A loss of self-control (such as giving up on a diet) is usually caused by changing priorities rather than the exhaustion of willpower, new international research has found. While contributing factors such as mounting fatigue can affect motivation, the concept that self-control is a finite resource is simply false.
Willpower picture from Shutterstock
At the beginning of each year, many of us toy with making ambitious life changes in a bid to improve various aspects of our lifestyles. By March, most of these new year's resolutions have been sheepishly swept under the carpet. This is usually put down to "running out" of self-control; particularly in the areas of diet and exercise.
However, new evidence suggests we should be blaming a conscious shift in priorities rather than depleted willpower; a concept we've touched on in the past.
"Self-control refers to the mental processes that allow people to override thoughts and emotions, thus enabling behavior to vary adaptively from moment to moment," the Trends In Cognitive Sciences report explains.
"The dominant view is that control is based on some limited resource or energy; engaging in acts of restraint depletes this inner capacity and undermines subsequent attempts at control. We suggest that apparent regulatory failures reflect the motivated switching of task priorities as people strive to strike an optimal balance between engaging cognitive labor to pursue ‘have-to’ goals versus preferring cognitive leisure in the pursuit of ‘want-to’ goals."
In other words, people experience a conscious switch in motivational priorities which results in working less for the things they feel obliged to do (through a sense of either duty, obligation or guilt) and working more for things they want to do (tasks that are personally gratifying). The concept of reaching a willpower/energy 'threshold' is rejected by the paper.
"Previous acts of cognitive effort lead people to prefer activities that they deem enjoyable over activities that they feel they ought to carry out because they correspond to some obligation or introjected goal."
Mind you, I'd still argue that believing in the limits of your willpower can prove beneficial when it comes to achieving personal goals. Employing various psychological tactics to "boost" your willpower can definitely motivate you to push that little bit further.
Why self-control seems (but may not be) limited [Trends In Cognitive Sciences]