Does "Willpower" exist?

Its a comment I hear time and time again from clients; "I just have no willpower.  If I wasnt so weak I would just say no'....

This is an important point, as often its how we run ourselves down when we haven't been successful at something like saying no certain types of foods.  Or we buy that new item on impulse when we definitely know we cant afford it.   Even the word Willpower makes it sound like a noun, 'a thing' gives the idea that it is fixed, you either have it or you don't. Neuroscience and psychology research from as far back as the early 90s would say that this is certainly not the case.  

What does the research say?

The fruit salad vs chocolate cake study is one that holds particular interest for me.    Participants were asked to remember a number – the number was randomly selected to either be a short two digit number or a seven digit number – and then to walk down a hallway to another room for an interview. As a seeming afterthought, they were told there is a snack cart in the hallway and to help themselves to one of the snacks. The snack choice was either fruit salad or chocolate cake.  The subjects asked to remember the two-digit number selected the fruit salad in equal proportions to the chocolate cake. The subjects tasked with remembering the longer seven digit number overwhelmingly chose the chocolate cake.

What does a number have to do with it?  Well lets replace those 7 digits with worries like, picking kids up on time, traffic, emails you have to do in work, money worries and 50 whatsapp messages and it might be unsurprising that at the end of the day the 'diet' goes out the window or we just act on impulse and order a takeaway. 

Social psychologists have developed the idea of 'depletable' self control, which is now backed up by neuroscience research.  Every decision we make and every time we multitask or switch what we are doing it has an 'energy cost' to the brain.  Just like a muscle the decision making areas in the brain gets tired.  The most expensive decisions to the brain are shown to be 'trade off decisions' where you have to trade off things against each other in order to make a choice.  

In another fascinating study researchers had food-deprived subjects sit at a table with two types of food on it: cookies and chocolates; and radishes. Some of the subjects were instructed to eat radishes and resist the sweets, and afterwards all were put to work on unsolvable geometric puzzles. Resisting the sweets, independent of mood, made participants give up more than twice as quickly on the geometric puzzles. Resisting temptation, the researchers found, seemed to have “produced a ‘psychological cost.'  Maybe that makes more sense about how that box of chocolates can disappear when you are busy writing a report....making lots of decisions causes mental fatigue.

Researchers have found that exerting self-control on an initial task impaired self-control on subsequent tasks: Consumers became more susceptible to tempting products; chronic dieters overate; people were more likely to lie for monetary gain; and so on. 

"After you exert self-control in any sphere at all, like resisting dessert, you have less self-control at the next task.”

The evidence for this is astounding and very strong, but yet why does the Government not make more of it?  Why had you not heard about these studies more?

My feeling for this is that, it suits the government and food industry to say its 'all about personal choice' to take the pressure off them to stop making vast selections of fake, cheap foods and marketing them to us with very little regulation.  Taking the pressure off them and onto the individual lets them off free to blame the person for allowing themselves to eat processed foods every day.

Research would say, yes of course people make personal choices, but many other things impact their ability to make those choices and some of them are out of our control.

What does all this tell us about how we make decisions?  

The less decisions we have to make the better for our brains.  When our conscious working memory is very occupied with decisions, worries or thoughts then we can end up making decisions based on purely on emotions or impulse.  This could be a problem who have big emotional attachments to certain foods, if they are under pressure, comfort eating is much more likely.

What decisions or multi-tasking are you doing that you could cut down on? Is taking on lots of new information by scrolling through twitter or facebook really helping your mind to rest?

Having a busy mind and its clear impact on food choices, would tell us that perhaps that one of the most important things you can do if you want to lose weight is to work our how to be happier and more calm.  Secondly to reduce the amount of impulse decisions those decisions need to be removed from you: ie having a 'treat cupboard' in the house or shopping apps is asking your brain constantly to resist, resist, resist.  Thats asking for trouble... If the treat cupboard isn't there then that removes one less trade off decision from your mind.

Perhaps allowing your eyes to close for 15minutes and your mind to clear and rest is better than forcing yourself to race to the gym.  Maybe a nice walk in this beautiful autumn sunshine would allow your head to feel clear enough to say actually, you don't want another slice of cake.

The idea of 'willpower' is outdated.  But we do need to work out how to rest our minds more. And maybe the next time you slip up or make a impulse decision, maybe you should just be that bit kinder to yourself and recognise that you were under pressure rather than creating more stress by beating yourself up.

Until next time...

6743782.... fruit salad or chocolate cake?