Resolutions? It’s a question of willpower

Im/possible? It’s all in the mind, say researchers uzh

The chances of keeping our New Year’s resolutions – a diet, more sport - may be down to our belief in our willpower, a study has found.

This content was published on December 31, 2010 - 18:48

Zurich University researcher Veronika Job has shown that the more limited you consider your self control to be, the less stamina you have for demanding tasks and good intentions.

Self control – the ability to resist temptation and stay focused on a demanding task – is of course key for any New Year’s resolution.

But over the past 15 years the predominant theory among scientists has been that self control is a limited resource. The only way to restore willpower is to recharge it after use with rest, food or some other distraction. Not good news if your resolution is going to the gym after a hard day’s work.

Job’s findings, carried out with colleagues at Stanford University and published in the journal Psychological Science, seem to challenge this theory. Through a series of experiments they have shown that people’s views on willpower play an important role.

“We found that only people who think of willpower as a limited resource saw a drop in their self control capacity when they went through a series of self-control tasks,” said Job, who is a post-doctoral researcher at Zurich University’s department of motivational psychology.

“But if you think of willpower as something that is not easily depleted you can go on and on,” she said.

Testing times

Participants, all students at Stanford, were first rated on how much they agreed with statements like: “After a strenuous mental activity your energy is depleted and you must rest to get it refuelled again”.

Then they completed several self-control tasks such as following complex instructions on how many letters to cross out on a page and identifying the names of colours in which the colour and meaning did not always match (for example, the word red would sometimes be in green).

In the next round, a different set of participants did the same thing only their initial questionnaires were biased either towards suggesting that strenuous tasks used up willpower or that the same tasks were actually energising.

Job found that the students who thought or who were led to believe they had used up their self control saw their performance deteriorate during the series of tests. Those who thought or were led to believe the opposite generally saw no difference.

A last survey looked at self control in the students’ everyday lives, including the time leading up to final exam week. It found that those who thought self control was limited generally ate more junk food and procrastinated more than those who had more control.

New Year and beyond

The results of this study are particularly important for people confronted with many willpower demands, Job says, such as those on a diet or diabetics on a strict programme - and are helpful for New Year’s resolutions.

“In these situations it is important to know that self control is a lot less limited than previously thought,” she said.

International studies have shown that New Year’s resolutions in particular have an around 80 per cent failure rate.  People often start well during the Christmas holidays, Job says.

“Often they then fail because then people are in their everyday lives, with their stresses at work and then, in addition, they have to do something in the evening, such as going to the gym or not eating chocolate.”

“So maybe it is especially functional here when you think although I had a demanding day, I still have enough willpower to face my private tasks or New Year’s resolutions.”

Job aims to find out more about how the theories work and to look at fields in which to apply the research -  looking at how to change people’s belief in their own willpower and whether this would have a positive impact on their self control.

But for now, knowing that we have a lot more willpower than we think should give heart – and hope - to all those making their resolutions for 2011.

The study

Veronika Job, Carol S. Dweck, and Gregory M. Walton: Ego Depletion – Is It All in Your Head? Implicit Theories About Willpower Affect Self-Regulation was published in Psychological Science in November 2010 and featured in a Zurich University communiqué of December 22.

The research was carried out while Job was working at Stanford. She is now a post-doctoral scholar in motivational psychology at Zurich University.

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According to British and American studies, around 80 per cent of New Year’s resolutions generally fail.

A study of habits in Switzerland  - albeit issued in December 2006 – showed that 45 per cent of those polled had made resolutions.

The ACNielson survey found that the most popular were: do more sport, have a better work-life balance and go on a diet.

However, only 33 per cent of those polled expected to keep to their resolutions.

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