The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It by Ph.D., Kelly McGonigal
I loved this book, it was a book that I literally made myself slow down and read only one chapter a week. I would find myself thinking about it off and on all week.
Definitely a book to make your self better. (I am now reading The Power of Habit and it is having the same impact.)
TO SUCCEED AT SELF - CONTROL , YOU NEED TO KNOW HOW YOU FAIL
I believe that the best way to improve your self-control is to see how and why you lose control. Knowing how you are likely to give in doesn’t, as many people fear, set yourself up for failure. It allows you to support yourself and avoid the traps that lead to willpower failures.
Self-knowledge—especially of how we find ourselves in willpower trouble—is the foundation of self-control.
One thing the science of willpower makes clear is that everyone struggles in some way with temptation, addiction, distraction, and procrastination. These are not individual weaknesses that reveal our personal inadequacies—they are universal experiences and part of the human condition.
I’m a scientist by training, and one of the very first things I learned is that while theories are nice, data is better. This is so how I live my life. Before you can change something, you need to see it as it is.
Although you could read this whole book in one weekend, I encourage you to pace yourself when it comes to implementing the strategies. Students in my class take an entire week to observe how each idea plays out in their own lives. They try one new strategy for self-control each week, and report on what worked best. I recommend that you take a similar approach, especially if you plan to use this book to tackle a specific goal such as losing weight or getting control over your finances. Give yourself time to try out the practical exercises and reflect. Pick one strategy from each chapter—whichever seems most relevant to your challenge—rather than trying out ten new strategies at once. First time I ever actually did this.
When people say, “I have no willpower,” what they usually mean is, “I have trouble saying no when my mouth, stomach, heart, or (fill in your anatomical part) wants to say yes.” Think of it as “I won’t” power. But saying no is just one part of what willpower is, and what it requires.
“Just say no” are the three favorite words of procrastinators and coach potatoes worldwide. At times, it’s more important to say yes. All those things you put off for tomorrow (or forever)? Willpower helps you put them on today’s to-do list, even when anxiety, distractions, or a reality TV show marathon threaten to talk you out of it. Think of it as “I will” power—the ability to do what you need to do, even if part of you doesn’t want to.
“I will” and “I won’t” power are the two sides of self-control, but they alone don’t constitute willpower. To say no when you need to say no, and yes when you need to say yes, you need a third power: the ability to remember what you really want.
Willpower is about harnessing the three powers of I will, I won’t, and I want to help you achieve your goals
We may all have been born with the capacity for willpower, but some of us use it more than others. People who have better control of their attention, emotions, and actions are better off almost any way you look at it. They are happier and healthier. Their relationships are more satisfying and last longer. They make more money and go further in their careers. They are better able to manage stress, deal with conflict, and overcome adversity. They even live longer. When pit against other virtues, willpower comes out on top. Self-control is a better predictor of academic success than intelligence (take that, SATs), a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma (sorry, Tony Robbins), and more important for marital bliss than empathy (yes, the secret to lasting marriage may be learning how to keep your mouth shut). If we want to improve our lives, willpower is not a bad place to start.
For most of evolutionary history, the prefrontal cortex mainly controlled physical movement: walking, running, reaching, pushing—a kind of proto-self-control. As humans evolved, the prefrontal cortex got bigger and better connected to other areas of the brain. As the prefrontal cortex grew, it took on new control functions: controlling what you pay attention to, what you think about, even how you feel.
Many temporary states—like being drunk, sleep-deprived, or even just distracted—inhibit the prefrontal cortex, (Makes me wonder if mine even works at all)
Some neuroscientists go so far as to say that we have one brain but two minds—or even, two people living inside our mind. There’s the version of us that acts on impulse and seeks immediate gratification, and the version of us that controls our impulses and delays gratification to protect our long-term goals. (I believe this is actually bigger than this, we are many people.) This is what defines a willpower challenge: Part of you wants one thing, and another part of you wants something else. Or your present self wants one thing, but your future self would be better off if you did something else.
Every willpower challenge is a conflict between two parts of oneself. For your own willpower challenge, describe these competing minds. What does the impulsive version of you want? What does the wiser version of you want? Some people find it useful to give a name to the impulsive mind, like “the cookie monster” to the part of you that always wants instant gratification, “the critic” to the part of you that likes to complain about everyone and everything, or “the procrastinator” to the person who never wants to get started. Giving a name to this version of yourself can help you recognize when it is taking over, and also help you call in your wiser self for some willpower support
Neuroeconomists—scientists who study what the brain does when we make decisions—have discovered that the self-control system and our survival instincts don’t always conflict. In some cases, they cooperate to help us make good decisions.
To have more self-control, you first need to develop more self-awareness. A good first step is to notice when you are making choices related to your willpower challenge.
For at least one day, track your choices. At the end of the day, look back and try to analyze when decisions were made that either supported or undermined your goals. Trying to keep track of your choices will also reduce the number of decisions you make while distracted—a guaranteed way to boost your willpower.
The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It
Ask your brain to do math every day, and it gets better at math. Ask your brain to worry, and it gets better at worrying. Ask your brain to concentrate, and it gets better at concentrating. Not only does your brain find these things easier, but it actually remodels itself based on what you ask it to do. Some parts of the brain grow denser, packing in more and more gray matter like a muscle bulking up from exercise. For example, adults who learn how to juggle develop more gray matter in regions of the brain that track moving objects. Areas of the brain can also grow more connected to each other, so they can share information more quickly. For example, adults who play memory games for twenty-five minutes a day develop greater connectivity between brain regions important for attention and memory. I love this paragraph. I believe it really is the heart of what I do.
Or you could do something a lot simpler and less painful: meditate. Neuroscientists have discovered that when you ask the brain to meditate, it gets better not just at meditating, but at a wide range of self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness. People who meditate regularly aren’t just better at these things. Over time, their brains become finely tuned willpower machines.
One study found that just three hours of meditation practice led to improved attention and self-control. After eleven hours, researchers could see those changes in the brain. The new meditators had increased neural connections between regions of the brain important for staying focused, ignoring distractions, and controlling impulses. Another study found that eight weeks of daily meditation practice led to increased self-awareness in everyday life, as well as increased gray matter in corresponding areas of the brain.
It may seem incredible that our brains can reshape themselves so quickly, but meditation increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, in much the same way that lifting weights increases blood flow to your muscles. The brain appears to adapt to exercise in the same way that muscles do, getting both bigger and faster in order to get better at what you ask of it.
WILLPOWER EXPERIMENT:A FIVE-MINUTE BRAIN-TRAINING MEDITATION Breath focus is a simple but powerful meditation technique for training your brain and increasing willpower.
Here’s how to get started:
1. Sit still and stay put . Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the ground, or sit cross-legged on a cushion. Sit up straight and rest your hands in your lap. It’s important not to fidget when you meditate—that’s the physical foundation of self-control. If you notice the instinct to scratch an itch, adjust your arms, or cross and uncross your legs, see if you can feel the urge but not follow it.
2. Turn your attention to the breath. Close your eyes or, if you are worried about falling asleep, focus your gaze at a single spot (like a blank wall, not the Home Shopping Network). Begin to notice your breathing. Silently say in your mind “inhale” as you breathe in and “exhale” as you breathe out. When you notice your mind wandering (and it will), just bring it back to the breath.
3. Notice how it feels to breathe, and notice how the mind wanders. After a few minutes, drop the labels “inhale/exhale.” Try focusing on just the feeling of breathing. You might notice the sensations of the breath flowing in and out of your nose and mouth.
Start with five minutes a day. When this becomes a habit, try ten to fifteen minutes a day. If that starts to feel like a burden, bring it back down to five. A short practice that you do every day is better than a long practice you keep putting off to tomorrow. It may help you to pick a specific time that you will meditate every day, like right before your morning shower. If this is impossible, staying flexible will help you fit it in when you can.
Even when he was focused on his breath, other thoughts sneaked in. He was ready to give up on the practice because he wasn’t getting better at it as quickly as he hoped, and figured he was wasting his time if he wasn’t able to focus perfectly on the breath. Most new meditators make this mistake, but the truth is that being “bad” at meditation is exactly what makes the practice effective.
Science is discovering that self-control is a matter of physiology, not just psychology. It’s a temporary state of both mind and body that gives you the strength and calm to override your impulses.
you have inherited from your ancestors an instinct that helps you respond to any threat that requires fighting or running for your life. This instinct is appropriately called the fight-or-flight stress response. You know the feeling: heart pounding, jaw clenching, senses on high alert.
the fight-or-flight stress response is an energy-management instinct. It decides how you are going to spend your limited physical and mental energy.
For your willpower challenge, identify the inner impulse that needs to be restrained. What is the thought or feeling that makes you want to do whatever it is you don’t want to do?
Heart rate variability is such a good index of willpower that you can use it to predict who will resist temptation, and who will give in. For example, recovering alcoholics whose heart rate variability goes up when they see a drink are more likely to stay sober.
These findings have led psychologists to call heart rate variability the body’s “reserve” of willpower—a physiological measure of your capacity for self-control. If you have high heart rate variability, you have more willpower available for whenever temptation strikes.
Many factors influence your willpower reserve, from what you eat (plant-based, unprocessed foods help; junk food doesn’t) to where you live (poor air quality decreases heart rate variability—yes, L.A.’s smog may be contributing to the high percentage of movie stars in rehab). Anything that puts a stress on your mind or body can interfere with the physiology of self-control, and by extension, sabotage your willpower. Anxiety, anger, depression, and loneliness are all associated with lower heart rate variability and less self-control. Chronic pain and illness can also drain your body and brain’s willpower reserve.
But there are just as many things you can do that shift the body and mind toward the physiology of self-control. The focus meditation you learned in the last chapter is one of the easiest and most effective ways to improve the biological basis of willpower. It not only trains the brain, but also increases heart rate variability. Anything else that you do to reduce stress and take care of your health—exercise, get a good night’s sleep, eat better, spend quality time with friends and family, participate in a religious or spiritual practice—will improve your body’s willpower reserve.
WILLPOWER EXPERIMENT: BREATHE YOUR WAY TO SELF-CONTROL You won’t find many quick fixes in this book, but there is one way to immediately boost willpower: Slow your breathing down to four to six breaths per minute. That’s ten to fifteen seconds per breath—slower than you normally breathe, but not difficult with a little bit of practice and patience. Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode. A few minutes of this technique will make you feel calm, in control, and capable of handling cravings or challenges.
Research shows that regular practice of this technique can make you more resilient to stress and build your willpower reserve. One study found that a daily twenty-minute practice of slowed breathing increased heart rate variability and reduced cravings and depression among adults recovering from substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder. Heart rate variability training programs (using similar breathing exercises) have also been used to improve self-control and decrease the stress of cops, stock traders, and customer service operators—three of the most stressful jobs on the planet
there are many things you can do to support the physiology of self-control, this week I’m going to ask you to consider the two strategies that have the biggest bang for their buck. Both are inexpensive and immediately effective, with benefits that only build with time
Exercise turns out to be the closest thing to a wonder drug that self-control scientists have discovered. For starters, the willpower benefits of exercise are immediate. Fifteen minutes on a treadmill reduces cravings, as seen when researchers try to tempt dieters with chocolate and smokers with cigarettes. The long-term effects of exercise are even more impressive. It not only relieves ordinary, everyday stress, but it’s as powerful an antidepressant as Prozac. Working out also enhances the biology of self-control by increasing baseline heart rate variability and training the brain. When neuroscientists have peered inside the brains of new exercisers, they have seen increases in both gray matter—brain cells—and white matter, the insulation on brain cells that helps them communicate quickly and efficiently with each other. Physical exercise—like meditation—makes your brain bigger and faster, and the prefrontal cortex shows the largest training effect
If you want a quick willpower fill-up, your best bet may be to head outdoors. Just five minutes of what scientists call “green exercise” decreases stress, improves mood, enhances focus, and boosts self-control. Green exercise is any physical activity that gets you outdoors and in the presence of Mama Nature.
Here are some ideas for your own five-minute green exercise willpower fill-up: • Get out of the office and head for the closest greenery. • Cue up a favorite song on your iPod and walk or jog around the block. • Take your dog outside to play (and chase the toy yourself). • Do a bit of work in your yard or garden. • Step outside for some fresh air and do a few simple stretches. • Challenge your kids to a race or game in the backyard.
If you tell yourself that you are too tired or don’t have the time to exercise, start thinking of exercise as something that restores, not drains, your energy and willpower.exercise as something that restores, not drains, your energy
GAIN WILLPOWER IN YOUR SLEEP! If you are surviving on less than six hours of sleep a night, there’s a good chance you don’t even remember what it’s like to have your full willpower. Being mildly but chronically sleep deprived makes you more susceptible to stress, cravings, and temptation. It also makes it more difficult to control your emotions, focus your attention, or find the energy to tackle the big “I will” power challenges
Why does poor sleep sap willpower? For starters, sleep deprivation impairs how the body and brain use glucose, their main form of energy. When you’re tired, your cells have trouble absorbing glucose from the bloodstream. This leaves them underfueled, and you exhausted. With your body and brain desperate for energy, you’ll start to crave sweets or caffeine. But even if you try to refuel with sugar or coffee, your body and brain won’t get the energy they need because they won’t be able to use it efficiently. This is bad news for self-control, one of the most energy-expensive tasks your brain can spend its limited fuel on.
The kind of relaxation that boosts willpower is true physical and mental rest that triggers what Harvard Medical School cardiologist Herbert Benson calls the physiological relaxation response. Your heart rate and breathing slow down, your blood pressure drops, and your muscles release held tension. Your brain takes a break from planning the future or analyzing the past. To trigger this relaxation response, lie down on your back, and slightly elevate your legs with a pillow under the knees (or come into whatever is the most comfortable position for you to rest in). Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, allowing your belly to rise and fall. If you feel any tension in your body, you can intentionally squeeze or contract that muscle, then let go of the effort
Science also points us to a critical insight: Stress is the enemy of willpower.
one of the most robust, if troubling, findings from the science of self-control: People who use their willpower seem to run out of it.
The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It
This finding has important implications for your willpower challenges. Modern life is full of self-control demands that can drain your willpower. Researchers have found that self-control is highest in the morning and steadily deteriorates over the course of the day.
In study after study, no matter what task he used, people’s self-control deteriorated over time. A concentration task didn’t just lead to worse attention over time; it depleted physical strength. Controlling emotions didn’t just lead to emotional outbursts; it made people more willing to spend money on something they didn’t need. Resisting tempting sweets didn’t just trigger cravings for chocolate; it prompted procrastination. It was as if every act of willpower was drawing from the same source of strength, leaving people weaker with each successful act of self-control.
These observations led Baumeister to an intriguing hypothesis: that self-control is like a muscle. When used, it gets tired. If you don’t rest the muscle, you can run out of strength entirely, like an athlete who pushes himself to exhaustion.
other research teams have supported the idea that willpower is a limited resource. Trying to control your temper, stick to a budget, or refuse seconds all tap the same source of strength. And because every act of willpower depletes willpower, using self-control can lead to losing control.
Many things you wouldn’t typically think of as requiring willpower also rely on—and exhaust—this limited well of strength. Trying to impress a date or fit into a corporate culture that doesn’t share your values. Navigating a stressful commute, or sitting through another boring meeting.
Anytime you have to fight an impulse, filter out distractions, weigh competing goals, or make yourself do something difficult, you use a little more of your willpower strength.
If your brain and body need to pause and plan, you’re flexing the metaphorical muscle of self-control
Luckily there are things you can do to both overcome willpower exhaustion and increase your self-control strength. That’s because the muscle model doesn’t just help us see why we fail when we’re tired; it also shows us how to train self-control.
If you never seem to have the time and energy for your “I will” challenge, schedule it for when you have the most strength.
Even though the brain is an organ, not a muscle, it does get tired from repeated acts of self-control. Neuroscientists have found that with each use of willpower, the self-control system of the brain becomes less active.
boosting blood sugar restored willpower.
Low blood sugar levels turn out to predict a wide range of willpower failures, from giving up on a difficult test to lashing out at others when you’re angry.
It is as if running low on energy biases us to be the worst versions of ourselves.
In contrast, giving participants a sugar boost turns them back into the best versions of themselves: more persistent and less impulsive; more thoughtful and less selfish.
How much energy, exactly, was getting used up during acts of mental self-control? And did restoring that energy really require consuming a substantial amount of sugar? University of Pennsylvania psychologist Robert Kurzban has argued that the actual amount of energy your brain needs to exert self-control is less than half a Tic Tac per minute. This may be more than the brain uses for other mental tasks, but it is far less than your body uses when it exercises. So assuming you have the resources to walk around the block without collapsing, the absolute demands of self-control couldn’t possibly deplete your entire body’s store of energy.
The human brain has, at any given time, a very small supply of energy. It can store some energy in its cells, but it is mostly dependent on a steady stream of glucose circulating in the body’s bloodstream. Special glucose-detecting brain cells are constantly monitoring the availability of energy. When the brain detects a drop in available energy, it gets a little nervous. What if it runs out of energy? Like the banks, it may decide to stop spending and save what resources it has. It will keep itself on a tight energy budget, unwilling to spend its full supply of energy. The first expense to be cut? Self-control, one of the most energy-expensive tasks the brain performs. To conserve energy, the brain may become reluctant to give you the full mental resources you need to resist temptation, focus your attention, or control your emotions.
University of South Dakota researchers X. T. Wang, a behavioral economist, and Robert Dvorak, a psychologist, have proposed an “energy budget” model of self-control. They argue that the brain treats energy like money. It will spend energy when resources are high, but save energy when resources are dropping.
Importantly, it wasn’t the absolute level of blood sugar that predicted a participant’s choices—it was the direction of change. The brain asked, “Is available energy increasing or decreasing?” It then made a strategic choice about whether to spend or save that energy
The brain may have a second motivation behind its reluctance to exert self-control when the body’s energy levels are dropping. Our brains evolved in an environment very different from our own—one in which food supplies were unpredictable. (Remember our trip to the Serengeti, when you were scavenging for antelope carcasses?) Dvorak and Wang argue that the modern human brain may still be using blood sugar levels as a sign of scarcity or abundance in the environment.
To an energy-monitoring brain, your blood sugar level was an indicator of how likely you were to starve in the near future if you didn’t find something to eat, quick. A brain that could bias your decisions toward immediate gratification when resources are scarce, but toward long-term investment when resources are plenty, would be a real asset in a world with an unpredictable food supply.
He who takes the biggest risks—from exploring new land to trying new foods and new mates—is often the most likely to survive (or at least have his genes survive). What appears in our modern world as a loss of control may actually be a vestige of the brain’s instinct for strategic risk-taking. To prevent starvation, the brain shifts to a more risk-taking, impulsive state. Indeed, studies show that modern humans are more likely to take any kind of risk when they’re hungry. For example, people make riskier investments when they’re hungry, and are more willing to “diversify their mating strategies” (evolutionary psychologist–speak for cheating on their partner) after a fast.
But when your blood sugar drops, your brain will still favor short-term thinking and impulsive behavior. Your brain’s priority is going to be getting more energy, not making sure you make good decisions that are in line with your long-term goals.
better plan is to make sure that your body is well-fueled with food that gives you lasting energy. Most psychologists and nutritionists recommend a low-glycemic diet—that is, one that helps you keep your blood sugar steady. Low-glycemic foods include lean proteins, nuts and beans, high-fiber grains and cereals, and most fruits and vegetables—basically, food that looks like its natural state and doesn’t have a ton of added sugar, fat, and chemicals. It may take some self-control to shift in this direction, but whatever steps you take (say, eating a hearty and healthy breakfast during the workweek instead of skipping breakfast, or snacking on nuts instead of sugar) will more than pay you back for any willpower you spend making the change.
Researchers have put this idea to the test with willpower-training regimes. We’re not talking military boot camp or Master Cleanses here. These interventions take a simpler approach: Challenge the self-control muscle by asking people to control one small thing that they aren’t used to controlling. For example, one willpower-training program asked participants to create and meet self-imposed deadlines.
Other studies have found that committing to any small, consistent act of self-control—improving your posture, squeezing a handgrip every day to exhaustion, cutting back on sweets, and keeping track of your spending—can increase overall willpower. And while these small self-control exercises may seem inconsequential, they appear to improve the willpower challenges we care about most, including focusing at work, taking good care of our health, resisting temptation, and feeling more in control of our emotions.
The important “muscle” action being trained in all these studies isn’t the specific willpower challenge of meeting deadlines, using your left hand to open doors, or keeping the F-word to yourself. It’s the habit of noticing what you are about to do, and choosing to do the more difficult thing instead of the easiest
WILLPOWER EXPERIMENT: A WILLPOWER WORKOUT If you want to put yourself through your own willpower-training regime, test the muscle model of self-control with one of the following willpower workouts: • Strengthen “I Won’t” Power: Commit to not swearing (or refraining from any habit of speech), not crossing your legs when you sit, or using your nondominant hand for a daily task like eating or opening doors. • Strengthen “I Will” Power: Commit to doing something every day (not something you already do) just for the practice of building a habit and not making excuses. It could be calling your mother, meditating for five minutes, or finding one thing in your house that needs to be thrown out or recycled. • Strengthen Self-Monitoring: Formally keep track of something you don’t usually pay close attention to. This could be your spending, what you eat, or how much time you spend online or watching TV. You don’t need fancy technology—pencil and paper will do. But if you need some inspiration, the Quantified Self movement (www.quantifiedself.com) has turned self-tracking into an art and science.
Timothy Noakes, a professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town, had a different idea. Noakes is known in the athletic world for challenging deeply held beliefs. (For example, he helped show that drinking too many fluids during endurance competitions could kill an athlete by diluting the essential salts in the body.) Noakes is an ultra-marathon competitor himself, and he became interested in a little-known theory put forth in 1924 by Nobel Prize–winning physiologist Archibald Hill. Hill had proposed that exercise fatigue might be caused not by muscle failure, but by an overprotective monitor in the brain that wanted to prevent exhaustion.
This theory says it is just a feeling generated by the brain to motivate us to stop, in much the same way that the feeling of anxiety can stop us from doing something dangerous, and the feeling of disgust can stop us from eating something that will make us sick. But because fatigue is only an early warning system, extreme athletes can routinely push past what seems to the rest of us like the natural physical limits of the body. These athletes recognize that the first wave of fatigue is never a real limit, and with sufficient motivation, they can transcend it.
Some scientists now believe that the limits of self-control are just like the physical limits of the body—we often feel depleted of willpower before we actually are. In part, we can thank a brain motivated to conserve energy. Just as the brain may tell the body’s muscles to slow down when it fears physical exhaustion, the brain may put the brakes on its own energy-expensive exercise of the prefrontal cortex. This doesn’t mean we’re out of willpower; we just need to muster up the motivation to use it.
Based on these findings, the Stanford psychologists have proposed an idea as jarring to the field of self-control research as Noakes’s claims were to the field of exercise physiology: The widely observed scientific finding that self-control is limited may reflect people’s beliefs about willpower, not their true physical and mental limits. The research on this idea is just beginning, and no one is claiming that humans have an unlimited capacity for self-control. But it is appealing to think that we often have more willpower than we believe we do. It also raises the possibility that we can, like athletes, push past the feeling of willpower exhaustion to make it to the finish line of our own willpower challenges.
When your willpower is running low, find renewed strength by tapping into your want power. For your biggest willpower challenge, consider the following motivations: 1. How will you benefit from succeeding at this challenge? What is the payoff for you personally? Greater health, happiness, freedom, financial security, or success? 2. Who else will benefit if you succeed at this challenge? Surely there are others who depend on you and are affected by your choices. How does your behavior influence your family, friends, coworkers, employees or employer, and community? How would your success help them? 3. Imagine that this challenge will get easier for you over time if you are willing to do what is difficult now. Can you imagine what your life will be like, and how you will feel about yourself, as you make progress on this challenge? Is some discomfort now worth it if you know it is only a temporary part of your progress?
this left them vulnerable to what psychologists call moral licensing. When you do something good, you feel good about yourself. This means you’re more likely to trust your impulses—which often means giving yourself permission to do something bad.
Moral licensing doesn’t just give us permission to do something bad; it also lets us off the hook when we’re asked to do something good. For example, people who first remember a time when they acted generously give 60 percent less money to a charitable request than people who have not just recalled a past good deed. In a business simulation, managers of a manufacturing plant are less likely to take costly measures to reduce the plant’s pollution if they have recently recalled a time when they acted ethically.
Simply put: Whenever we have conflicting desires, being good gives us permission to be a little bit bad.
if the only thing motivating your self-control is the desire to be a good enough person, you’re going to give in whenever you’re already feeling good about yourself. The worst part of moral licensing is not just its questionable logic; the problem is how it tricks us into acting against our best interests.
Don’t mistake a goal-supportive action for the goal itself. You aren’t off the hook just because you did one thing consistent with your goal. Notice if giving yourself credit for positive action makes you forget what your actual goal is.
Ayelet Fishbach, professor at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, and Ravi Dhar, professor at the Yale School of Management, have shown that making progress on a goal motivates people to engage in goal-sabotaging behavior. In one study, they reminded successful dieters of how much progress they had made toward their ideal weight. They then offered the dieters a thank-you gift of either an apple or a chocolate bar. Eighty-five percent of the self-congratulating dieters chose the chocolate bar over the apple, compared with only 58 percent of dieters who were not reminded of their progress. A second study found the same effect for academic goals: Students made to feel good about the amount of time they had spent studying for an exam were more likely to spend the evening playing beer pong with friends.
But when they also asked the participants to remember why they had resisted, the licensing effect disappeared—69 percent resisted temptation. Like magic, the researchers had discovered a simple way to boost self-control and help the students make a choice consistent with their overall goals. Remembering the “why” works because it changes how you feel about the reward of self-indulgence. That so-called treat will start to look more like the threat to your goals that it is, and giving in won’t look so good. Remembering the why will also help you recognize and act on other opportunities to accomplish your goal. The next time you find yourself using past good behavior to justify indulging, pause and remember the why.
The researchers were intrigued by reports that when McDonald’s added healthier items to its menu, sales of Big Macs skyrocketed.
The researchers found the same effect for vending machine choices. When a reduced-calorie package of cookies was added to a set of standard junk-food options, participants were more likely to choose the least healthy snack (which, in this case, happened to be chocolate-covered Oreos).
Sometimes the mind gets so excited about the opportunity to act on a goal, it mistakes that opportunity with the satisfaction of having actually accomplished the goal. And with the goal to make a healthy choice out of the way, the unmet goal—immediate pleasure—takes priority.
This illustrates a fundamental mistake we make when thinking about our future choices. We wrongly but persistently expect to make different decisions tomorrow than we do today. I’ll smoke this one cigarette, but starting tomorrow, I’m done. I’ll skip the gym today, but I’m sure I’ll go tomorrow. I’ll splurge on holiday gifts, but then no more shopping for at least three months. Such optimism licenses us to indulge today—especially if we know we will have the opportunity to choose differently in the near future.
We look into the future and fail to see the challenges of today. This convinces us that we will have more time and energy to do in the future what we don’t want to do today. We feel justified in putting it off, confident that our future behavior will more than make up for it.
The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It
Behavioral economist Howard Rachlin proposes an interesting trick for overcoming the problem of always starting a change tomorrow. When you want to change a behavior, aim to reduce the variability in your behavior, not the behavior itself.
Apply Rachlin’s advice to your own willpower challenge this week: Aim to reduce the variability of your behavior day to day. View every choice you make as a commitment to all future choices. So instead of asking, “Do I want to eat this candy bar now?” ask yourself, “Do I want the consequences of eating a candy bar every afternoon for the next year?” Or if you’ve been putting something off that you know you should do, instead of asking “Would I rather do this today or tomorrow?” ask yourself, “Do I really want the consequences of always putting this off?”
Rather than giving himself permission to be good on some days and bad on others (which, predictably, led to more bad days than good), he decided to take the challenge of reducing the variability in his behavior. He settled on the strategy of “vegetarian before dinner.” He would stick to vegetarian foods until six p.m., then eat whatever he wanted to for dinner.
Using a daily rule also helps you see through the illusion that what you do tomorrow will be totally different from what you do today. Jeff knew that if he broke his rule one day, he would—according to the experiment’s instructions—have to break it every day for the rest of the week.
When a halo effect is getting in the way of your willpower challenge, look for a the most concrete measure (e.g., calories, cost, time spent or wasted) of whether a choice is consistent with your goals.
• Virtue and vice. Do you tell yourself you’ve been “good” when you succeed at a willpower challenge, then give yourself permission to do something “bad”? • Are you borrowing credit from tomorrow? Do you tell yourself you will make up for today’s behavior tomorrow—and if so, do you follow through? • Halo effects. Do you justify a vice because of one virtuous aspect (e.g., discount savings, fat-free, protects the environment)? • Who do you think you are? When you think about your willpower challenge, which part of you feels like the “real” you—the part of you who wants to pursue the goal, or the part of you who needs to be controlled?
As you will see, it’s not just electrodes in the brain that can trigger this system. Our whole world is full of stimuli—from restaurant menus and catalogs to lottery tickets and television ads—that can turn us into the human version of Olds and Milner’s rat chasing the promise of happiness. When that happens, our brains become obsessed with “I want,” and it gets harder to say, “I won’t.”
When the brain recognizes an opportunity for reward, it releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine tells the rest of the brain what to pay attention to and what to get our greedy little hands on. A dopamine rush doesn’t create happiness itself—the feeling is more like arousal. We feel alert, awake, and captivated. We recognize the possibility of feeling good and are willing to work for that feeling. In the last few years, neuroscientists have given the effect of dopamine release many names, including seeking, wanting, craving, and desire. But one thing is clear: It is not the experience of liking, satisfaction, pleasure, or actual reward.
The joy of winning was registered in different areas of the brain. Knutson had proven that dopamine is for action, not happiness. The promise of reward guaranteed that participants wouldn’t miss out on the reward by failing to act. What they were feeling when the reward system lit up was anticipation, not pleasure.
The flood of dopamine marks this new object of desire as critical to your survival. When dopamine hijacks your attention, the mind becomes fixated on obtaining or repeating whatever triggered it.
When we add the instant gratification of modern technology to this primitive motivation system, we end up with dopamine-delivery devices that are damn near impossible to put down.
There are few things ever dreamed of, smoked, or injected that have as addictive an effect on our brains as technology. This is how our devices keep us captive and always coming back for more. The definitive Internet act of our times is a perfect metaphor for the promise of reward: We search. And we search. And we search some more, clicking that mouse like—well, like a rat in a cage seeking another “hit,” looking for the elusive reward that will finally feel like enough.
Importantly, even if the reward never arrives, the promise of reward—combined with a growing sense of anxiety when we think about stopping—is enough to keep us hooked. If you’re a lab rat, you press a lever again and again until you collapse or starve to death. If you’re a human, this leaves you with a lighter wallet and a fuller stomach, at best. At worst, you may find yourself spiraling into obsession and compulsion.
In one study, participants who sampled something sweet were more likely to purchase indulgent foods such as a steak or cake, as well as items that were on sale. The food and drink samples amplified the appeal of products that would typically activate the reward system.
There was no effect, however, on utilitarian items like oatmeal and dishwasher liquid, demonstrating that even a hit of dopamine cannot make toilet paper irresistible to the average consumer (sorry, Charmin).
The Stanford researchers who ran this study asked twenty-one food and nutrition experts to predict the results, and shockingly, 81 percent believed that the opposite would be true—that samples would decrease a shopper’s hunger and thirst, and satiate their reward seeking. This just goes to show how unaware most of us—experts included—are of the many environmental factors that influence our inner desires and behavior.
Since it’s unlikely we’ll ever outlaw the promise of reward, we might as well put it to good use. We can take a lesson from neuromarketers and try to “dopaminize” our least favorite tasks. An unpleasant chore can be made more appealing by introducing a reward. And when the rewards of our actions are far off in the future, we can try to squeeze a little extra dopamine out of neurons by fantasizing about the eventual payoff (not unlike those lotto commercials).
The promise of reward has even been used to help people overcome addiction. One of the most effective intervention strategies in alcohol and drug recovery is something called the fish bowl. Patients who pass their drug tests win the opportunity to draw a slip of paper out of a bowl. About half of these slips have a prize listed on them, ranging in value from $1 to $20. Only one slip has a big prize, worth $100. Half of the slips have no prize value at all—instead, they say, “Keep up the good work.” This means that when you reach your hand into the fish bowl, the odds are you’re going to end up with a prize worth $1 or a few kind words. This shouldn’t be motivating—but it is. In one study, 83 percent of patients who had access to fish bowl rewards stayed in treatment for the whole twelve weeks, compared with only 20 percent of patients receiving standard treatment without the promise of reward. Eighty percent of the fish bowl patients passed all their drug tests, compared with only 40 percent of the standard treatment group. When the intervention was over, the fish bowl group was also far less likely to relapse than patients who received standard treatment—even without the continued promise of reward.
Amazingly, the fish bowl technique works even better than paying patients for passing their drug tests—despite the fact that patients end up with far less “reward” from the fish bowl than they would from guaranteed payments. This highlights the power of an unpredictable reward. Our reward system gets much more excited about a possible big win than a guaranteed smaller reward, and it will motivate us to do whatever provides the chance to win. This is why people would rather play the lottery than earn a guaranteed 2 percent interest in a savings account, and why even the lowest employee in a company should be made to believe he could someday be the CEO.
But dopamine does have a dark side, one that’s not hard to see if we pay close attention. If we pause and notice what’s really going on in our brains and bodies when we’re in that state of wanting, we will find that the promise of reward can be as stressful as it is delightful. Desire doesn’t always make us feel good—sometimes it makes us feel downright rotten. That’s because dopamine’s primary function is to make us pursue happiness, not to make us happy. It doesn’t mind putting a little pressure on us—even if that means making us unhappy in the process.
To motivate you to seek the object of your craving, the reward system actually has two weapons: a carrot and a stick. The first weapon is, of course, the promise of reward. Dopamine-releasing neurons create this feeling by talking to the areas of your brain that anticipate pleasure and plan action. When these areas are bathed in dopamine, the result is desire—the carrot that makes the horse run forward. But the reward system has a second weapon that functions more like the proverbial stick. When your reward center releases dopamine, it also sends a message to the brain’s stress center. In this area of the brain, dopamine triggers the release of stress hormones. The result: You feel anxious as you anticipate your object of desire. The need to get what you want starts to feel like a life-or-death emergency, a matter of survival.
The promise of reward is so powerful that we continue to pursue things that don’t make us happy, and consume things that bring us more misery than satisfaction. Because the pursuit of reward is dopamine’s main goal, it is never going to give you a “stop” signal—even when the experience does not live up to the promise.
Mindfully indulge, but don’t rush through the experience. Notice what the promise of reward feels like: the anticipation, the hope, the excitement, the anxiety, the salivation—whatever is going on in your brain and body. Then give yourself permission to give in. How does the experience compare with the expectation? Does the feeling of the promise of reward ever go away—or does it continue to drive you to eat more, spend more, or stay longer? When, if ever, do you become satisfied? Or do you simply reach the point of being unable to continue, because you’re stuffed, exhausted, frustrated, out of time, or out of the “reward”?
People who try this exercise commonly have one of two results. Some people find that when they really pay attention to the experience of indulging, they need far less than they thought they would to feel satisfied. Others find that the experience is completely unsatisfying, revealing a huge gap between the promise of reward and the reality of their experience. Both observations can give you greater control over what has felt like an out-of-control behavior.
When you’re feeling down, what do you do to feel better? If you’re like most people, you turn to the promise of reward. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the most commonly used strategies for dealing with stress are those that activate the brain’s reward system: eating, drinking, shopping, watching television, surfing the Web, and playing video games.
The APA’s national survey on stress found that the most commonly used strategies were also rated as highly ineffective by the same people who reported using them. For example, only 16 percent of people who eat to reduce stress report that it actually helps them.
Neuroscientists have shown that stress—including negative emotions like anger, sadness, self-doubt, and anxiety—shifts the brain into a reward-seeking state. You end up craving whatever substance or activity your brain associates with the promise of reward, and you become convinced that the “reward” is the only way to feel better.
The stress hormones released during a fight-or-flight response also increase the excitability of your dopamine neurons. That means that when you’re under stress, any temptations you run into will be even more tempting.
Stress points us in the wrong direction, away from our clear-headed wisdom and toward our least helpful instincts. That’s the power of the one-two punch of stress and dopamine: We are drawn back again and again to coping strategies that don’t work, but that our primitive brains persistently believe are the gateway to bliss.
According to the American Psychological Association, the most effective stress-relief strategies are exercising or playing sports, praying or attending a religious service, reading, listening to music, spending time with friends or family, getting a massage, going outside for a walk, meditating or doing yoga, and spending time with a creative hobby. (The least effective strategies are gambling, shopping, smoking, drinking, eating, playing video games, surfing the Internet, and watching TV or movies for more than two hours.)
The main difference between the strategies that work and the strategies that don’t? Rather than releasing dopamine and relying on the promise of reward, the real stress relievers boost mood-enhancing brain chemicals like serotonin and GABA, as well as the feel-good hormone oxytocin.
As part of our class experiment, Denise committed to doing yoga at least once. When she did, she felt even better than she had remembered and couldn’t believe she had talked herself out of it for almost three years. Knowing that she was likely to forget again and fall into her old routine, she made a voice memo on her phone after class one evening, describing how good she felt after doing yoga. When she was tempted to skip yoga, she listened to the memo to remind herself, knowing that she could not trust her impulses when she was stressed.
We don’t just cling to guns and God when we’re scared; many of us also cling to credit cards, cupcakes, and cigarettes. Studies show that being reminded of our mortality makes us more susceptible to all sorts of temptations, as we look for hope and security in the things that promise reward and relief.
This, no doubt, is how we end up with half the purchases that clutter our homes and pad our credit card bills. We’re feeling a little down, we come across an opportunity to purchase something, and a little voice—OK, a few dopamine neurons—in our head tell us, “Buy this—it’s everything you never knew you wanted!”
Terror management strategies may take our minds off our inevitable demise, but when we turn to temptation for comfort, we may inadvertently be quickening our race to the grave. Case in point: Warnings on cigarette packages can increase a smoker’s urge to light up. A 2009 study found that death warnings trigger stress and fear in smokers—exactly what public health officials hope for. Unfortunately, this anxiety then triggers smokers’ default stress-relief strategy: smoking. Oops. It isn’t logical, but it makes sense based on what we know about how stress influences the brain. Stress triggers cravings and makes dopamine neurons even more excited by any temptation in sight.
Sometimes terror management leads us not into temptation, but procrastination. Many of the most put-off tasks have a whiff of mortality salience about them: making a doctor’s appointment, filling a prescription and taking it when we’re supposed to, taking care of legal documents such as wills, saving for retirement, even throwing out things we’re never going to use again, or clothes we’ll never fit into. If there’s something you’ve been putting off or keep “forgetting” to do, is it possible that you are trying to avoid facing your vulnerability? If so, just seeing the fear can help you make a rational choice—the motivations we understand are always easier to change than the influences we cannot see.
people who drank too much the previous night felt worse in the morning—headaches, nausea, fatigue. But their misery wasn’t limited to hangovers. Many also felt guilty and ashamed. That’s where things get disturbing. The worse a person felt about how much they drank the night before, the more they drank that night and the next.
If you think that the key to greater willpower is being harder on yourself, you are not alone. But you are wrong. Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both “I will” power and “I want” power. In contrast, self-compassion—being supportive and kind to yourself, especially in the face of stress and failure—is associated with more motivation and better self-control.
Surprisingly, it’s forgiveness, not guilt, that increases accountability. Researchers have found that taking a self-compassionate point of view on a personal failure makes people more likely to take personal responsibility for the failure than when they take a self-critical point of view. They also are more willing to receive feedback and advice from others, and more likely to learn from the experience.
Below is an exercise that psychologists use to help people find a more self-compassionate response to failure. Research shows that taking this point of view reduces guilt but increases personal accountability—the perfect combination to get you back on track with your willpower challenge.
1. What are you feeling? As you think about this failure, take a moment to notice and describe how you are feeling. What emotions are present? What are you are feeling in your body? Can you remember how you felt immediately after the failure? How would you describe that?
2. You’re only human. Everyone struggles with willpower challenges and everyone sometimes loses control. This is just a part of the human condition, and your setback does not mean there is something wrong with you. Consider the truth of these statements.
3. What would you say to a friend? Consider how you would comfort a close friend who experienced the same setback. What words of support would you offer?
A WRITER CHALLENGES THE VOICE OF SELF-CRITICISM Ben, a twenty-four-year-old middle-school social studies teacher with literary aspirations, had set the goal to finish writing his novel by the end of summer vacation. This deadline required him to write ten pages a day, every day. In reality, he would write two to three pages one day, then feel so overwhelmed by how far behind he was that he skipped the next day completely. Realizing that he wasn’t going to finish the book by the start of the school year, he felt like a fraud. If he couldn’t make the effort now, when he had so much free time, how was he going to make any progress when he had homework to grade and lessons to plan? Ben started to doubt whether he should even bother with the goal, since he wasn’t making the progress he thought he should be. “A real writer would be able to churn those pages out,” he told himself. “A real writer would never play computer games instead of writing.” In this state of mind, he turned a critical eye to his writing and convinced himself it was garbage.
Ben had actually abandoned his goal when he found himself in my class that fall. He had enrolled in the class to learn how to motivate his students, but he recognized himself in the discussion about self-criticism. When he did the self-forgiveness exercise for his abandoned novel, the first thing he noticed was the fear and self-doubt behind his giving up. Not meeting his small goal to write ten pages a day made him afraid that he did not have the talent or dedication to realize his big goal of becoming a novelist. He took comfort in the idea that his setbacks were just part of being human, and not proof that he would never succeed. He remembered stories he had read about other writers who had struggled early in their careers. To find a more compassionate response to himself, he imagined how he would mentor a student who wanted to give up on a goal. Ben realized he would encourage the student to keep going if the goal was important. He would say that any effort made now would take the student closer to the goal. He certainly would not say to the student, “Who are you kidding? Your work is garbage.” From this exercise, Ben found renewed energy for writing and returned to his work-in-progress. He made a commitment to write once a week, a more reasonable goal for the school year, and one he felt comfortable holding himself accountable to.
Unrealistic optimism may make us feel good in the moment, but it sets us up to feel much worse later on. The decision to change is the ultimate in instant gratification—you get all the good feelings before anything’s been done. But the challenge of actually making a change can be a rude awakening, and the initial rewards are rarely as transformative as our most hopeful fantasies (“I lost five pounds, and I still have a crappy job!”). As we face our first setbacks, the initial feel-good rush of deciding to change is replaced with disappointment and frustration. Failing to meet our expectations triggers the same old guilt, depression, and self-doubt, and the emotional payoff of vowing to change is gone.
Polivy and Herman call this cycle the “false hope syndrome.” As a strategy for change, it fails. But that’s because it was never meant to be a strategy for change. It’s a strategy for feeling better, and these are not the same thing. If all you care about is the feeling of hope, this is not an irrational strategy. Resolving to change is, for most people, the best part of the change process. It’s all downhill after that: having to exert self-control, saying no when you want to say yes, saying yes when you want to say no.
The effort of actually making the change cannot compare, from a happiness point of view, to the rush of imagining that you will change. And so it’s not only easier, but also much more fun, to milk the promise of change for all it’s worth, without the messy business of following through. That is why so many people are happier giving up and starting again, over and over, rather than finding a way to make a change for good. The high we get from imagining our own extreme makeovers is a difficult drug to quit.
There is a fine line between the motivation we need to make a change, and the kind of unrealistic optimism that can sabotage our goals. We need to believe that change is possible; without hope, we’d resign ourselves to the way things are. But we must avoid the common trap of using the promise of change to fix our feelings, not to fix our behaviors. Otherwise, we can turn what looks like willpower into just another version of a rat pressing a lever, hoping this is the time we get the reward.
Optimism can make us motivated, but a dash of pessimism can help us succeed. Research shows that predicting how and when you might be tempted to break your vow increases the chances that you will keep a resolution. For your own willpower challenge, ask yourself: When am I most likely to be tempted to give in? How am I most likely to let myself get distracted from my goal? What will I say to myself to give myself permission to procrastinate? When you have such a scenario in mind, imagine yourself in that situation, what it will feel like, and what you might be thinking. Let yourself see how a typical willpower failure unfolds. Then turn this imaginary failure into a willpower success. Consider what specific actions you could take to stick to your resolution. Do you need to remember your motivation? Get yourself away from the temptation? Call a friend for support? Use one of the other willpower strategies you’ve learned? When you have a specific strategy in mind, imagine yourself doing it. Visualize what it will feel like. See yourself succeed. Let this vision of yourself give you the confidence that you will do what it takes to reach your goal. Planning for failure in this way is an act of self-compassion, not self-doubt. When that moment of possible willpower failure hits, you will be ready to put your plan into
• Forgiveness when you fail. Take a more compassionate perspective on your setbacks to avoid the guilt that leads to giving in again. • Optimistic pessimism for successful resolutions. Predict how and when you might be tempted to break your vow, and imagine a specific plan of action for not giving in.
Economists call this delay discounting—the longer you have to wait for a reward, the less it is worth to you. Even small delays can dramatically lower the perceived value. With a delay of just two minutes, six M&M’s became worth less than two immediate M&M’s. The value of each M&M shrank as it became more distant.
For your willpower challenge, ask yourself what future rewards do you put on sale each time you give in to temptation or procrastination. What is the immediate payoff for giving in? What is the long-term cost? Is this a fair trade? If the rational you says, “No, it’s a lousy deal!” try to catch the moment you reverse your preferences. What are you thinking and feeling that lets you put the future on sale?
We only prefer the short-term, immediate reward when it is right there staring us in the face, and the want becomes overwhelming. This leads to bounded willpower—we have self-control until we need it. The good news is, temptation has a narrow window of opportunity. To really overwhelm our prefrontal cortex, the reward must be available now, and—for maximum effect—you need to see it. As soon as there is any distance between you and the temptation, the power of balance shifts back to the brain’s system of self-control.
This time, the students were much more likely to choose the larger, delayed reward. Not being able to see the immediate reward made it more abstract and less exciting to the reward system. This helped the students make a rational choice based on mental calculations, not primal feelings.
This is good news for those who want to delay gratification. Anything you can do to create that distance will make it easier to say no.
For a cooler, wiser brain, institute a mandatory ten-minute wait for any temptation. If, in ten minutes, you still want it, you can have it—but before the ten minutes are up, bring to mind the competing long-term reward that will come with resisting temptation. If possible, create some physical (or visual) distance as well.
If your willpower challenge requires “I will” power, you can still use the ten-minute rule to help you overcome the temptation to procrastinate. Flip the rule to “Do ten minutes, then you can quit.” When your ten minutes are up, give yourself permission to stop—although you may find that once you get started, you’ll want to keep going.
When “never again” seems too overwhelming a willpower challenge to tackle, use the ten-minute delay rule to start strengthening your self-control.
One reason is that most people are loss-averse—that is, we really don’t like to lose something we already have. Losing $50 makes people more unhappy than getting $50 makes them happy. When you think about a larger, future reward first and consider trading it in for a smaller, immediate reward, it registers as a loss. But when you start with the immediate reward (the $50 check in your hand) and consider the benefits of delaying gratification for a larger reward, it also feels like a loss.
You can use this quirk of decision making to resist immediate gratification, whatever the temptation:
1. When you are tempted to act against your long-term interests, frame the choice as giving up the best possible long-term reward for whatever the immediate gratification is.
2. Imagine that long-term reward as already yours. Imagine your future self enjoying the fruits of your self-control.
3. Then ask yourself: Are you willing to give that up in exchange for whatever fleeting pleasure is tempting you now?
The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It
“We all are learning, modifying, or destroying ideas all the time. Rapid destruction of your ideas when the time is right is one of the most valuable qualities you can acquire. You must force yourself to consider arguments on the other side.
— Charles T. Munger”
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