Sunday, November 27, 2011

Is Willpower An Untapped Resource?

In economics we say that there are three resources: land, labor and capital. Maybe willpower should be added as a fourth resource. See Willpower: It’s in Your Head by GREG WALTON and CAROL DWECK. Greg Walton is an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford, is the author of “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.” Excerpts:
"...attributing failures of willpower to our fixed biological limits justifies our procrastination as well as our growing waistlines. But are these theories correct?

We don’t think so."

"...we confirmed that willpower can indeed be quite limited — but only if you believe it is. 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."

"...we found that people who believed that willpower was not limited continued to perform well on the second task, making few mistakes, even after facing the difficult initial task. They were not “depleted” and kept on doing well."

"...we found that anyone can be prompted to think that willpower is not so limited."

"During stressful times, like final-exam week, students who believed that willpower was not limited reported eating less junk food and procrastinating less than students who did not share that belief. They also showed more academic growth, earning better grades that term than their “pessimistic” counterparts.

Furthermore, when we taught college students that willpower was not so limited, they showed similar increases in willpower."

"People who think that willpower is limited are on the lookout for signs of fatigue. When they detect fatigue, they slack off. People who get the message that willpower is not so limited may feel tired, but for them this is no sign to give up — it’s a sign to dig deeper and find more resources."

"...when people believe in willpower they don’t need sugar..."

"It’s also a question of what kind of people we want to be. Do we want to be a people who dismiss our weaknesses as unchangeable? When a student struggles in math, should we tell that student, “Don’t worry, you’re just not a math person”? Do we want him to give up in the name of biology? Or do we want him to work harder in the spirit of what he wants to become?"


Anonymous said...

Last paragraph is interesting, but does it not debunk the idea of the law of diminishing returns

Cyril Morong said...

Thanks for dropping by and commenting. Interesting point.

Can you be more specific? Do you mean each additional hour spent studying has less return than the previous hour?

Remember that the law of diminishing returns says that as you add more of a variable resource with another resource fixed in quantity, eventually you get smaller additions to output. Can you say exactly how that might be happening here?

Anonymous said...

Yessir, I was thinking more along the lines of less return than the previous hour. The rationale behind this thought is due to fatigue. I figure one could only study so long without externalities(adderall), which would eventually lead to nodding off, hence less return, because of less awareness.

Cyril Morong said...

Thanks again. I think what these authors are saying is that people who believe in will power will have less of a need for stimulants. So it will take longer for diminishing returns to set in or they decline more slowly.