As you know, I’m a strong proponent of the idea that the mind is powerless, insofar as emotions drive actions. Willpower, for example, is not based directly on mental strength, but on the emotion of pride. Pride is what really fuels your discipline.
Lisa Williams and David DeSteno from the Northeastern University tested this idea and found that pride mediates perseverance, a major component of willpower.
In their first experiment, 87 participants first had to estimate the number of red dots contained in various images that disappeared after 2 seconds. Afterwards they received either
- a good bogus score with praise (“You received a score of 124 out of 147, which is the 94th percentile. Great job on that! That’s one of the highest scores we’ve seen so far!”), or
- a good bogus score without praise, or
- no feedback.
In the third step, they all had to do a tedious mental rotation task for as long as they pleased.
The results: Those who received the bogus score with praise did not only feel the most pride, they also persevered the longest at the boring task—they were the most self-disciplined. Those who received a bogus score without praise didn’t do better than those who didn’t get any feedback, which suggests that self-efficacy (positive belief in one’s own abilities due to knowledge of previous success) lacked the motivating force that was unique to pride.
But wait a minute: Why pride? What if the praise simply put the participants in a better mood so that they persevered longer? To exclude this possibility, the second experiment was altered a bit. The 78 participants now either
- received a good bogus score with praise, or
- received no score, but looked at positive images (e.g., tropical landscapes), or
- solely looked at neutral images (e.g, a chair or a pen).
Again, those who received praise felt the most intense pride and persevered the longest. Thus, feeling positive emotions wasn’t enough to increase willpower—only pride could achieve that.
In summary, both studies showed that pride leads to greater perseverance on an onerous task and that this increase in willpower was a result neither of believing in one’s abilities nor of feeling good, but a result of the emotion of pride.
These findings, together with mediational analyses, support the motivational hypothesis of pride: When you feel proud after an accomplishment, you want to accomplish even more—due to your pride. This is why your willpower doesn’t necessarily get depleted when you use it.
But you, sitting here reading this article: How can you apply this information? Well, you don’t necessarily need to feel accomplished to get motivated by pride. Just imagine how you’ll feel once you’ve taken action, once you’ve gotten after it, once you’ve achieved something great! Just imagine your pride, and get to work!
- Williams, L. A. & DeSteno, D. (2008). Pride and perseverance: the motivational role of pride. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 94(6), pp. 1007-1017, doi: 10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.527.