you are only a battery, if you believe you are a battery

Personally, I have a lot of goals that I would like to achieve in my life; be healthy, be social, have a successful youtube channel, get good grades, read books, get better at drawing, oh… and hopefully get a job.

I go through phases in which I either think a little more willpower would help me reach all those goals, or that willpower should never ever be relied upon. The latter mainly comes from my enjoyment in listening to productivity podcasts, in which the message usually comes down to:  

“Don’t rely on your own ability to control your behavior, make everything a habit, burn all bridges, and prepare for the worst.”

But it doesn’t matter how hard you try to avoid it, at one point you will have to make a choice between immediate satisfaction and long term goals. As we know, most people are not good at delaying gratification, but some are naturally better at self control compared to others.

Probably, most people have heard of the marshmallow experiments by now. In these, kids were left alone with a marshmallow, and told that, if they did not eat the marshmallow before the experimenter came back, they would get not one, but two marshmallows. Kids that were able to wait, were found to be more successful later on in life (Mischel, Shoda, & Rodriquez, 1989).

This experiment points to the fact that there is such a thing as the trait self-control, which is something that is present early on in life and is relatively stable, at least compared to others in your age group. And that, maybe, it is also important for a successful life.

However, I think we have all noticed that at some times it is easier to exert self-control than at other times. Your mood, for example, is a big influencer, but also the day of the week or the time of day. It is easier to control yourself at the start of a day, compared to at night. This effect may be attributed to the often reported ego depletion effect.

The ego depletion effect holds that when you use willpower it becomes harder to use the next time you need it (and is thus a great excuse for slacking after you have done something hard). For example, choosing to study instead of watching netflix all day is hard, but then, when you need to choose what to eat, it is even harder to go for the more healthy option.

Another famous experiment is usually cited as early evidence of this effect. Participants were put in front of a plate of fresh cookies and a plate of radishes, some of these participants were told that they were allowed to eat the cookies, while others were told that they could only eat the radishes. Well, you can image which condition was harder. The participants that were asked to resist the call of the cookie performed worse in a subsequent task where they had to complete an unsolvable puzzle. Which means that, if they had to use their willpower in the first task, participants stopped trying to solve the puzzle earlier compared to those who did not yet use their willpower.

This idea, that willpower works like a battery, has received a lot of supporting evidence, but it is not just prevalent in the academic world. It has also seeped into the global consciousness, as can be seen in the previously mentioned productivity advice. We have to save our willpower energy for the important times, and train our willpower muscles. However, there is also research that might suggest that willpower does not work like a battery, not for everyone at least.  

People don’t just differ in personality traits, but also on the ideas and beliefs that they hold. As we know from the placebo effect, our beliefs can definitely influence life outcomes.

Implicitly (e.g. unconsciously) people can have their own beliefs about how willpower works. Some people might belief that their willpower is unlimited and does not work like a battery that can run out, but can always be called upon (e.g. a unlimited theory). Or, they belief that willpower is limited, which means it would be harder to exert willpower after using it once, and you can run out of it (e.g. limited theory).

So, what you belief about how willpower works might be able to buffer against the ego depletion effect. The paper by Bernecker, Hermann, Brandstätter and Job (2017) “Implicit Theories about willpower predict subjective well-being” is a good example of research into this topic.

They did 3 studies to explore the relationship between willpower theories, well-being and goal progression.

In the first study they looked at the basic relationship between willpower theory and the effect it had on people’s satisfaction with life and emotional well-being (e.g. whether they felt pleasant, alert and calm). People that believed in an unlimited theory scored higher on these well-being scales.

However, knowing there is a correlation between the two concepts tells us nothing about whether a unlimited willpower theory causes a higher well-being, or if it works the other way around. To make conclusions about causality you need the element of time, which was added in the second study.

In the second study they tested the hypothesis that this effect of willpower theory mostly occurs when the demands of life are high. They asked students to complete a survey in a time of low demands (at the beginning of the year) and in a time of high demands (at the end of the school year, six month later, during final exams).

Only participants that had a limited theory showed a decrease in well-being over time.

In this study, effects were also controlled for trait self-control. This means that no matter how high people scored on self-control, their implicit theory of willpower still influenced their well-being.  

Of course we don’t just want to know that  this happens, but also why this happens. The theory tested by Bernecker, et al. (2017) proposes that people with an unlimited theory of willpower still take time to work on their personal goals even in periods when demands are high. While people that belief that their willpower is limited will feel the effects of ego depletion kick in, and don’t show as much progress towards their goals. In turn, feeling like you are not making any progress has an effect on your subjective well-being.

This theory was tested in study 3. Again students were tested both during a relatively calm period and during exam week. At both times participants filled in diary questionnaires for a week about their perceived demands, well-being and how effectively they were working towards their goals.

This study reported that indeed, people that had a limited theory of willpower showed less effective goal progression when they were in the exam week, which predicted a lower well-being. For people holding an unlimited theory people would still work towards their personal goals, even if demands were high, and they did not show any decrease in well-being.  

So this study is a good addition to both our theoretical understanding of willpower and practice. For the former it means that maybe willpower is just a limited resource when people believe it is limited or, more nuanced, that at least the battery runs out faster for people that believe it will eventually run out.

In practice it of course means that we should trust our willpower a little bit more, but also still plan for situations where exerting willpower might be hard. I mean, why make things harder for yourself.

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If you want to read the full articles, they can be found on google scholar using these references:

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 74(5), 1252. (link)

Bernecker, K., Herrmann, M., Brandstätter, V., & Job, V. (2017). Implicit Theories About Willpower Predict Subjective Well‐Being. Journal of personality, 85(2), 136-150. (link)

Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriquez, M. L. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244, 933-938. (link)

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