Does using willpower deplete your limited willpower tank? It will, if you think it does. “Let me first rest and refuel my tank” or “I better reserve my self-control energy for later…”
If your willpower is limited, it is probably limited by your willpower limitation anxiety. Not depletion limits your willpower, but your own mind that harbors limiting beliefs! (Willpower Condensed, p. 23)
I invite you to see your will as a snowball that grows in power the further it rolls down its path. To develop a strong will, you must believe that its power grows with momentum. And the more you experience your will winning, the more motivated you are to win anew—such is the law of pride.
The link between mindset and willpower also holds on a cultural level. In a series of studies to be published next month, Savani and Job (2017) even found a reversed willpower depletion effect.
Pilot study: Do Americans and Indians have different implicit theories about willpower?
- Methods: 382 Indians and 447 Americans had to imagine themselves working with full concentration for one hour on a very difficult task and then answer some questions: How exhausted would they feel? How well would they be able to concentrate on a second difficult task? Would they need a break? Would they be more likely to make silly mistakes on that subsequent task?
- Results: Americans tended to believe that exerting willpower is exhausting, whereas Indians tended to believe that exerting willpower is energizing.
Study 1: When Indians use self-control, do they have more, less, or unchanged self-control afterwards?
- Methods: (a) 77 Indian undergraduates solved as many easy vs. difficult mazes as they could in ten minutes. Afterwards, they had to do a cognitive control task (modified Stroop test). (b) 57 Indian undergraduates completed an easy vs. difficult cognitive control task. Afterwards, they had to solve a word search puzzle. (c) 465 Indian participants completed a strenuous vs. non-strenuous attention control task (watching a video casually vs. watching it while ignoring the words appearing on the screen). Afterwards, they did a cognitive performance test (digit-symbol substitution).
- Results: In all these substudies, Indians who had done the more difficult version of the first task performed better at the second task, compared to those who had done the easier version—a reversed ego-depletion effect: After using willpower, they had even more of it.
Study 2: When Americans use self-control, do they have more, less, or unchanged self-control afterwards?
- Methods: 193 Americans and 185 Indians completed a non-strenuous vs. strenuous cognitive task (typing out a scientific text vs. typing out a scientific text while leaving out all instances of the letter e except when a vowel was one letter removed from the letter e in either direction of the same word). Afterwards, they did a cognitive control task (modified Stroop test).
- Results: After the strenuous cognitive task, Americans performed worse at the second task, compared to those who had done the non-strenuous version—a typical ego-depletion effect. By contrast, Indians had better cognitive control after the strenuous task—a replication of the reversed ego-depletion effect.
Study 3: Do people who believe that willpower use is energizing have more self-control after using it?
- Methods: 143 participants from India and Switzerland completed a strenuous vs. non-strenuous attention control task (as in Study 1c). Afterwards, they did a cognitive control task and answered questions on their beliefs about willpower.
- Results: Indians, who were more likely than the Swiss to believe that exerting willpower is energizing, performed better after the strenuous task. By contrast, the Swiss, who were more likely to believe that exerting willpower is exhausting, performed worse after the strenuous task, compared to those who had not controlled their attention in the earlier task.
Study 4: Is there a causal link between mindset and willpower? Does inducing a relevant belief affect self-control performance?
- Methods: 379 Indians and 376 Americans read a “research article” arguing that exerting willpower is depleting vs. energizing. Then they completed an attention control task and finally a cognitive performance task (both as in Study 1c).
- Results: After completing the strenuous version of the attention control task, both Indians and Americans performed significantly better at the cognitive task, but only if they had read the “willpower is energizing” article. Thus, the mindset manipulation caused a reversed ego-depletion effect.
In conclusion, willpower depletion/elevation depends on cultural beliefs. Westerners find willpower exertion exhausting and have weakened self-control after using it, whereas Easterners find willpower exertion energizing and have improved self-control after using it. Moreover, this link between mindset and willpower is not just correlational, but causal.
1. Beliefs about willpower are self-fulfilling. As with placebo effects, the body wants the mind to be right in its expectations. If your mind expects fatigue after an act of self-control, your brain will make that fatigue happen. Conversely, if your mind expects an empowered will after its exertion of power, your brain will make that empowering happen. Whether you think your willpower is depletable, steady, or increasing through use—you are right.
2. Culture influences how you think about your will and thus how strong it is. So does this blog and everything you read. Choose your beliefs wisely. Develop your mindset consciously. Learn with awareness.
- Willpower Condensed: Master Self-Discipline to Do Your True Will
- The Bayesian Brain: Placebo Effects Explained
- Can We Build Willpower like a Muscle?
- Jocko Willink on Willpower Fatigue
- How Our Beliefs Undermine Our Happiness
Savani K, Job V (2017). Reverse ego-depletion: Acts of self-control can improve subsequent performance in Indian cultural contexts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 113(4), pp. 589-607.