Science-- there's something for everyone

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Willpower is all in the mind

Do people require breaks from difficult tasks to ‘recharge’? Popular opinion is that people will eventually lose the ability to concentrate when working hard or studying. However, Veronika Job from the University of Zurich and Carol Dweck and Gregory Walton from Stanford University found that the willpower required to keep going is not a limited resource. It’s only the belief that willpower can be depleted that limits it.

The cognitive scientists tested their theory on Stanford college students. Some of the students were primed to believe that they would eventually run out of willpower and have to quit. Other students were told that they had unlimited willpower, that how long they could continue a task was entirely within their control. Not surprisingly, the group that thought they would hit a concentration wall performed worse on concentration tests after having already performed a tiring task. Those same students also ate more junk food and procrastinated more prior to college exams.

To be clear, these results don’t mean that people can work nonstop. Obviously, there are biological limits to how long people can continue without food or rest. The point is that there is no cognitive limit. We don’t reach a point at which we just can’t think anymore… unless we think we will.

According to Walton:

This is an example of a context where people's theories are driving outcomes. Willpower isn't driven by a biologically based process as much as we used to think. The belief in it is what influences your behavior.