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Willpower: Key to success. Or is it?

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Willpower: Key to success. Or is it? Quang Nguyen Vinh, Pexels

Willpower: Those who have it are more successful in life, and those who don't should be ashamed of their lack of it. However? Not necessarily, some say. The famous Marshmallow experiment once reinforced our idea that willpower makes for a successful life. But there are also other perspectives. They show that when it comes to willpower, things may not be as simple as we've always thought.

Mind teaser: Having NO willpower equals success, achievements, health and the good life


Having a chat about a ‘bad’ food we may have had the other day, can bring to the fore how deep-seated our belief about willpower really is. We will probably laugh a little about it, or try to change the subject, because, we all say, a lack of willpower doesn’t really look good, it makes us look weak. The association with guilt, especially when it comes to food, is deep, and reversibly, we view willpower as the door to success in life. When we possess willpower, and self-control, life is good, we say. A view that is shared by science and society.

Some of us may know that those children that had showed restraint when it came to being offered a treat in the well-known social-science Marshmallow experiment of 1972, were found to be much greater achievers in life as adults compared to those who had not. But, whether we have heard about this experiment or not, it has helped create the popular notion that people who have self-control are better off in life. Or, as the writer of an article on the topic in the American magazine The Atlantic put it: "Over the last 50 years, the Marshmallow Test has become synonymous with temptation, willpower, and grit."

Painting a similar picture about how today we tend to view the traits of willpower and self-control, researcher Liad Uziel from the psychology department at Bar Ilan University in Israel wrote in a paper in 2018: "Increasing self-control among children and adults has been advocated as a remedy to many of society’s illnesses." In the paper, in which, Uziel told Breaking Perspectives, he 'summarises his main points on the intricacies of self-control,' Uziel wrote for example that self-control as a positive trait is so common it "is evident in the popular media, as well as in educating and governing agencies," and that it "has subsequently taken root in the general public." In today’s daily life, Uziel also argued, self-control remains a "central human capacity associated with a wide range of personal and societal advantages."

“Self-control remains a "central human capacity associated with a wide range of personal and societal advantages"

Dark side

So far, so good. But are things as straightforward as we may think? Is willpower really such a great thing to have? Some would say not.

Already in the 60s, the Milgram Shock experiment had revealed the potential dangerous link of our inner conflict between willpower-related obedience to authority, and personal conscience. In 2010, the creators of a fake French television game show called La Zone Xtrême too revealed quite a different picture from those happy, successful children-turned-adults in the Marshmallow test. The show demonstrated that people with more self-control tend to have a willingness to obey, since they were, in fact, prepared to hurt (OK: torture) other people with electric shocks. The shocks may not have been real, they seemed it to those administering them.

When the author David Robson on the BBC news site, a bit more recently broached the subject and reflected on this experiment, he too, put forward that self-control can "actually unleash your dark side." Referring to the French TV experiment, Robson also pointed out about that in relation to self-control: "it was the participants who scored the highest on conscientiousness – a trait normally associated with careful, disciplined and moral behaviour – who were willing to administer the greatest shocks." In addition, he argued that, "if we change certain social norms, people with high self-control might turn out to be less than scrupulous in their treatment of others."

The idea that the traits of willpower and self-control may not be all that positive, is something that more recent researchers are writing about, too. "Although widely considered highly beneficial, a recent review uncovers some disadvantages to high self-control," it was for example asserted by Science Daily regarding the writings by Uziel, who himself, a few years earlier, had already argued with cowriter Uri Hefetz that in some circumstances, the trait could lead to "economically rational, yet selfish, behaviour."

“Although widely considered highly beneficial, a recent review uncovers some disadvantages to high self-control"

Success? What success

Today, more experts are finding that besides being horrible to others when they assert willpower, the trait may not necessarily make people more successful either.

When researchers such as Marina Milyavskaya and Michal Inzlicht, for example, started questioning the purported link between self-control and success, they found that "analyses strongly indicate that effortful self-control was consistently unrelated to goal attainment."

Likewise, when a science reporter at Vox, Brian Resnick wrote an article on the topic, he pondered whether willpower might be overrated, and highlighted how "psychologists are now increasingly thinking that effortful restraint is not the key to the good life after all." Resnick also argued that "willpower won’t work in the long run."

The fact that willpower doesn’t always work is something many of us experience in our daily life, particularly when trying to stop overeating, smoking or drinking.

Some experts would go even further, and regard willpower as a trait that may work against us, in the very thing we are trying to achieve in the first place. Or, as Uziel had put it: "Wanting to have more self-control contributes additional stress, and, in the short-run, demotivates one and reduces one's belief that she or he can actually demonstrate good self-control."

Similarly, when an author called Jaclyn London shared her thoughts on the topic in 2019 in Good Housekeeping Magazine, she contemplated about the misgivings of willpower, and called willpower a "weightloss scam or diet myth that is fuelling the diet industry."

So, as it turns out, our willpower renders us horrible to others, and doesn't bring us a lot of success either. Doesn't seem very positive, does it!

Feeling guilty....(Courtesy of Campus Gifts UK)

More than resisting temptation

Other than the darker traits that seem to go hand in hand with willpower, and its lack of success, another thing experts are now pointing out is that our level of willpower depends on the situation we’re in. When it comes to our levels of willpower, there is perhaps more to it than simply resisting temptation.

When Walter Mischel, the person who had led the Marshmallow experiment, addressed misconceptions about the experiment that have arisen since, in the aforementioned article in The Atlantic, he used some examples of President Clinton and Tiger Woods, as men "who could exercise enormous self-discipline on the golf course or in the Oval Office but less so personally." So, it turns out, then we have it, then we don't.

In the aforementioned article on Vox, Resnick wrote also that, for some people, it's just easier to resist certain things than other people, and he explained: "Some people who are better at self-control actually enjoy the activities some of us resist; like eating healthy, studying, or exercising."

Associate professor of applied developmental psychology, Brian Galla too argued in a paper that studies suggest that, perhaps more than "effortful inhibition," it is the use of "beneficial habits," that are an "important factor linking self-control with positive life outcomes." When Galla himself was interviewed by Vox in the aforementioned article, he said: "People who are good at self-control … seem to be structuring their lives in a way to avoid having to make a self-control decision in the first place."

So the good news is, we can take time and find ways to set ourselves up for success.

Author Benjamin Hardy, who wrote Willpower Doesn't Work, too wonders whether, when it comes to seeing willpower as a force to create change in our live, we've been thinking about it all wrong. Instead, according to the author, willpower is "nothing more than a dangerous fad, one that is bound to lead to failure," and that, rather than forcing ourselves to change, it would pay for us to "alter our surroundings to support our goals."

“People who are good at self-control … seem to be structuring their lives in a way to avoid having to make a self-control decision in the first place"

It’s our choice

So, has the time come to consider for ourselves when willpower might work for us and when it might not?

In his article, Resnick reasoned that it is a shame that "failures of inhibition are too often confused for a moral failing," and also that "it’s time we all took these lessons to heart." He also wrote: "Focussing on failures of willpower leads to shame, both public and private, and holds back our curiosity from finding and enacting solutions that actually work."

In her article in Good Housekeeping Magazine, the author London called willpower a myth when we relate it to food, and she wrote: "The more we restrict, the more likely we are to fail," arguing that perhaps it is time to "remind ourselves that we are not weak or lazy, but human."

Similarly, concluded Robson in his BBC article: "We might start to appreciate the people around us, who are a little bit less disciplined and agreeable than the rest. They may frustrate us with their unreliability, but in La Zone Xtrême, at least, they are the ones you would want to decide your fate."

Perhaps in future, when it comes to something like willpower, or when we feel we lack it, we may be able to view ourselves or others differently. We may judge others a little less harshly, and remind ourselves that things may be a bit more complicated than we think. We may even choose to set ourselves up for success instead, or help others do the same.

“We should remind ourselves that we are not weak or lazy, but human"

Inspired? How about, rather than relying on willpower, we learn to recognise and utilise our own unique strengths. Once we can discover who we are, that we are unique and powerful, the road taken can be much more successful? Click here to find out how the Gallup CliftonStrengths® Assessment can show you how!

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Brand new, international Life Mindstyle magazine, reflecting a variety of perspectives in different aspects of our daily lives. Are our perspectives our own? Are they good for us, for others, for the world? They might be, they might not be. Either way, wouldn't it be good to know? Be curious and see where it may take you. 

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