When Does Willpower Matter?

11/19/2014 in Blog Categories, News

Cognitive psychology and behavioral economics have taught us that our unconscious biases matter.  In numerous preceding posts, I have discussed the problems that these biases can cause in our decision-making process and have offered strategies to overcome many of those biases.  One common factor in the discussion of biases has been the incredible strength and persistence of our beliefs, especially those that our unconscious biases shape.  Previously I have discussed our biases and beliefs as negative cognitive tendencies to be overcome.  Fortunately, our beliefs have a positive aspect as well.

One area in which our beliefs have a positive effect on our cognition involves how we think about willpower.  Despite what can seem like a deluge of research arguing that we have less control over ourselves and our environment than we think, there is a significant body of research developing that demonstrates that our beliefs about willpower, regardless of the factual accuracy of the belief, can impact our ability to perform on cognitively demanding tasks that happen over time, such as learning new things.  In short, the research demonstrates that if we believe that willpower is important, we perform better on tasks requiring us mentally focus over an extended period of time.

For example, Miller et al. conducted a study of students who were given a tasks requiring sustained engagement with “a strenuous mental task that taxes working memory.”   One group was primed to believe that willpower was limited and easily depleted while the other was primed to believe that willpower was unlimited and not easily depleted.  The authors found that students who were primed to believe that willpower was unlimited “increased in accuracy” of the second half of the test while students primed to believe that willpower was limited and easily depleted did not improve their performance over the second half of the test.  As a result, the authors concluded that, “only participants in the non-limited willpower condition sustained learning for the entire duration of the task.”   As they note, “this experiment suggests that people’s beliefs about the nature of willpower can also limit or facilitate the acquisition of a cognitive skill.”

These findings demonstrate that our beliefs can make a positive difference on performance.  While I am personally given to skepticism, I recognize that how we approach problems is different than how we judge the information we receive.  In the case of approaching tasks or problems at work that require sustained attention such as learning or problem-solving, it is important that we tell ourselves that willpower matters, that sustained engagement is energizing, and that difficult problems strengthen our focus.   In short, we should be optimists when we need to get the job done.

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