Willpower and Self-Control: What Recent Research Reveals

willpower and self-control

A guest post by Dr. Tali ShenfieldClinical Psychologist

So you have a goal in mind, but you can’t seem to meet it.

No matter how hard you try, you keep getting sidetracked.

Maybe you’re trying to get a project for work completed, but the incessant “ping!” of a new email or text message arriving to your phone has you glancing away from the task. Or maybe you’re working toward a healthy weight target, but those cupcakes in the kitchen are calling your name. The diversions of self-control are all around us, tempting us to forgo our intentions and goals.

Are some people more predisposed at pushing those deterrents to the background?

Is there a way to boost our ability to control ourselves and strengthen our willpower?

How can we keep distractions from bogging us down?

There are, in fact, scientists working to answer these questions, and we can use their findings to benefit our pursuits. Recent evidence suggests that the ability to resist temptation is stronger in some people than others. According to survey conducted by American Psychological Association, only about 15% of people have impenetrable willpower, focus and control over their actions, and about just as many give in to almost anything that crosses their path.

The remaining two thirds are about equally prone to straying from the control we seek to have over ourselves, sometimes resisting temptation, other times not. Despite this statistic, it is a worthwhile pursuit to try to become better at resisting temptation and have more willpower.

The positive outcomes of self-control

Studies have shown that self-control is often associated with other positive traits. In the April, 2004 issue of the Journal of Personality, Tangney, Baumeister and Boone found that young people with higher scores on their measure of self-control had higher grade point averages, higher self-esteem and confidence, less psychopathological problems, less eating problems, and lower ratio of drug and alcohol addictions.

They also had better relationships and interpersonal skills and more optimal emotional responses.  It is important to keep in mind when reading these correlations that they do not imply simple causation. In other words, these positive traits were associated with self-control, but they were not necessarily caused by it.

So what can we do to boost our willpower and ability to lean away from instant gratification?

Evidence suggests that keeping your focus on concepts rather than details can help. Research findings of Dr. Kentaro Fujita, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the Ohio State University, suggest that using self-control to do something difficult or undesirable now (for benefits in the long run) can be made easier by keeping in mind WHY we’re doing it, rather than focusing on the details.

A global perspective

That is to say, taking a long-term perspective or viewing the goal from a distance can help. This is referred to as high-level construal. It allows us to think about the ends rather than the means. In his study, participants were asked to take this approach by reminding themselves of the reasons that they chose to maintain good physical health.

This is in contrast to what psychologists call low-level construal. This approach forces us to look at the means rather than the ends of our goals that require self-control. Such an approach is not beneficial to self-control as it has us bogged down in the minutiae. Fujita’s participants in this condition of his experiments were told to think about how they maintain good physical health.

Fujita’s findings offer additional suggestions on ways to increase self-control. In a 2008 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he advises global processing, abstract reasoning and high-level categorization.

Global processing suggests that we should see the whole forest (not the trees) and consider each choice as part of a long-term goal.

Abstract reasoning means thinking philosophically – avoiding the details and focusing on how everything fits into the larger scheme of things. So when you want to maintain a regular gym regime, for instance, you may imagine your ideal self or how exercise connects mind and body.

High-level categorization helps self-control because it encourages us to categorize components that need to be achieved in order to maintain self-discipline and stay on track with our objectives.

Each of these strategies instructs an individual to think more globally and abstractly so as not to get easily side-tracked.  In this way, one does not get deterred or put off a goal and self-control becomes more manageable. As you learn to delay gratification, improve your willpower, and exhibit more self-control, you’ll accomplish more and feel better about yourself. Your confidence and self-esteem will improve dramatically as a result.


Author Bio: Dr. Tali Shenfield is a Clinical Psychologist and Director of Richmond Hill Psychology Center. She holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Toronto and is a member of the College of Psychologists of Ontario, Canadian Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology, and Canadian Psychological Association. When she has free time from psychological assessments and psychotherapy, Dr. Shenfield enjoys writing articles for her psychology and parenting blog. You are welcome to visit her blog and follow Dr. Tali Shenfield on Twitter at @DrShenfield.


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photo credit: ~Jetta Girl~

Comments

  1. Interesting article. I totally agree that conceptual thinking (or “global processing” as it is called in the article) is essential for development of self-control. Cognitive process of conceptualization typically starts at very early age (with language acquisition) and ideally, it should be strengthened during school years. Unfortunately, school curriculum in most western countries doesn’t prioritize learning conceptualization, as a result we see significant decline in abstract thinking and logical reasoning abilities in the past 20 years. It would be interesting to conduct a research study comparing willpower and self-control between representative samples of 20 and 40 year olds and see how it is correlated with their conceptualization abilities…

    • Jeff, the idea of the study sounds interesting, but the main problem with your study suggestion is how to measure conceptualization abilities of subjects. There is no established mechanism of doing this…

      • Anna, it is not difficult to measure conceptualization abilities. Most IQ tests include verbal scales sub-tests and these have similarity component – it is design to measure conceptualization abilities of a subject.

  2. Fascinating article. An effective approach to enhancing your willpower and self control beautifully described in words. Majority of people respect and admire strong individuals, those have gained success by manifesting self discipline. The benefits of having a strong willpower and methods to strengthen it are well summarized in this article. I am definitely going to recommend it to all my friends.

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