Is Willpower a Limited Resource Which Can be Cultivated with Exercise?

Picture: Robbin Cresswell (PD)

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” – Aiwass

New developments in biological science suggest your willpower is drawn from a limited supply of chemicals which accumulate in the brain over time.

According to Wired willpower is:

a measurable form of mental energy that runs out as you use it, much like the gas in your car.

Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University, calls this “ego depletion,” and he proved its existence by sitting students next to a plate of fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies. Some were allowed to snack away, others ordered to abstain. Afterward, both groups were asked to complete difficult puzzles. The students who’d been forced to resist the cookies had so depleted their reserves of self-control that when faced with this new task, they quickly threw in the towel. The cookie eaters, on the other hand, had conserved their willpower and worked on the puzzles longer.

Further studies have suggested that willpower is fueled by glucose—which helps explain why our determination crumbles when we try to lose weight. When we don’t eat, our glucose drops, and our willpower along with it. “We call it the dieter’s catch-22: In order to not eat, you need willpower. But in order to have willpower you need to eat,” says John Tierney, coauthor with Baumeister of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

Full story here [my emphasis]

If willpower is thought of as a chemical produced by the brain using specific ingredients (such as glucose) it provides a number of insights into its practical use:

As Tierney explains, “People with the best self-control aren’t the ones who use it all day long. They’re people who structure their lives so they conserve it.” That way, you’ll be able to stockpile vast reserves for when you really need it, like hauling your lazy ass to the gym.

Wired, full story.

For the moment these findings are probably best used as an insightful metaphor as opposed to concrete reality. Many people believe there is an additional “non-physical” element to consciousness and reject theories of the brain which reduce us to an entirely physiological process. Furthermore the BBC reports criticism of Baumeister’s theory from some quarters:

“It’s almost like there is a self-fulfilling process here,” says Greg Walton, part of a team at Stanford University which has found evidence to debunk Baumeister’s theory.

The more that people believe that willpower is a limited physiological resource, the easier it is to find ostensible evidence that that is the case.”

[…]

Michael Inzlicht, a psychologist at the University of Toronto argues for a more nuanced understanding of the processes behind self-control.

“It’s clear that consuming glucose can improve self-control,” he says. “But we also know that being in a happy mood improves willpower. Being given a choice improves willpower and paying attention can improve willpower.

“Glucose does seem to improve things, but this does not mean that glucose is the resource that underlies self-control.”

He believes glucose may have a psychological rather than a physical effect. But he doesn’t entirely disagree with Baumeister’s muscle metaphor.

“I think willpower can be improved and exercising it seems like a promising way to do this,” he says.

Full story here [my emphasis]

The focus upon glucose is in my opinion a red herring. What’s important from my perspective is the practical advice we can glean from these two stories. Firstly it appears willpower is limited depending upon how much of it you have used on any particular day. Secondly your available reserves of it increase the more you use it. Furthermore, when your reserves are low, you can make better use of what you have by, “being in a happy mood […] being given a choice and paying attention” (see above).

In my personal experience willpower really does develop with exercise much like any other part of your physical body. I suspect this is why it’s widely acknowledged in most self-help/life-improvement circles that changes to your lifestyle are usually managed better if taken one at a time.

Ten years ago I was an overweight smoker. For many years I was locked into the habits of over eating and smoking because I did not understand that tackling both problems at once resulted in a higher chance of failure. I’d usually try to manage both as a New Year’s resolution and then fail around March of the same year. However, when broken into seperate managable chunks, I found that the enormous process of losing weight (77lbs in total) was made easier by my previous success in having stopped smoking. It seemed to me at the time that I had improved my ability to exercise willpower.

The debate is clearly far from over and your thoughts are encouraged in the comments section. I’d be particularly interested to hear from anyone who is on a path where they are deliberately trying to cultivate their willpower. What has hindered you and what helps you?

, , , , ,

  • Elisaecheverri

    Wow I though I was the only one! We star to loss the councience of our body and try to life without of it! I have been finding really interested changes in the body just with working out

  • Elisaecheverri

    Wow I though I was the only one! We star to loss the councience of our body and try to life without of it! I have been finding really interested changes in the body just with working out

  • Erich von Daniken

    My problem is that it takes just so much darn energy to drown out the voices in my head that I have little verve left over for an adequate front-to-back wipe job.  I’ve tried foil, lead and Aztec rock crystal helmets, but none of them seem to work.

    • Calypso_1

      Let’s try atypicals next.

    • Calypso_1

      Let’s try atypicals next.

  • TennesseeCyberian

    My experience has been very similar to your own, Nick.  Whatever the sweet-tooth may be, by reigning in one cumpulsive behavior, other compulsive behaviors seem to exert less power over my decision-making.

    Baumeister’s cookie study is misleading, at least according to my own experiences.  I’ve found that the more I give into the urge to eat the cookie, the less likely I am to exert will over some other aspect of my life.  Certainly, discipline is fatiguing.  But as you say, discipline in one area only strengthens my will in another.

  • TennesseeCyberian

    My experience has been very similar to your own, Nick.  Whatever the sweet-tooth may be, by reigning in one cumpulsive behavior, other compulsive behaviors seem to exert less power over my decision-making.

    Baumeister’s cookie study is misleading, at least according to my own experiences.  I’ve found that the more I give into the urge to eat the cookie, the less likely I am to exert will over some other aspect of my life.  Certainly, discipline is fatiguing.  But as you say, discipline in one area only strengthens my will in another.

    • Finger trap

      Today instead of ordering take out, I dug deep and cooked my own food. I hate cooking but I’m not bad at it. The result was delicious. 

    • Finger trap

      Today instead of ordering take out, I dug deep and cooked my own food. I hate cooking but I’m not bad at it. The result was delicious. 

  • alizardx

    Your Crowley quote suggests that you’ve tried at least one way to cultivate willpower via magickal (or psychological depending on one’s frame of reference) training system designed for that specific purpose.

    I suspect that like physical exercise training regimens, almost anything works provided that one actually does the exercises rather than just thinking about them.

    Though attempting to eat one’s way into willpower via consuming various things containing glucose might have unpleasant side effects like weight gain even if it does work for concentrating will. 

  • alizardx

    Your Crowley quote suggests that you’ve tried at least one way to cultivate willpower via magickal (or psychological depending on one’s frame of reference) training system designed for that specific purpose.

    I suspect that like physical exercise training regimens, almost anything works provided that one actually does the exercises rather than just thinking about them.

    Though attempting to eat one’s way into willpower via consuming various things containing glucose might have unpleasant side effects like weight gain even if it does work for concentrating will. 

  • Drewhempel

    In nonwestern cultures will power is the kidney energy.  This would appear to be adrenaline from increased dopamine from increased testosterone but the key factor is not increasing cortisol as stress.  So actually you want increased serotonin from the vagus nerve activation.  In other words how can people tolerate pain?  For example cayenne activates the natural opiates of the body.  If a person can naturally increase their bliss levels then their mind can remain focused despite external attempts to redirect the mind.  The vagus nerve activation through the relaxation parasympathetic nervous system then increases brain serotonin after increased dopamine.  Normally for the male dopamine increase turns to increase cortisol stress from the male external ejaculation triggering the sympathetic nervous system.  So that is why the traditional Chinese medicine calls the kidneys the “internal reproductive organs.”

    Ideally there is a magnetic — electromagnetic bliss activation of the pineal gland creating biophotons for visualization.  This is been proven that visualizing light in the brain actually does create light in the brain as biophotons and this has a top-down cascade to activate the vagus nerve and pull up the serotonin into the brain via the endothelial cells.  This is the internal vagus nerve orgasm that females experience from the cervix but males can also experience this internal vagus nerve orgasm.  So as is proven at internal climax the brain goes into a trance state and this basically exorcises the brain of its stress — the built up previous emotional electrochemical imprints that had been stored in the various organs. 

    So I use sitting in full lotus for increased will power because the main thing is to not get burnt out from stress — anger is a liver blockage and sadness is a lung blockage — so smoking causes depression.  Nutrition and emotion are all closely interwoven.  I recommend practicing the small universe meditation exercise from http://springforestqigong.com to increase the kidney energy.  The best is in those old skool kungfu flicks where they do horse stance with arms held outright – like Jackie Chan training — with the knees bent – no movement.  This increases the kidney energy — the more your thighs are level the more energy is activated.  After a while then the electromagnetic channels of the body open up to flow freely and if you can store up electromagnetic energy below and behind the navel — called JING energy in Tai Chi — that’s the secret of increasing will power as internal kidney energy.  Then you become like an electric eel and that stored up electromagnetic energy can be used for any type of electrochemical function like going without food but having no hunger or even going without water or going without sleep or healing other people or various other miracles like telepathy or precognition or even in advanced levels like astral travel or levitation.

  • Drewhempel

    In nonwestern cultures will power is the kidney energy.  This would appear to be adrenaline from increased dopamine from increased testosterone but the key factor is not increasing cortisol as stress.  So actually you want increased serotonin from the vagus nerve activation.  In other words how can people tolerate pain?  For example cayenne activates the natural opiates of the body.  If a person can naturally increase their bliss levels then their mind can remain focused despite external attempts to redirect the mind.  The vagus nerve activation through the relaxation parasympathetic nervous system then increases brain serotonin after increased dopamine.  Normally for the male dopamine increase turns to increase cortisol stress from the male external ejaculation triggering the sympathetic nervous system.  So that is why the traditional Chinese medicine calls the kidneys the “internal reproductive organs.”

    Ideally there is a magnetic — electromagnetic bliss activation of the pineal gland creating biophotons for visualization.  This is been proven that visualizing light in the brain actually does create light in the brain as biophotons and this has a top-down cascade to activate the vagus nerve and pull up the serotonin into the brain via the endothelial cells.  This is the internal vagus nerve orgasm that females experience from the cervix but males can also experience this internal vagus nerve orgasm.  So as is proven at internal climax the brain goes into a trance state and this basically exorcises the brain of its stress — the built up previous emotional electrochemical imprints that had been stored in the various organs. 

    So I use sitting in full lotus for increased will power because the main thing is to not get burnt out from stress — anger is a liver blockage and sadness is a lung blockage — so smoking causes depression.  Nutrition and emotion are all closely interwoven.  I recommend practicing the small universe meditation exercise from http://springforestqigong.com to increase the kidney energy.  The best is in those old skool kungfu flicks where they do horse stance with arms held outright – like Jackie Chan training — with the knees bent – no movement.  This increases the kidney energy — the more your thighs are level the more energy is activated.  After a while then the electromagnetic channels of the body open up to flow freely and if you can store up electromagnetic energy below and behind the navel — called JING energy in Tai Chi — that’s the secret of increasing will power as internal kidney energy.  Then you become like an electric eel and that stored up electromagnetic energy can be used for any type of electrochemical function like going without food but having no hunger or even going without water or going without sleep or healing other people or various other miracles like telepathy or precognition or even in advanced levels like astral travel or levitation.

  • http://socialmediabar.com/margartthatcherstillalive Jan Moss

    I find that the more I give in to something, the more I give in to it, if that makes sense! If I allow myself one cookie, then I think I might as well have another, and then if I’ve had two… and it goes on… very interesting study – had no idea about the chemical theory!

    People often say they don’t have any but you do have will power, it’s just a case of how much of course!

  • Ffejtball

    Sure, it’s got nothing to do with eating before the test, it’s because their willpower was depleted. They just need enchanted underwear of willpower +10 and they’ll be fine, right?

21