How To Strengthen Your Willpower: Key Is Believing You Have An Endless Supply, Study Finds

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — As the old proverb goes, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” But where does that will come from, and how can we strengthen in? The answer may lie in one’s self-confidence. A recent study finds that the key to improving willpower is to simply believe you have it in abundance to begin with.

Researchers at the University of Illinois found that anyone can say they have the willpower to do something, but whether or not they really believe it — and just how much willpower a person believes he or she has — makes all the difference in the world.

For the study, the researchers compared Americans’ perception of their stamina to complete difficult tasks with that of European participants. Interestingly, they found that Americans had a lower opinion of their own willpower versus their European counterparts.

The study surveyed 1,100 American adults and 1,600 European adults, including 775 Swiss and 871 German-speaking participants. The authors used various segments of a psychological assessment tool known as Implicit Theory of Willpower for Strenuous Mental Activities Scale. The study participants were asked their level of agreement with statements such as, “After a strenuous mental activity, your energy is depleted, and you must rest to get it refueled again.”

The authors found that Americans in the study were markedly more likely to say they needed breaks and recovery periods after mentally taxing tasks, while Europeans were more likely to feel energized and prepared to continue onto the next task at hand. The results showed that Americans are more prone to believing their willpower and self-control has its limits, which may be the difference-maker.

“What matters most is what we think about our willpower,” says the study’s lead author, Christopher Napolitano, an educational psychology professor, in a release. “When we view our willpower as limited, it’s similar to a muscle that gets tired and needs rest. If we believe it is a finite resource, we act that way, feeling exhausted and needing breaks between demanding mental tasks, while people who view their willpower as a limitless resource get energized instead.”

Napolitano says that truly believing we have an endless supply of willpower and self-control may help curb temptations to spend more money at the mall, stay on the couch instead of getting housework done, or turn down that second serving of dessert.

“Your feelings about your willpower affect the way you behave – but these feelings are changeable,” he notes. “Changing your beliefs about the nature of your self-control can have positive effects on development, leading to healthier behaviors and perceptions of others.”

The study was published in the August 2018 edition of the journal Psychological Assessment.

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