Willpower: A Limited Resource

I came across this really interesting study on ego depletion (PDF) the other day.

The conclusion drawn from the study is that “choice, active response, self-regulation, and other volition may all draw on a common inner resource.”

So if you’re self-regulating, and actively resisting temptations (dieting, quitting smoking, quitting drinking, quitting internet usage, sales advertisements, etc.), you may be lowering your willpower to resist other temptations. This would imply that you should only take on one willpower intense task at a time. If you take on two, you may fail at both.

It’s also a good reason to attempt to avoid temptation in the first place. If you can’t even see the cookies, then you’re not actively resisting them.

The study also links choice and active response to willpower. Meaning, if you want to reserve your willpower, try not to put yourself in situations where you will need to make considered choices or active responses. Alternatively, you could have a predetermined plan for what response you will give without even considering. Like always answering “no” to any phone offers, avoiding picking up the phone in the first place, or always throwing away ads or mail solicitations.

One thing that comes to mind is being on the receiving end of the negotiation tactic of asking for a bunch of small concessions that the asker doesn’t care about in the beginning. Then asking for what they really want at the end.

The tactic supposedly works because the two parties feel like they are “working with each other” once they have agreed on all these small things, and so continue to work together on the big thing at the end. But it may be that the one side just gets their willpower exhausted and doesn’t have the mental stamina left to object. They just “go with the flow”.

This reminds me of a line from a show I once saw:
“If you think you might be talking to a conman, just keep answering ‘no’ until he goes away.”

Sounds like a good plan.


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