Is willpower about your biology or your brain? Are we constrained by the narrow limits of our biology?
After nearly a two-week hiatus from blogging–and Thanksgiving week
in glorious Boston with my kids, spending some of that time going over
my grandson’s list of potential colleges, I’m back home again. So I
chuckled to see Carol Dweck and her associate, Greg Walton, reporting
still more of their ground-breaking practical research in Sunday’s
The Stanford profs have studied another important issue of human capital: willpower. And they’ve found that we can actually manage our willpower.
The authors begin by posing two important illustrations of the
problem, both depicting the popular belief that willpower is about
biology not mindset. In one, they quote a recent nutrition book, arguing
that because of how the brain’s hypothalamus works, it is a “myth” that
anyone can will himself to lose weight. A second illustration from a
just published book concludes that willpower is “limited and depends on a
continuous supply” of glucose. Dweck and Walton’s assessment is spot
on: these theories attribute our failures of willpower to our fixed
The theories, as Dweck and Walton point out, have an obvious appeal: attributing
failures of willpower to our fixed biological limits justifies our
procrastination as well as our growing waistlines. Not only that, we
also get to consume more sugar.
In stark contrast, their research has found that what’s limiting our
willpower is our mindset. And when people believe that willpower is
self-renewing and work hard, they’re energized to work more.
Recognizing that many people are skeptical about renewing willpower, their research found the following:
When the initial task was easy
and willpower wasn’t required, people did well on the tricky cognitive
task, making few mistakes. But when the initial task was hard and
involved self-control, people who believed that willpower was limited
made almost twice as many mistakes on the tricky cognitive task as did
the group that performed the initial easy task. This finding replicates
many studies by Dr. Baumeister and others that have been interpreted as
evidence that willpower is limited and easily depleted. But, strikingly,
we found that people who believed that willpower was not limited
continued to perform well on the second task, making few mistakes, even
after facing the difficult initial task. They were not “depleted” and
kept on doing well.
This study and others put the lie to our common notions about the
limitations of willpower. They also reinforce the well-known research
that shows that the more we learn, the better and the faster that we can
You may contend that these
results show only that some people just happen to have more willpower —
and know that they do. But on the contrary, we found that anyone can be
prompted to think that willpower is not so limited. When we had people
read statements that reminded them of the power of willpower like,
“Sometimes, working on a strenuous mental task can make you feel
energized for further challenging activities,” they kept on working and
performing well with no sign of depletion. They made half as many
mistakes on a difficult cognitive task as people who read statements
about limited willpower. In another study, they scored 15 percent better
on I.Q. problems.
When faced with skepticism about this kind of research I remember
that old dogma dies hard. Once concepts are deeply embedded, a
superstructure of assumptions and ideas grows around it. Rejecting a
dogma means that many ideas are now questionable, and . . . as a result a
close read of a book or thoughtful analysis of a new and complex idea
is impossible. As an acquaintance of mine said about these ideas: “I
don’t believe it. I can’t believe it. Everything I’ve ever learned about
intelligence and achievement would go out the window.” He tuned out. It
was a losing battle I chose not to fight.
This research reminds parents of some very important truths for their
children—and themselves as adults, businesspersons and professionals.
At stake in this debate is not
just a question about the nature of willpower. It’s also a question of
what kind of people we want to be. Do we want to be a people who dismiss
our weaknesses as unchangeable? When a student struggles in math,
should we tell that student, “Don’t worry, you’re just not a math
person”? Do we want him to give up in the name of biology? Or do we want
him to work harder in the spirit of what he wants to become?