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Willpower works like a muscle but only if you believe it does

Is willpower a finite resource that gets used up, or is it more like a muscle… the...

Willpower works like a muscle but only if you believe it does

Is willpower a finite resource that gets used up, or is it more like a muscle… the more we use it, the stronger it gets? Anyone trying to follow the academic research on the subject has, until now, been entitled to be confused. But a number of recent studies, when put together, seem to show a more interesting and complex picture. And it’s one that we can all learn from.


You probably know that feeling. You have had a tough day dealing with difficult customers, or a difficult boss. At the end of the day, you know you really should go to the gym, but you’re much more likely to give it a miss and reach for that donut.


The more we have been put in mentally challenging situations throughout the day, the less mental resilience we feel that we have left to use. In the psychologists’ jargon this is known as ‘ego depletion.’ Put simply, our ability to do what’s right diminishes when we have been stressed out. Recently the prevailing wisdom has been very much in support of the theory of ego depletion.


A large study by Katie Garrison’s team from the university of Texas A&M carried out a study of 657 Participants. Half of the group (the control) were asked simply to write about a recent trip, while the other half we asked to write about a trip while omitting all of the As and Ns (a much more cognitively challenging task.) Both groups were then asked to participate in a ‘Stroop test’, a commonly used test that measures mental agility. You’ve probably seen this style of test. Participants have to respond rapidly to onscreen stimuli. For example, participants have to recognise the name of a colour, even though the word is written in a different colour. The word ‘Red’, may be written in green, for example.


Sure enough the participants who had previously undertaken the cognitively more difficult task, performed significantly worse on the mental test. Another clear win for ‘ego depletion.’


But some – such as Mario Wenzel from Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz - felt that this was not the entire picture. They were intrigued by the question, what happens when people are required to carry on doing increasingly tough mental tests? In theory, those who did the toughest task in the initial phase should see their performance deteriorate more rapidly. After all, they are more mentally depleted at the outset. In fact, that’s not what happens. In some respects almost the opposite is true. After one round of a mentally tough task, the more ‘depleted’ group performs worse. But when the exercise is repeated, the difference soon disappears. And some participants in the more ‘depleted’ group start to outperform the control group. It seems that doing a mentally tough task to start off with may have helped their performance in later rounds.


So where does that leave us? If we face a situation where we know we are going to need exceptional willpower should we avoid mentally challenging situations, or should we welcome them, on the grounds that they make us stronger? A cross-cultural study on the subject of mental resilience, may just point us towards the answer.


In a country like India, there is a strong cultural belief that practicing mental focus makes you mentally stronger. On the other hand, researchers see little evidence that a similarly deep-rooted cultural belief exists in the USA for example.


So will these cultural beliefs affect the results of ego depletion studies in different countries? Krishna Savani from Nanyang Technological University and Veronika Job from the University of Zurich set out to find out. They replicated the same ego depletion studies (similar to those described above) across three different cultures, represented by India, Switzerland and the USA.


The findings were potentially quite illuminating. The results from the USA and Switzerland were largely what ego-depletion theory would predict. But the results from India, appear to show reverse ego-depletion! The more participants were given cognitively challenging tasks to start out, the better they tended to perform on subsequent mental challenges. It seems that being mentally challenged does make you smarter and more mentally resilient, but only where there is a cultural belief that it will.


It might just be the case that willpower acts like a muscle if we believe it will. If you believe mental effort strengthens your mental performance, it’s likely to do so. If you are having a tough day… if you are having to deal with a difficult boss or client… keep telling yourself that it’s making you stronger and smarter. The evidence suggests that it probably will.

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