Is Our Willpower Unlimited?

From the Lecture Series: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

Willpower is the fundamental element of self-control. Research has shown that humans have limited sources of willpower that can be depleted and replenished. In essence, willpower is like a battery that needs to be recharged and can run out of power after long use. How can we best use our limited supply of willpower?

A Tick Tack Toe field is recorded with chalk on a dark stone surface,
Our willpower can be enhanced or depleted, like a battery, and we may not make the right decisions. (Image: Maddas/Shutterstock)

Willpower is the essential basis of self-control. Everyone finds it hard to wake up early, keep a diet, go to the gym, and get things done on time. Yet, no one can stay on track all the time, even determined adults with serious jobs. The regret and feeling of weakness and failure afterward are not enough to stop anyone from procrastinating or eating sweets on a diet. The reason is that even the strongest willpower can get ‘tired’ after a long day of self-control.

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This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The definition of Willpower

As mentioned above, willpower is the foundation of self-control. But what is it as a separate concept? Is it an emotion or a muscle? Researchers have tried to answer the question for a long time, but they still need to use metaphors to describe it. It is often described as a muscle that needs to be strong enough for you to lift objects. In another common metaphor, willpower is compared to a battery with limited capacity and can become too weak to even keep your flashlight on. Researchers do not know for sure the processes that underlie willpower yet. Nevertheless, these metaphors explain how it works.

Yoga silhouette at surreal bloody sunset on the sea shore. Calm and self-control.
Willpower works like a muscle: gets tired and needs rest. (Image: De Visu/Shutterstock)

How Does Willpower Work?

To answer this question, consider the common instances where people talk about lack of willpower: I couldn’t stop myself from eating, I couldn’t make myself work out yesterday, or I just couldn’t get myself out of bed this morning. Everyone describes how they could not control their own actions, no matter how small they were. But what if somebody starts paying 500$ for every session that you work out? What if your bedroom is set on fire and you are lying in bed, not feeling like leaving the room. Will you stay in bed and risk getting burned?

The same actions can require different amounts of willpower in different contexts. Mark Twain said, “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.” It really is easy to make the decision to quit, but it might be even easier to ignore the decision when somebody else who is smoking offers you a cigarette to join them. Thus, the presence or absence of temptation can significantly affect one’s willpower in the face of a habit they want to quit or create. There is also a difference if the one who wants to quit smoking is offered a cigarette after a lazy morning or after a long day of work.

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Self-control Strength or Self-regulatory Resources

Social psychologists, Roy Baumeister and Mark Muraven pioneered a line of research to examine if willpower becomes depleted. Their 10-year experiments and studies have proved that when people perform two sequential tasks requiring willpower, the second task is harder to complete.

Determined and tired people working out at an exercise bike class in gym
Our willpower energy decreases after performing demanding tasks. (Image: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

For instance, they asked participants to watch a video of a woman talking and ignore the writings appearing as subtitles. Next, they asked the participant to focus on a boring task or to suppress emotional reactions to upsetting photos. According to the results, individuals who participated in both self-control tasks performed worse than those who only did the second task. It looks as if their willpower was drained, and they were ‘tired’ of self-control.

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Are Willpower and its Limits a Human Weakness?

In general, running out of willpower after many self-control tasks is not a sign of a personality weakness. The same pattern can be seen in dogs. Many people train their dogs to wait until the owner signals them to start eating. This requires willpower for the dog, just as it does for humans. In one study, researchers made dogs wait for eating permission at varying chunks of time. Then, they would give a toy to the dog that required persistence to open in order to get a treat. Interestingly, dogs that had to wait for a long time did not try so hard to open the toy, while those who got the food almost immediately, persisted longer on opening the toy.

Willpower is limited, but it can be strengthened. Before taking any action, one must know how to identify self-control situations and how not to waste willpower for unimportant tasks. The sequence of actions matters, and the more we work with our willpower, the stronger it becomes. However, it will remain a power with limits.

Common Questions about Willpower and Self-control

Q: What does it mean to have willpower?

Willpower refers to the ability to control oneself and do what needs to be done, even if it is not preferred. It varies from person to person, and also at different times in the same person.

Q: Is Willpower an emotion?

Willpower is more like a kind of energy within an individual, materializing as self-control and determination. It cannot be regarded as an emotion.

Q: Why is willpower important?

The essential element in self-control is willpower. In general, willpower is the determination to do things that are necessary but could be not so easy or enjoyable. Without it, an individual would do less and less every day, since many of the daily actions have remote or abstract results.

Q: Do we have limited willpower?

Yes. Our willpower is limited, and the more we control ourselves, even in small matters, the less willpower we will have left at the end of the day. The amount of willpower differs in people.

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