Home > rant > Is willpower a quantifiable resource?

Is willpower a quantifiable resource?

August 21, 2011

There’s a fascinating article here about “decision fatigue,” which talks about how people lose the ability to make good decisions after they’ve made a bunch of decisions, especially if those decisions required them to exert willpower. A decision can require willpower either by virtue of being a trade-off or compromise between what one wants versus what one can afford, or by virtue of being a virtuous choice, e.g. eating a healthy snack instead of ice cream.

After making lots of decisions, people get exhausted and go for the easiest choice, which is often not the “correct” one for various reasons- it could be unhealthy or too expensive, for example. The article describes how salespeople can take advantage of this human foible by offering so many choices that, after a while, people defer to the salesperson to help them choose, thus ending up with a larger bill. It also explains that eating sugar is a quick restorative for your brain; if you’ve been exhausted by too many willpower exertions, a sugary snack will get you back on track, if only for a short while.

This all makes sense to me, but what I think is most interesting, and was really only touched on in the article, is how much this concept does or could matter in understanding our culture. For example, it talks about how this could explain why poor people eat badly- they go to the grocery store and are forced to exert willpower the entire time, with every purchase, since they constantly have to decide what they can afford; at the end of that arduous process they are exhausted and end up buying a sugary snack to replenish themselves.

I’m wondering how much of our behavior can be explained by willpower as a quantifiable resource. If we imagine that each person has some amount of stored willpower, that gets replenished through food and gets depleted through decisions, would that explain some amount of variance in behavior? Would it explain why crime gets committed at certain times?

This also reminds me of the experiments they did on kids to see which one of them could postpone reward (in the form of marshmallows) the longest. Turns out the kids who could delay gratification were more likely to get Ph.D.’s (no duh!). It is of course not always appropriate to delay gratification (and it’s certainly not in anyone’s best interest that everyone in the population should want to get a Ph.D.); on the other hand being able to plan ahead certainly is a good thing.

Since delaying gratification is a form of willpower, I’ll put it in the same category and ask, how come even at the age of four some kids can do that and others can’t (or won’t)? Is it genetically wired? Or is it practiced as a family value? Or both? Is it like strength, where some people are naturally strong but then again people can work out and make themselves much stronger?

Here’s another question about willpower, which is kind of the dual to the idea of depletion: can you have too much stored willpower? Is it like sexual energy, that needs to get used or kind of boils up on its own? I’m wondering if, when you’ve been trained all your life to exert a certain amount of willpower, and then you suddenly (through becoming extremely well-off or winning the lottery) don’t need nearly as much as you’re used to, do you somehow boil over with willpower? Does that explain why really rich people join Scientology and constantly go to spas for cleansings? Are they inventing challenges in order to exert their unused, pent-up willpower? I certainly think it’s possible.

As an example, I’ve noticed that people with too little money or with too much money are constantly worrying about money. I’m wondering if this “too much money” is coinciding with “unused willpower” and the result ironically looks similar to “not enough money” in combination with “depleted willpower”. Just an idea, but Sunday mornings are for ridiculous theories after all.

Categories: rant
  1. majordomo
    August 21, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    I don’t think willpower is quantifiable the way intelligence (for example) is. I don’t think one can come up with a single score to sum up a person’s willpower in the same way the IQ score sums up a person’s intelligence.

    However, I think you’re wrong in your assumption that everyone is born with the same amount of willpower. I think that willpower, like intelligence, is mostly genetic, and exhibits variation across humans in the same way that intelligence does, and like a lot of human traits, it probably follows a normal distribution. So most people are clustered around the average level of willpower in the population, and the farther you deviate from the average (along the “willpower spectrum”), the fewer people you find, and this intuition is borne out by everyday experience. Most people we encounter do not seem to vary very much in the degree of willpower they exercise (all else being equal), but once in a while, we encounter people at the extreme ends of the willpower spectrum (i.e. people with unusually high willpower [e.g. monks] or unusually low willpower [e.g. criminals]). And the variations in the level of willpower exercised by different people has more to do with their genetically predetermined level of willpower than their environment.

    I love the beautiful analogy between willpower and intelligence. I do think there’s some level of correlation between the two, and your article (perhaps unwittingly) draws quite a few interesting parallels between the two. For example, in the study on childhood willpower that you referenced, you reported that the kids who could delay gratification were more likely to get Ph.D.’s later in life. Again, this supports the notion that willpower (just like one’s IQ score) does not vary much over a person’s life. Self-disciplined children grow up to be self-disciplined adults.

  2. August 22, 2011 at 10:28 am

    The interplay you mention between willpower and decision fatigue is definitely and interesting subject to explore and the two are closely connected. Anyone, who has found himself repeatedly in prolonged, stressful situations where important decisions have to be made repeatedly can attest to the fatigue that ensues. However, much like anything else willpower is a trainable entity, much like work ethic, or logical thought. I think a lot of social phenomena can be traced back to willpower, but your example of bad food choices made by poor people due to some sort of decision induced sugar depletion is a bit far fetched. Those decision are likely made more due to bad education and habit than anything else (perhaps at times by available choice as well).

    Willpower is also not so easy to define and is highly contextual. For example, I would argue that mojordomo’s examples above are naive and completely miss the point; why are monks exemplary of high willpower and criminals exemplary of low? Willpower comes into play when choice is present; monks give up choice for a simple life, at least that’s the idea, and for that endure local hardships – they in fact minimize decision making and willpower use. As an example, of the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ll mention a family acquaintance who, besides being completely uneducated and a technological wonder, spent more than twenty years of his life in Soviet prisons and camps. He robbed, stole, likely murdered both inside and out, and was the most iron-willed individual I have ever met.

  3. majordomo
    August 22, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    If this family acquaintance you mention robbed, stole, and murdered, then he must have had very little self-control. Stealing and robbing are two approaches to making money that are borne out of lack of self-control, the inability to resist taking the easy way out. Let’s face it, stealing money from people is the easiest way to make money. The alternative (doing work) requires a higher degree of self-discipline than merely taking the money someone else has worked hard to make. Same as murdering. There are different reasons that people commit murder, but I challenge you to name one reason that can’t be explained by lack of self-control. Murdering someone out of anger represents a failure to control your anger, i.e. lack of willpower. Murdering someone out of pure sadistic pleasure (a la Ted Bundy) also represents a failure at resisting the temptation to indulge one’s dark urges (again, lack of willpower). I can keep going, the point is that committing murder is almost always a result of a failure to control oneself.

  4. majordomo
    August 22, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    Turns out science backs up my intuition about the connection between willpower and criminality. See below the following link to an article about a scientific study that showed future criminals can be reliably identified from a young age. Below is a quote of the predominant traits of kids destined to become criminals as adults:

    “low frustration tolerance, lack of persistence in reaching goals, difficulty sticking with a task, overactive, acts before thinking, has difficulty waiting turn, restless, not conscientious”.

    Every single one of these traits arise from an underlying lack of willpower. As adults, they also exhibited a bunch of other negative traits such as having difficulty with finances, high credit card debt, alcohol and drug dependence, unplanned pregnancies, dropping out of school, health problems, STDs, etc. Below is a link to the study.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/8278932/Future-criminals-could-be-identified-as-toddlers.html

  5. August 22, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Unfortunately the words above imply that your life has been incubated in a realm that is some sort of cross between ‘brave new world’ and suburbia. I am sorry to hear that your perception of the world seems to fit into a 12oz, shall I say, bottle of Flavor-Aid, but this must make for a very reassuring and comfortable existence. In some sense I am almost jealous, for it must be something if your greatest expression of will is on the level of abstention from masturbating to some teen-idol or keeping your hand out of that cookie jar. In addition, I would avoid claiming any such “scientific evidence” in the presence of this blog’s readers – it is only embarrassing for everyone involved. In short, since we don’t have enough in common to even have a discussion or argument, I am going to end it here.

  6. human mathematics
    August 30, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    There’s also a book called the Paradox of Choice. I’ve been wanting to read it for some time. Whenever I read these decision studies I also think of a paper by Arianne Lambert-Mogiliansky (now that I look, she’s done several papers about this with various co-authors) where she applies quantum algebra (the logic of QM measurement, not QM on brain atoms) to decisions. Each decision you are asked to make is like another Measurement on the preference object.

    The solution proposed by Richard Thaler is Libertarian Paternalism. That is, whoever designs the lunch room gives people the freedom to choose badly, but uses psychological tricks to help them choose wisely instead of making the easiest decision the most unhealthy one.

    Did you hear about the marshmallow experiment on Radiolab?

    Your idea about boiled-over willpower is interesting as an explanation for scientology — but I don’t have the same intuition about it as you.

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