by Tara Hebbar

Willpower, something that we owe so much to. It’s the thing that could very possibly lead to not only our failures but our successes as well. Let’s look at it this way, you’ve probably been asked multiple times, this question,

“If you could better any of your attributes what would it be?”

Has willpower ever been the answer, or even a close contender, or even an option? When you think of it this is surprising because it could be the great cure for all our problems, it could stop us from giving up,  and in turn achieve so much more. If only people had full control over their willpower, everyone would be healthy, wealthy and wise. Every new year’s resolution would be religiously followed. In a nutshell, the world would become a better place, with people who have complete self-control. But why isn’t this the case? Why don’t we use this supposed ‘cure’ to restore the world to its original beauty, and create a world that ensures happiness, health and comfort for all its citizens? The ‘medicine’ that would remove all the toxins, such as greed, poverty and selfishness from our world? What stops us from using willpower to do all this? Is it that we don’t know how to or that we don’t have an unlimited amount of willpower to actually put to use? 

Many experiments have been conducted over time to answer these not frequently asked questions. Most of them by a social psychologist by the name of Roy Baumeister. I will be describing a few of his short experiments, I have tried to replicate one of those to conduct an experiment of my own and will be going into my findings later on too. Some hypotheses Baumeister made included, 

  • Willpower uses up real energy that our body creates in the form of glucose
  • Willpower is a limited resource that can be depleted and preserved (Like a battery that runs out of charge and gets recharged each night)

So Roy Baumeister conducted a few experiments to test these hypotheses. An experiment that tested the first one (energy usage) was one where he tried to test the effect of using willpower on the glucose levels in the body.  He did this by asking two separate groups of people to fast for three hours (to make sure the food they ate had no effect on the outcome), and asked the first do some boring and tedious tasks that included things like watching extremely disinteresting videos and having to give it their entire focus (none of these tasks were physically challenging to keep the variables controlled). On the other hand the second group was asked to do no such things. After the first group had completed their tasks both groups glucose levels were recorded. They found that the glucose of the first group (who had done metally challenging tasks), had been lower than the second group who had no reason to use their willpower like the first group had. This proved that willpower required real energy from our bodies, a connection can be made here that if willpower utilizes energy, we have a limited amount of energy hence we possibly have a limited amount of willpower. Flaws

  • Interests (Might have enjoyed the tedious tasks)
  • Fasting Time (Too less), People could’ve eaten just before, leaving energy

Now to test whether we have a limited amount of willpower that can be preserved and can run out, Baumeister conducted another experiment. This experiment again involved two groups of people. Both were asked to squeeze a hand grip exerciser for as long as they could, and the average for both groups was around 2 minutes. Both groups were then made to watch an extremely sad movie, but here’s the catch, group 1 had to watch the movie without showing any emotions while group 2 was given no such command. After the movie, both were again asked to squeeze the hand grip exercise for as long as they could, this time there was no change in group twos time and it remained at an average of 2 minutes. But group one’s average time dropped, bringing around the conclusion that they had used up all their willpower by trying to suppress their emotions during the movie.  Flaws

  • Athletic Ability – Allowed them to do the task more or less easily. 

Another one of his experiments was called the chocolate and radish experiment. This was the experiment I replicated. In this experiment he kept 67 participants in the same room as chocolate confectionery and freshly baked cookies whose smell wafted through the air.  Some of the subjects were allowed to indulge in the sweet treats while others were asked to eat radishes. It was recorded that the subjects eating the radish displayed a strong interest in the deserts. All the subjects (including the people who indulged in their sweet tooth) were asked to attempt some puzzles that tested persistence. The radish eaters devoted less energy and effort into solving these than the chocolate eaters who were up for a challenge. The conclusion was that willpower can be depleted and that it is a limited resource. 

I based my experiment off of this one but for many reasons and constraints there were changes and a difference in the results. Due to the epidemic we are part of I had to compromise on many things and therefore couldn’t exactly replicate the experiment. I asked 4 people (Diya, Arnav, Vir and Anika)  to join a zoom call, with a sweet treat and a vegetable that they aren’t fond of at hand. I had previously picked out a few riddles for the end.  I then asked them to either eat the chocolate or the vegetable/dry fruit, with the goal being to eat the vegetable. 2 of the subjects (Anika and Arnav) chose to eat the chocolate while 2 (Diya and Vir) chose to eat the vegetable. Then I asked the 4 subject 4 separate riddles. 2 participants got all 3 right while the other 2 got all 3 wrong. But the result wasn’t the same as Baumeisters, the 2 participants on each side were a mix of vegetable and chocolate eaters. There are many factors that caused this experiment to fail (get a different result), some including – 

  • The riddles were common ones that could have been heard of before
  • The subjects interest and ability at riddles
  • There was no consequence – Here is where the biggest problem occurs, there was no consequence of eating the chocolate, even though they were told not to, the 2 participants who chose to eat the chocolate had no consequence to think of. Whereas the two participants who ate the vegetable didn’t have too much of a problem eating it, hence didn’t use much of their willpower. 
  • The sample size (Number of people) – It was less, leaving no room for mistakes

Because of all these holes in the experiment the results obviously aren’t reliable hence I stick to believing Baumeister’s findings. The final conclusions include

  • We have a limited amount of willpower 
  • Willpower  uses real energy in the form of glucose

If what he has discovered is true then I’m sure you would like to know some ways in which willpower can be preserved and your supposed battery can be charged to its full capacity as often as possible. Here are somethings you can do to have a more efficient system of using your willpower,

  • Sleep well and get a good amount of sleep – You can suppose that your willpower recharges at nighttime while you’re asleep and if you don’t sleep your willpower doesn’t recharge. There are people who don’t sleep much and if you notice they aren’t the most productive.
  • Don’t be hungry –  It was established that there is correlation between glucose (energy) and willpower. It’s always good to have a high amount of glucose, i.e a high amount of willpower at all times!  The best foods are protein giving and healthy foods such as poultry/fish, eggs, lentils, yogurt, berries etc. Though processed and sugary foods do increase your glucose, they have a short term effect and have other bad side effects so it’s better to stick to healthy foods.
  • You can strengthen your willpower by using it more often in things you want to do. For example if you want to be fit, workout more often and eat less junk food. Here you are using your willpower but for something that you want! Like Roy Baumeister said, “Willpower looked like much more than a metaphor. It seemed to be like a muscle that could be fatigued through use.” By comparing willpower to a muscle not only does it indicate that it can be fatigued and overused but also that it can be strengthened with regular exercise. For example, if you want to be fit, you can start by doing 100 crunches everyday, the first few days your body will get sore but overtime it will become a habit, that will require less effort. This is just like willpower, once you make something a habit, it will require a smaller amount of willpower each time. Just like this you can inculcate so many good habits into your life.

Lastly, I would also like to establish the difference between self control and willpower. I wanted this to come to me without using any external sources hence took a bit of thought, here what I came up with. While you use your willpower to complete tasks or achieve something while self control is trying to stop yourself or controlling yourself from doing something. You need willpower for self control and vice versa.

Now that we all know the what’s, why’s and who’s of willpower, I leave you with one question, if a genie comes and asks for 3 wishes, will unlimited willpower be on the list?

Sources- 

American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, www.apa.org/helpcenter/willpower.

Dan, Teacher, director. Baumeister Experiments. Baumeister Experiments, Teacher Dan’s Videos, 29 Jan. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9wYSq3DHEA.

“Willpower by Roy Baumeister (Animated Book Summary) – How to Have More Self Control.” Willpower by Roy Baumeister (Animated Book Summary) – How to Have More Self Control, Better than Yesterday, 21 Sept. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0e6KA8iD0k.

Villarica, Hans. “The Chocolate-and-Radish Experiment That Birthed the Modern Conception of Willpower.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 11 Apr. 2012, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/04/the-chocolate-and-radish-experiment-that-birthed-the-modern-conception-of-willpower/255544/.

Kanwal, Sarah. “77self-Control Quotes from Willpower:Rediscovering Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister.” 77self-Control Quotes from Willpower:Rediscovering Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister, Blogger, 27 Aug. 2018, bestbookquotes.blogspot.com/2018/07/77-self-control-quotes-from.html.

Robertson, Colin. “The 10 Best Foods For Long-Lasting Willpower.” Willpowered, Willpowered, 24 Aug. 2015, www.willpowered.co/learn/best-foods-for-willpower.

Pennington, Molly. “25 Of the Toughest Riddles Ever. Can You Solve Them?” Reader’s Digest, Reader’s Digest, 2 Dec. 2019, www.rd.com/funny-stuff/challenging-riddles/.

Tara is an 9th grader who loves to sing, read, watch and play sports, play the guitar, listen to music, meet new people, and always learn. She is very passionate about the things she writes about, and does and is always up for a debate or casual conversation. She believes very strongly in always being kind and fair, helping those in need and making the world a safer, happier and better place for everyone no matter their looks, size, race, ethnicity, background or religion. Her main goal as a journalist for the Ascent is to inform and inspire people to change their ways for the better of the world.

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