Willpower Is Definitely Limited


Unknown-11In 1996, psychologist Roy Baumeister, Ph.D. conducted a cruel experiment. With some of his former Case Western Reserve University colleagues, he studied the effect of tempting participants with scrumptious treats in order to see how much willpower human beings actually have.

He kept the 67 participants in a room that smelled like freshly baked chocolate cookies, then showed them the cookies and other chocolate bonbons. Some got to indulge, and others were asked to eat radishes instead. After this torture, the team assigned the participants a difficult geometric puzzle. As you might imagine, the folks who got stuck eating the radishes did far worse on the puzzle than the ones who got to indulge in the treats.

Two years later, Baumeister published the study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and the concept was born that our willpower is finite. The unlucky peeps who were forced to eat veggies simply no longer had the will to engage in another task that tapped their resolve. They were too tired and probably ticked off to work on any puzzle.

Since the scientists groundbreaking research, many other studies have confirmed the case for willpower depletion or “ego depletion” as it is called by psychologists. The problem is that everything we do in our world requires an element of willpower. According to the American Psychological Association even basic interactions with others and maintaining relationships can deplete willpower, not to mention keeping your cool through the holidays, trying to crank out two blogs a week in the summer when your office is in your son’s bedroom, and not using four-letter words in front of the kids.

Not everyone agrees that our amount of willpower is fixed.

Four years ago Greg Walton, assistant professor of psychology at Stanford, and Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford and author of the bestseller Mindset, conducted their own research that arrived at this surprising conclusion: willpower is only limited if you think it is. They explain in their piece “Willpower: It’s In Your Head” that appeared in The New York Times:

When people believe that willpower is fixed and limited, their willpower is easily depleted. But when people believe that willpower is self-renewing — that when you work hard, you’re energized to work more; that when you’ve resisted one temptation, you can better resist the next one — then people successfully exert more willpower. It turns out that willpower is in your head.

Then they address prior research, like the study published by Dr. Baumeister and Matthew Gailliot, that concluded blood glucose is an important part of the energy source of self-control, and by restoring glucose (through sugary drinks), you can boost willpower. They write:

In our latest research we found that when people believe in willpower they don’t need sugar — they perform well whether they consume sugar or not. Sugar helps people only when they think that willpower is sharply limited. It’s not sugar we need; it’s a change in mind-set.

I’m sure the Stanford team meant well, but I side with Baumeister.

Especially after my own experiment at The Melting Pot, the fondue place.

I was on day 28 of a 60-day Candida-SIBO (small intestine bacteria overgrowth) diet which consists mostly of raw vegetables (but not all of them) and wild salmon when I joined my sister, sister-in-law, husband, and two kids around two burners for a three-hour dinner that may as well have been hosted by Baumeister.

The first course was cheese: one pot of cheddar, the other swiss.

I can’t eat cheese.

I can’t eat bread.

I can’t even eat the cauliflower or broccoli.

We move on to the main course.

I can’t eat the juicy filet.

I can’t eat the appetizing shrimp.

I can’t eat mushrooms.

I can’t cook any of my raw tuna (and I am cheating with the tuna because I’m not supposed to eat a large fish—too much mercury) in the oils blended with the white wine because, as a recovering alcoholic, I know if I can taste the wine, I’m going to need three times the willpower that I’m currently exerting to not drink a glass of wine. AND I’M EXERTING A LOT OF WILLPOWER RIGHT NOW.

I can’t dip my raw tuna in any of the delicious sauces they have provided.

They all have gluten.

I order another bottle of sparkling water because I have to do something compulsively. I’m not supposed to drink anything effervescent, but I figure that chugging down sparkling water is better than breaking 26 years of sobriety.

Another hour goes by.

We get to dessert: a pot of milk chocolate and a pot of dark chocolate.


I can’t eat anything with sugar.

I can’t eat the delectable squares of sponge cake and brownies.

I can’t eat the ripe strawberries or pineapple (or any kind of fruit).

I stare into the pot of dark chocolate and think about sending a care package to all of Baumeister’s participants that got screwed. I feel especially bad for any participants that were on a Candida-SIBO diet because they wouldn’t have been able to eat the cookies or the radishes.

At that moment, I arrived at my conclusion: willpower is totally limited.

Our resolve is like a muscle that gets fatigued if we overuse it. Three hours of resisting my favorite foods and drinks had completely wiped me out. By the end of the dinner, I just wanted to go home and pass out in my bed, maybe stare at my ceiling fan, even though my only physical exertion in the last 180 minutes had been lifting my fondue fork into the pot without the white wine.

The next day my willpower was gone.

I binged on all the starchy vegetables I’m supposed to avoid. I devoured an entire bag (eight servings) of sugar snap snow peas, an ear of corn, and two bowls of edamame. I inhaled a few strawberries and some slices of cantaloupe, a definite no-no.

There was nothing I could do to control my actions. It was like my fingers and my mouth were controlled by an invisible puppeteer who was laughing his butt off at my lack of resolve over some stupid starchy vegetables.

I decided from then on I was saving my willpower for the important stuff.

Not fondue.

Continue the conversation on ProjectBeyondBlue.com, the new depression community.

Originally published on Sanity Break.

Image credit: kewlbites.com


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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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3 Responses
    1. Daniel Cunningham

      Well I entirely don’t agree. I am suprised that anyone can discuss will power without talking about Focus/Discipline.

      I know the two are not exactly the same thing. But if you use one then you are doing the other. I am not taking a stand on either side of the question of whether or not will power is finite or can be replenished or conditioned by cirucumstances of blood sugar, et cetera – and am stating that for me or you if you don’t give attention to the perceived issue ( whether or not to eat something good-tasting or not because you believe it is bad for you; whether or not to give in to someone trying to talk you into something that you had resolved not to; to take just one drink of alcohol after you had made a resolution not to {a.k.a. “white-knuckling it” }) but instead focus on the goal that you had set for yourself and shut out the noise and nonsense that comes up – then the will power thing is irrelevant.

      It is what the military forces us to do – stay on track, stay with the program and not trip on other things. The discipline is imposed on us when we were in the military, or by parents on children; but when we are responsible for ourselves, if we want to achieve something, avoid something, go somewhere, then we focus on what we have decided we want and behave with the discipline necessary to go there.

      I am saying that whether or not you or I have strong will power or not we can simply focus on the goal and – wall across the firey coals or get out of bed before dawn to go jogging or go to the job when we are asleep on our feet – I mean it becomes a matter of staying on course – and absorbing the heat or the pain or the ridicule or hunger – rather than a struggle with conflicting desires.

      I am not trying to say I have this. I once had it down. Now that I am old and depressed and have trouble seeing that it is all worth the effort and insomnia undermines my resolve erodes my will power I don’t say that I wish I had the will power to do what I know I should; I say that I know I need to discipline myself – constantly – to do what I have determined to do. I fail and I have to accept what is and I go on.

  1. DM

    I enjoyed rereading this post again after having originally read it on Sanity Break. I still agree that willpower is limited.

    Goodness, after reading this, I’m totally tempted to eat that Green & Black Chocolate Bar. : )