Willpower – Is It Real? Pt I

Can willpower really be enough to help you achieve your goals? How does willpower work? I recently read an article about a guy who was able to go from couch potato to running super-marathon type events powered by willpower.

Just willpower.

The article talked about kids in a Stanford experiment being offered a choice between eating one marshmallow now, or resisting temptation and eating two later (you can read the study here Kids and Marshmallows and a follow up here). The book suggests that kids who were able to put off instant gratification would later have higher test scores, lower divorce rates, lower rates of addiction, and lower BMI (who would have thought that doubling up your marshmallow intake could result in lower body fat?). But is this really willpower?

The original study had one line that really stood out to me, maybe because I am interested in behaviourism, and I want to know what happens around the activity. What precedes behaviour and what reinforces it?

The study states:

“Moreover, throughout the entire study not a single child violated the stated contingency rule by consuming the preferred, but delayed reward, before the experimenter’s return.”

There was no threat of punishment, just as there was no threat of punishment with Milgram’s famous obedience experiment, but the rewards were there for the taking. This begs the question: With both marshmallows sitting there, and no threat of punishment, why did none of the kids just take all of the treats and be done with it?

There is a certain amount of obedience demonstrated in this experiment. In fact, I’d go further and say it has a latent function of being an obedience study – “You can have A now, or B later. Which do you prefer?” Not one kid cheated and created their own option of A and B now. If I were conducting an obedience study this would certainly be in my literature review.

Here are the three takeaways for today:

1 – Willpower may not be all that mystical or difficult to tap into.

2 – Setting the right goals is critical when creating a strategy for success. Think about what you want to achieve and more importantly, why you want to achieve it.

3 – We often think about willpower as being the strength to resist something – the piece of cake, the third cookie, another handful of Doritos. What if willpower is better viewed as a motivator towards something else, or doesn’t even exist?

In the next article we will look at some of the techniques used by the kids who resisted the single marshmallow, earned two marshmallows, and somehow were healthier.

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