Revealed – the secret to having a strong willpower, according to science

The key to having an ironclad willpower lies in believing that you have an unlimited supply of it, scientists say.

New research suggests those who see themselves as having less stamina for strenuous mental activity will believe their willpower or self-control to be “a finite resource”.

The scientists say their findings could explain why some people seem locked in a lifelong battle for self-control while others are naturally more self-disciplined under pressure – unaffected by overeating, overspending or binge-watching TV shows.

Lead author Dr Christopher Napolitano, an educational psychology professor at the University of Illinois in the US, said: “Your feelings about your willpower affect the way you behave – but these feelings are changeable.

“Changing your beliefs about the nature of your self-control can have positive effects on development, leading to healthier behaviours and perceptions of others.”

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An international team of scientists asked 2,700 people – which included 1,100 Americans and 1,600 Europeans – to take part in a psychological assessment known as the Implicit Theory of Willpower for Strenuous Mental Activities Scale (ITW-M).

Those taking the assessment were shown statements such as “after a strenuous mental activity, your energy is depleted, and you must rest to get it refuelled again”, and asked how much they agreed or disagreed with them.

The researchers found that American participants were more likely to indicate the need for breaks after performing tasks deemed mentally taxing while the European subjects reported feeling more invigorated and ready for the next challenging task.

The test subjects’ scores on the ITW-M assessment were also compared with their scores on similar tests that explored their beliefs about intelligence, life satisfaction and self-control.

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According to the researchers, the results are consistent between men and women but slightly less consistent across different cultures, which they put down to an “imprecise translation of the word ‘energised'”.

Dr Napolitano said: “What matters most is what we think about our willpower. 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 energised instead.”

The study, which was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation, is published in the journal Psychological Assessment.


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