The Science of Self-Control and How to Cultivate Greater Willpower

by | Apr 5, 2023 | Mental Health, Well-being | 0 comments

Self-control or willpower is the ability to manage urges, emotions, and behaviors to achieve long-term goals and avoid temptation. In simpler terms, when you delay gratification or resist temptation, you are exercising self-control. It is a trait characterized by effortful inhibition of undesirable behaviors, and initiation of desirable habits. 

For instance, your determination to shed a few pounds will motivate you to avoid junk food (inhibition) and eat healthy meals (initiation). Similarly, the desire to improve performance drives you to study or practice instead of binge-watching your favorite shows on television or hanging out with friends. Self-control is the resolve or determination to achieve your long-term goals. It is the capability to overcome thoughts, feelings, and emotions for a later reward. 

Is Willpower Ever Depleted?

Willpower is theorized to be finite. However, there are complexities in this theory, making the assertions inconclusive. Early research backed up the notion that self-control is limited. However, several limitations question the validity of the researchers’ supposition. 

In the original study led by psychologist Roy Baumeister, participants were asked to perform several tasks that necessitated the use of willpower. The group was supposed to choose between eating radishes or cookies, making a speech with content against the person’s belief, or suppressing their emotions during a film clip. The study cohort then had to complete another unrelated task that still required the use of willpower. The participants failed to accomplish the second task. The study concluded it was because their willpower was exhausted.  

However, recent meta-analyses show that most studies done in the early years had small sample sizes that presented near-perfect outcomes. Thus, those studies do not correctly represent the actual conditions on the ground. Additionally, other psychologists postulated that glucose, the primary brain fuel, depletion was responsible for what earlier psychologists considered to be ego depletion. 

Nevertheless, the concept behind ego depletion is not wrong. There needs to be a large sample in the trial to correctly represent a large group of people and produce accurate results. 

Attributes of High Self-Control 

Studies show that people with a high degree of self-control focus on long-term goals. Additionally, all emphasis is placed on initiation rather than inhibition habits. Dwelling on inhibition is difficult because there is no motivation to keep going. After all, restriction of immediate happiness brings with it frustration, fatigue, and inattention. For instance, if the end goal is to pass an exam, avoiding other pass-time activities without studying will not help. The need to study reduces the urge and pleasure of indulging in any immediate pleasure. 

One way to increase self-control is through automating adaptive behavior – making the strategies toward the desired behavior a natural occurrence. Self-control becomes effortless when tactics are automated. You can automate mental processes by turning controlled systems into automatic systems.  

What is the Automatic and Controlled Mind?

Automatic and controlled systems influence self-control and inform behavior. Automatic processes are derived from attention and memory biases that cue behavior. For instance, brushing your teeth every morning or ensuring the road is clear before crossing are mindless actions done without much thought. It is because you perform these activities all the time. Thus, their execution requires little to no effort. 

Automatic behaviors are a product of cultural values, upbringing, and genetics. They make the automatic self – and the behaviors done can be constructive or destructive. The automatic system is the “reflex” of the mind. It is executed outside of awareness and consciousness. Therefore, when you train the automatic system to respond to adaptive behavior, you naturally gravitate toward meeting goals. The response is automated – just like a knee-jerk reaction. 

On the other hand, the controlled system is a reflective structure. Information in this system is intentionally and consciously processed. The controlled system provides motivation behavior, thoughts, feelings, or emotion. The controlled mind can be either positive or negative, depending on how you train your brain. 

The neuron pathways in your Central Nervous System (CNS), just like your muscles, increase in efficiency with frequent use. They gather sensory information all over your body and send it to the brain for interpretation. The brain learns to associate a stimulus with emotions, thoughts, and behavior. It retrieves this information every time you encounter stimuli. 

The Brain’s Role in Self-Control 

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for self-control and self-regulation. The region influences the brain’s subcortical region that houses the reward pathways like the striatum and emotion pathways like the amygdala. When the prefrontal cortex is activated, it increases persistence, delayed gratification, and impulse control. A balance of activity in the prefrontal cortex and the subcortical region is essential for developing and improving self-control. 

Problems in self-control arise due to malfunctions in stimuli delivery and processing in the brain. The brain is constantly taking information from the environment. The data accrued reshapes nerve circuits- this is why the brain is malleable. Once a pathway is up and running, it becomes part of the automatic system, meaning its activation results in an automated response. 

Neurons change or create new pathways at their synapses, enabling the brain to adapt or modify emotions, thoughts, or behavior. The changes influence motivation, dependence, addiction, and resilience toward stimuli. For instance, research shows that using drugs reduces dopamine receptors in the striatum region – this reduction is linked to impulsive and compulsive behaviors

It is also true that frequently using a new or modified nerve circuit reinforces the brain’s preference for that pathway. Even in life, the path less trodden is always forgotten. It is the same reason why training improves performance or habits turn to addiction. 

The good news is the brain’s malleability enables you to take control. Thus, cultivating your willpower only requires techniques that encourage self-reflection, reasoning out automatic thoughts, emotions, feelings, delayed action, and so forth. 

Unfortunately, while the brain is an exceptional student, it is a ferocious master – and it always aims to have absolute control. For instance, when you are addicted, it creates a substance-use-dependent circuitry by increasing your motivation toward using the substance. It also raises the threshold for satisfaction by demanding higher concentrations of the substance. The deathly withdrawal side effects are also part of the brain’s protest to keep you as a prisoner of its control.  

Similarly, out-of-control behaviors like negative thinking, emotional dysregulation, binge eating, purging, and promiscuity arise from the brain’s ability to adapt. Thus, the brain’s ability to change can be good or bad depending on how you train it to work. You can lose your willpower or strengthen it by training your brain. 

How to Cultivate Greater Willpower
Change Your Environment 

If the stimulus is in your environment, avoid it by changing your environment. For instance, if you cannot control your urge to watch TV, do not buy one or renew the service provider subscription. Alternatively, you can move to a room without a television when you have work or deadlines to meet. 

Changing your environment reduces the probability of encountering the stimulus. It also lessens the burden of actively fighting against the stimuli. Out of sight, out of mind. 

Operant Conditioning 

You can strengthen your self-control through rewards or punishments. Operant conditioning elicits voluntary responses, making you choose the outcome of your choice. Instead of doing away with the television or moving to another room, you can choose to work and reward yourself with some screen time once you accomplish your target.  

You could also use negative reinforcement to reach your long-term goals. In this case, you can work with the television on but set up a timer in your computer to beep after ten minutes of inactivity. The beep becomes the stimulus you are trying to avoid to achieve your goal – finishing your work. 

Punishment is another form of operant conditioning. Instead of rewarding your resilience or setting up reminders to concentrate on work, you could cue a loved one to switch off the television when they see you not working. 

Classical Conditioning 

Classical conditioning is known best because of Pavlov’s dogs. In an experiment, the dogs salivated during feeding time. Later on, they would salivate whenever they saw the person feeding them approaching – even when there was no food in sight. 

The dogs also salivated when mealtime was cued with a bell. In the absence of their meal, the dogs would still salivate when the bell rang. Thus, their brains created a circuit associating the sound of the bell with feeding time, triggering the dogs to salivate. Eventually, both the conditioned and unconditional stimulus evoked an automatic response with training. 

Similarly, if your goal is to shed a few pounds, condition your mind into choosing to stay healthy. Instead of stocking chocolate for your snack time, get healthy sweet fruits. Eventually, you start craving healthy fruit instead of chocolate because you have conditioned your brain to desire the fruit. 

Depravation Futile 

Completely removing the stimulus does not help you grow your willpower. It has the opposite effect – just like emotional suppression. The more you deny yourself, the more you become obsessed with the stimulus. Depravation only increases the temptation – that is why strict diets are burdensome to follow. Even strict rules increase the urge to rebel. 

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