaga type who doesn’t exactly conjure the traditionally straight-laced, Victorian idea of “willpower,” and yet, as the authors are wise to point out, who possesses it in abundant supply. She first honed her powers of will by standing stock still on top of a box, dressed as a bride in the middle of Harvard Square. She could manage it for about 90 minutes at a time, not being able “to scratch if she had an itch, wipe her nose if a piece of snot started to dribble down, swat at a stray mosquito…” She was doing nothing, but the discipline of being totally blank-faced and nonreactive was itself a challenge. Reminds me of how my old drama teacher used to yell, “F— YOU!” at us, as in, “focus you.”

Actually, there are four categories of willpower, according to this book:

  • Control of thoughts — this is accomplished by focusing
  • Control of emotions — this is accomplished through “indirect strategies,” such as distracting yourself when you feel negative emotions
  • Impulse control — really a description of how people react to stray impulses
  • Performance control — the ability to complete a task with the appropriate mix of speed, accuracy, perseverance

In chapter one, the authors also suggest that willpower is like a muscle that gets fatigued after use. Apparently we use the same supply of willpower for all tasks: making decisions, writing a term paper, resisting chocolate chip cookies, waking up on time… Author Roy Baumeister coined a term for willpower fatigue, called “ego depletion.” It draws upon Freud’s energy model of the self, the idea that the self is comprised of various, competing energies that must be productively channeled. University of Toronto researchers Michael Inzlicht and Jennifer Gutsell found that ego depletion manifests as slower activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, and also in more extreme emotions — so next time your plagued by violent mood swings, ask yourself how much self-discipline you’ve had to exercise recently.

An amusing study conducted by two Australian psychologists proved the forcefulness of the ego depletion concept. In the study, they administered self-control tests to students at several points throughout the semester. During exams, the students smoked more, doubled their caffeine intake, spent money more impulsively, and generally took on a host of bad habits. Turns out that stress erodes willpower, which explains the students’ poor behavior.

In another study, scientists put hungry subjects in a room with warm chocolate chip cookies, radishes, and chocolate candy. Some were told to eat the cookies and the candy; a separate group was told to eat the radishes. Then they were instructed to work on insoluble puzzles. Those who ate the sweets worked on the puzzles for an average of 20 minutes, whereas the radish-eating participants only persevered for about eight minutes. Their willpower had presumably been depleted by the effort of resisting the cookies. To summarize,

“You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it [and] you use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.”

What’s the take away? Focus on accomplishing, changing, or mastering one thing at a time. And be patient with yourself, whatever the challenge 🙂

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