I have talked about willpower a number of times in this blog. The basic story so far has been that exercising a lot of willpower at one time can make it harder for you to successfully avoid a temptation later. Stress can also make it harder to resist temptations.
However, there have been a number of factors that can improve willpower as well. For example, I wrote recently about a study suggesting that if you believe that exerting willpower once makes you stronger in the future, then you actually become better at resisting temptations in the future.
A paper in the January, 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by Hugo Alberts, Carolien Martijn, and Nanne deVries suggests that self-awareness can also improve your ability to overcome obstacles even after having to exert a lot of self-control in another situation.
In their study, the main measurement of success at self-control was the length of time that people could hold a handgrip closed. Exercise handgrips are easy to close at first, but the continued resistance eventually becomes painful. The longer you hold the handgrip, the more that you are exerting some control rather than giving into the temptation to stop.
(As a side note, the way that they measured the amount of time that people could hold the handgrip was interesting. They had people close the grip and they put a quarter in between the handles. As soon as the person relaxed even a little, the quarter would fall to the ground and the clock would be stopped.)
The study started with a baseline measure on the handgrip that would take into account differences between people in their strength. After that, some people did a difficult task in which they had to solve difficult math problems while hearing distracting noises. A second group solved easier problems with no distracting noise. Previous research suggests that doing this harder task for a while makes it harder to exert willpower later.
Now, people performed what they thought was an unrelated task in which they unscrambled sentences. Some people got sentences that repeatedly used the word “I.” For example, they might see the words some bread I buy and would have to unscramble that into the sentence “I buy some bread.” Other people saw similar sentences, only the word “I” was replaced with other people’s names. The idea was that this unscrambling task would make participants think more about themselves than those who heard other people’s names.
Ok, so what happened? The people who unscrambled sentences with other people’s names in theme showed the usual effect of a difficult self-control task. They were found it harder to squeeze the handgrip the second time after they performed the difficult self-control task than after the easy task.
The people who unscrambled sentences with the word “I” showed a different pattern. They did just as well squeezing the handgrip after the difficult self-control task as after the easier self-control task.
What does that mean for you?
If you are in a situation where you have had a rough day, you should know that there is some chance that you will have difficulty resisting future temptations. To help you out, spend a few moments thinking about who you are and who you really want to be. This additional self-awareness will help to inoculate you against new temptations and make it more likely that you’ll use your willpower successfully.