Is willpower a quantifiable resource?
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.