Willpower is the ability to pursue long-term goals in spite of inner obstacles created by needs, desires (cravings), thoughts (excuses), and automatisms (bad habits). We know from ample empirical data that willpower is key for financial, social, and personal success. But where does this ability to control ourselves come from?
Adult humans have a highly developed prefrontal cortex, which makes us exceptionally good at executive functioning. Executive functions are cognitive control processes that enable us to control cognitive processes. If that sounds weird, consider some examples:
- When you focus your attention on reading this blog post, you are using an executive function (attentional control) to control a cognitive process (attention).
- When you suppress your urge to watch YouTube videos instead, you are using an executive function (behavioral inhibition) to control a cognitive process (desire for entertainment).
- If you’re in this very moment aware that you’re reading about examples of executive functioning, you are using an executive function (working memory) to control a cognitive process (information processing).
- If you keep reading even though you’re starting to get bored by these examples, you are using an executive function (emotion regulation) to control a cognitive process (feeling of boredom).
Have I now primed you to feel bored? I hope not, and you might find it motivating to hear that you’ll improve your executive functioning skills if you keep paying attention. Yet, does this mean that you’re also improving your willpower?
Scientists have long thought it obvious that willpower (self-control) depends on executive functioning (cognitive control processes). Despite the theoretically evident link, empirical evidence has found only weak if not statistically insignificant correlations between these concepts (Duckworth & Kern, 2011; Pfeiffer & Strobach, 2017). Recently, a new psychometric1 study by Nęcka et al. (2018) substantiated the doubts about the relationship between self-control and cognitive control.
Nęcka et al. (2018) tested 296 healthy participants for 4 hours each with three types of tools:
- four questionnaires to measure trait self-control with over 100 items, answered in part by the participant (e.g., “I am usually not late for meetings”) and in part by a third party who knows the participant well (e.g., “He always meets his deadlines”),
- five computer tasks to measure executive functions (namely, Stop Signal and Stroop to measure inhibition, N-Back and COUNT to measure updating, and CATT to measure shifting), and
- two intelligence tests (e.g., Raven’s Matrices).
Using latent variable analysis, they found no relationship between trait self-control and executive functioning, although the latter unsurprisingly correlated with intelligence. This means that willpower is not a cognitive strength. In their discussion of the results, the authors suggest that self-control should be regarded as a personality trait rather than a cognitive ability.
Sure, testing self-control with questionnaires is always problematic (due to social desirability bias,2 insufficient self-knowledge, etc.), but the study included first- as well as third-person ratings and refrained from using abstract questions like “Do you think you have high self-control?”
In a similar study, Pfeiffer & Strobach (2017) used a behavioral measure (how much people’s intended physical activity differed from their actual physical activity) in addition to self-reports and executive function tests. They found almost no direct correlations between executive functions and either subjectively reported or objectively displayed self-control, although they did find that the former mediated the relationship between the latter two.
My concluding hypothesis is that while self-control requires a certain level of executive functioning, improvements above that threshold don’t improve self-control.3 Maybe it’s different for violent offenders or the mentally challenged, but if you compare two healthy adults whose cognitive abilities are in a normal range, the willpower differences you’ll find will be a matter of mindset and personality, not of cognitive strength. I guess this explains how a book like Willpower Condsensed, which focuses on mindset, could help so many readers to improve their lives through a strengthened will.
Duckworth AL, Kern ML (2011). A Meta-Analysis of the Convergent Validity of Self-Control Measures, Journal of Research in Personality, Vol. 45(3).
Nęcka E, Gruszka A, Orzechowski J, Nowak M, Wójcik N (2018). The (In)significance of Executive Functions for the Trait of Self-Control: A Psychometric Study, Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 9 (1139).
Pfeffer I, Strobach T (2017). Executive Functions, Trait Self-Control, and the Intention-Behavior Gap in Physical Activity Behavior, Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Vol. 39(4).
- Willpower Condensed: Master Self-Discipline to Do Your True Will
- Can We Build Willpower like a Muscle?
- How Cultural Beliefs Affect Willpower
- On the Power of Thought
- Psychometrics is the study of psychological measurement. A typical research question would be “How can we objectively measure personality?” or “What do IQ tests really measure?”
- People who have to rate their own attributes tend to judge themselves in a socially desirable manner so as to appear more favorably to others. It is therefore important for most self-report studies to be anonymous and to exclude moral attributes (e.g., “I see myself as an honest, courageous person”).
- The more you reflect on it, the more you’ll find the threshold principle operating at most interfaces between low- and high-level phenomena. Consider, for example, the relationship between testosterone and sex drive and the relationship between intelligence and financial success. Once you cross a certain threshold, more testosterone won’t make you hornier (except you inject insane amounts of steroids) and more intelligence won’t make you richer (except you work in a non-existing field where intelligence is all that matters). Similarly, we know about the relationship between wealth and happiness that over a certain threshold more wealth won’t make you happier (except your extreme wealth enables you to buy a future gene-editing happiness machine).