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Why Willpower is Believed to be the Greatest Human Strength

In the new book, “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” Roy F. Baumeister, PhD, and co-author John Tierney, describe research that reveals willpower is a limited resource and it is subject to depletion. However, despite it being limited, we can strengthen our willpower and self-control through practice and changing our mindset. In an interview found on the American Psychological Association’s website, Dr. Baumeister exposes the importance of will-power and how we can train our brain’s to enhance this skill.

According to Dr. Baumeister, “Psychology has identified two main traits that seem to produce an immensely broad range of benefits: intelligence and self-control [i.e., will-power].” The everyday impact of having an expansive amount of willpower is invaluable. “Most of the problems that plague modern individuals in our society — addiction, overeating, crime, domestic violence, sexually transmitted diseases, prejudice, debt, unwanted pregnancy, educational failure, underperformance at school and work, lack of savings, failure to exercise — have some degree of self-control failure as a central aspect.”

TRACOM’s Behavioral EQ model features self-control as one of the core competencies because self-control is essential for managing one’s life. It is the ability to override or change our emotions and impulsive urges and to refrain from acting on them.  Elevated self-control involves remaining composed and focused during stressful times, being aware of the consequences of our actions, and managing behavior appropriately. But in what ways is our self-control limited? Dr. Baumeister’s studies have shown that people perform poorly on tests of self-control when they have had to engage in some other prior act of self-control. In a study he conducted, students were invited to eat fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies, but other students were asked to resist the cookies and snack on radishes instead. Then they were given impossible geometry puzzles to solve. The students who ate the cookies worked on the puzzles for 20 minutes, on average. The students who had resisted the cookies gave up after an average of eight minutes. Such studies suggest that some willpower was used up by the first task, leaving less for the second.

Interestingly, Baumeister also found that decision-making can deplete one’s willpower because decision-making and self-control stem from the same fuel source. “A dieter may easily avoid a doughnut for breakfast, but after a long day of making difficult decisions at work, he has a much harder time resisting that piece of cake for dessert. Another example might be losing your temper. Normally, you refrain from responding negatively to unpleasant things your romantic partner says. But if one day you’re especially depleted — maybe you’re trying to meet a stressful work deadline — and the person says precisely the wrong thing, you erupt and say the words you would have stifled if your self-control strength was at full capacity.”

TRACOM’s Dr. Natalie Wolfson says “The reason why maintaing self-control is so difficult is because of our brain wiring. We have two different brain regions that are important for understanding self-control – one is fast,  impressionistic, emotional and impulsive.  The other is conscious, deliberate, and responsible for logical problem-solving, but his region is slower than our emotional system. Our brain is constantly looking to preserve cognitive resources. Switching brain states and exerting control over our automatic actions takes a great deal of conscious effort. Particularly when we are threatened, our rational brain is shut off and we go immediately into our automatic and emotional brain state. Without enhancing self-control, emotions and impulses overpower rational thought and guide our behavior.  That’s why self control can be so difficult and why we say or do things we regret, especially in stressful situations.”

Fortunately, we can strengthen our self-control, even as adults. Self-control resembles a muscle that can be built up with practice.The ability to regulate oneself is a capacity that we’ve developed over the course of evolutionary history, as our prefrontal cortices grew. It is a uniquely human capacity and one that distinguishes us from our prehistoric ancestors.

Self-Control is one of the fifteen core competencies of TRACOM’s Behavioral EQ Model. Learn more about our Emotional Intelligence programs here.

To read more about Dr. Roy F. Baumeister’s findings on self-control click here.

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