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Willpower and Self-Control

Posted by admin 3:27 am, 21 October 2015

The two strengths that scientists have discovered improve success in life are the constructs of intelligence and self-control. To some extent our natural intelligence is unchangeable, although many aspects of intelligence can be improved through learning. However, our self-control is something that can be improved. Willpower is thought to be related to the frontal lobes of our brain, and is the energy through which we gain self-control. People with poor self-control are known to be less popular, less successful at school, earn less money and are more likely to have traffic accidents and be arrested. They also have more problems with their health and controlling their emotions, and often experience mental health issues and are more likely to be overweight.

Researchers have found that we actually desire something, whether that be something to eat, the urge to do something or the desire to fall in love, for around half our waking hours, and around 40% of our desires and urges we try to control, which takes a lot of energy. People are more likely to give in to their desires as the day wears on and we get tired of trying to withstand them. This might explain why people often report binge eating late at night.
The fuel of willpower is actually glucose, so after we have eaten we have been found to have better willpower. People with addictions are much more likely to relapse if they have low levels of self-control. However, if people are trying to beat more than one addiction or habit at a time, such as trying to stop smoking whilst dieting, they will tend to be less likely to succeed as their body is already using up energy on the other self-control issue. Research on women’s premenstrual stress (PMS) has indicated that during this stage of the menstrual cycle the body is dedicating some of its energy towards reproductive processes, so women often have less self-control at this time, which may help explain why we often eat more chocolate at this time!
Self-control is obviously very important in controlling anger and aggression. Aggression is a highly heritable trait and is about 50% related to our genes. However, research has shown that people are better at controlling their aggression when they have been given a glucose drink, which may explain why people often describe getting ‘hangry’ (hunger related anger) and why we can often be more irritable when we need to eat!
So how can we improve our self-control? Well, practice seems to improve self-control and it is a skill that seems to improve the more we practice it, like a muscle that gets exercise our ability to have self-control gets stronger. Also, try to only work on one area of self-control at a time, rather than dieting and giving up smoking at the same time. Glucose related energy is also important, so try to not expect great self-control on an empty stomach! Research has shown that trying to break one habit or increase self-control in one area actually results in increased willpower in other areas. It’s also better to start working on an easier habit to break first and build up to more difficult challenges!
Reference: Radio National All in the Mind podcast on ‘Willpower’