Diet industry gurus have made a lot of money, and a lot of unhappy people, by yell-telling us to “suck it up!” “use your willpower, chubby!” “Don’t be so weak – say no to the donut!” The overweight, drug- and food-addicted and otherwise deemed “unhealthy” are pointed at and derided as weak and sinful.
Science says otherwise. You are not weak my dear: I’m going to bust the myth of willpower. [Click to Tweet!]
Your willpower well may be dry. Every day we are allotted a finite amount of willpower which our brain uses up in doses, small and large. What drains our will power? Pretty much everything. Mental tasks including memorization, abstaining from favorite foods, following rules, stress, and the tiny constant ways in which we are mentally and physically taxed throughout the day. Even the physical tasks of driving in rush hour traffic and sitting at a desk all day can drain your reserves of will power.
In their 1999 study, Stanford professor Baba Shiv and co-author Alex Fedorikhin enrolled 165 grad students in a behavior experiment. The students were split into two groups: one half was asked to memorize a seven-digit number and the other half was given a two-digit number. After memorizing their numbers, the students were told the experiment was over and were then given two snack options as a reward: chocolate cake or a fruit bowl. The experiment wasn’t really over though – it was just beginning.
The professors recorded who chose the chocolate or the fruit bowl. The students who were given the seven-digit memorization task were nearly 50% more likely than the two-digit group to choose the chocolate cake over the fruit.
This study and more have proven that our reserve of willpower and cognitive processes draw from the same source. If you spend a majority of your day making important decisions, working on tricky mental problems, and handling creative tasks all day, you’ll be more likely to drive through the McDonald’s on your way home for an easy, Big Food formulated meal.
It isn’t just mental tasks that drain our willpower reserves, it’s also the willpower required to stop ourselves from digging into our co-worker’s candy bowl for a treat after lunch. Or the strength to stop our hand from putting three quarters in the vending machine for a candy bar at 4pm.
The willpower you use to stop your snack attack in the afternoon is weakened by what you’re holding back from saying, too. Did you bite your tongue today when you had an opinion during that meeting? Did you stop yourself from saying what you really felt to your partner or child today or last night? Do you keep your opinions to yourself as a habit? You’ll struggle with those sabotaging food cravings all the more.
In his book The Compass of Pleasure, neuroscientist David J. Linden reports that eighty percent of body weight is determined by your genes. So if you’re an overweight over eater, look to your family history. Don’t blame your parents, but look. If you come from a family of obese relatives, you’re more likely to inherit their genetic propensity for obesity than you are for heart disease, Alzheimer’s and heart disease. But you’re also more likely to be trained from birth about how to eat – your habits come from your parents, too.
Inheriting an overweight body type can comes with another unintended side-effect in the genetic roulette. Not only are you more likely to look like your parents, there are even genetic variations seen more often in obese people that create greater anticipation and craving in the brain, but less actual pleasure and satiety: you want it more, but once you start eating, you need more of it to feel the same pleasure as your skinny friend. Talk about a one-two punch.
So how can we boost our self-control or will our willpower to be stronger so that we can finally create the new habits that we know will bring us the body and health we crave? One of the most important factors in successful habit training is to surround yourself with strong-willed people who can model the behavior and support you. If you want to skip the Friday after work happy hour and go for a bike ride instead, but keep getting cajoled into “just one drink,” it’s time to start hanging out with the people who are already hot, healthy and happy in their own habits.
Several studies performed by psychological scientists Catherine Shea, Gráinne Fitzsimons, and Erin Davisson of Duke University, show that those of us who self-identify as “weak willed” prefer the guidance and partnership with “strong willed” co-workers, managers and even romantic partners.
In one study, participants were asked to watch a video. Half of the people in the study were told to avoid reading words that flashed up on the screen, ultimately draining their self-control, while the other half were not given such instructions. (Sounds like “don’t think about the birthday cake in the break room” – impossible and infuriating, right?)
After the infuriating video was over, all of the participants were asked to rate different managers they might work for: one weak-willed, one strong-willed, and one who was a mixture of both. The study results showed that people who had been depleted of their self-control greatly prefered a strong-willed manager. These participants would happily work for someone with clear self-control, since they intuitively knew that their own self-control was lower.
The same results showed up in romantic pairs who were taken through similar exercises. It makes sense: it feels more comfortable to be in partnership with someone, whether a partner or a boss, who demonstrates strength and stability when you aren’t feeling strong. It also feels better to enter into a new workout routine with a trainer, rather than attempt a new regime alone. Diets are more successful when people sign up for a group program.
And this is not a weakness. There is further evidence and research that suggests those of us who lack willpower and self-control actually have a powerful skill: the inclination and ability to pick up on self-control cues and habits in others and use those intuitive hits to form partnerships and relationships with others.
Instead of beating yourself up for not being “strong enough,” pat yourself on the back for being vulnerable and strong enough to surround yourself with friends and colleagues who help you overcome life’s temptations.
The Beatles were right – “I get by with a little help from my friends.”
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