Key to Willpower: Believe You Have Unlimited Supply

By Janice Wood
March 17th, 2023
Medically reviewed by Paul Sietes, MD.
Key to Willpower: Believe You Have Unlimited Supply

Why do some people seem locked in a lifelong battle for self-control while others are so self-disciplined they seem impervious to overeating, overspending, or binge-watching TV shows when they feel pressured?

The secret to having ironclad willpower lies in believing you have an unlimited supply of it, said University of Illinois educational psychology professor Dr. Christopher Napolitano.

That’s the finding of a new study that shows Americans believe they have less stamina for strenuous mental activity than their European counterparts, an indication that people in the U.S. perceive their willpower or self-control is in limited supply.

More than 1,100 Americans and 1,600 Europeans — including 775 Swiss and 871 German-speaking adults — participated in the study, which tested the validity of a widely used psychological assessment tool called the Implicit Theory of Willpower for Strenuous Mental Activities Scale.

People taking the assessment were asked to rate their level of agreement with statements such as, “After a strenuous mental activity, your energy is depleted, and you must rest to get it refueled again.”

Americans in the study were more likely to indicate that they needed breaks to rest and recover after performing mentally taxing activities, while the Europeans reported feeling more invigorated and ready to jump into the next challenging task immediately.

“What matters most is what we think about our willpower,” said Napolitano, the study’s lead author. “When we view our willpower as limited, it’s similar to a muscle that gets tired and needs rest. If we believe it is a finite resource, we act that way, feeling exhausted and needing breaks between demanding mental tasks, while people who view their willpower as a limitless resource get energized instead.”

But there is hope that we can boost our willpower.

“Your feelings about your willpower affect the way you behave — but these feelings are changeable,” Napolitano said. “Changing your beliefs about the nature of your self-control can have positive effects on development, leading to healthier behaviors and perceptions of others.”

Source: University of Illinois

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.