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Willpower: It’s Not What You Think

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With just a little over 7 weeks remaining in the year, many people are loath to give thought to all the shiny resolutions they made last January—well at least the one’s we conveniently forgot around March. But, let bygones be bygones I say. Why bother lamenting—the past is the past and we can hit the reset button for a do-over on January 1st. Well not on the first, that’s like a Thursday and everyone knows Mondays are the days to start new plans. So January 5th it is for all those goals and plans…some of which have probably been on the list of resolutions for longer than AMC has been running the Shawshank Redemption with Story Notes. That resolution list can be a debilitating practice. One filled with guilt and self-loathing. “Why oh why don’t I have the darn willpower to achieve these damn goals!? What the hell is wrong with me?”

The answer may have little to do with your ability and everything to do with your internal strategy. It might surprise you to learn that it’s not your emotions that get in the way, but your rational approach to achievement. That’s right. Evidence suggests that to be successful, what matters most is your emotions…not your thoughts. That may seem a bit counterintuitive when one considers “how much” trouble our emotions often cause. Certainly, left unchecked, impulsive desires can lead to a host of issues and problems. However, emotions themselves, too often, get a bad rap.

Psychologists, Neurologist, and Anthropologist all agree that emotions served and continue to serve as biological motivators for survival. Fear, love, gratitude, compassion, are all emotional states which have aided human survival. But, in the early days of caves and clubs (the stick kind, not the dance kind) humans were best served thinking in the short-term not the long-term, and emotions still combat logic over which term is more important and more satisfying.

What we know about the rational versus emotional decision making process is that we arrive at nearly 90% of our decisions emotionally. Upon reaching some (emotional) conclusion we then develop rational arguments for why it is the best choice. That rational 10% makes the 90% appear logical. The evidence of 90-10 surfaces when we consider our interactions with others. In disagreements, we  believe that “we” are being “rational” and our opponent is being “emotional.” In fact, we are both being emotional.

Emotional decision making is a natural process. With the age of empirical science it was pushed aside as a “bad” thing. Even today “irrational” is considered a negative method for decision making, although time and again we see the formerly “irrational” decision net the best gains. It seems…well irrational, to dismiss the largest portion of our choice processing. Sales, marketing, and advertising firms understand emotional power. They relay on it heavily to turn objects into desire. They use scarcity to get consumers to line up at 3 am the day after Thanksgiving. They use celebrity endorsements to create social validation. A great book by Dr Robert Cialdini titled, The Laws of Influence, points out how feelings of “obligation, sameness, and social validity” are key aspects to gaining agreement and consequently influence.

Most of today’s “hot-button” issues remain unresolved due to emotional decision making. Take for example Climate Change. A completely rational review of the evidence draws the logical conclusion that “we don’t really know.” There are too many factors in climate change to truly determine what is a “normal” ten thousand year trend and what is human caused. The conclusion should be that we need more time and more science to decide. Yet on both sides of the debate people rely on emotional arguments to make the case.

For example, who doesn’t love a white, fluffy Polar Bear? Climate change is the reason they are on the endangered species list…except…populations have increased in many areas and scientist now admit…low population counts were a “best guess” to satisfy the media. You can read the Canadian Geographic Study and decide for yourself.  One approach might be to simply apply the “better safe than sorry” rule. This, however, is also an emotional decision. Making plans and changes based on the “possibility” of an outcome rather than the “probability” is the foundation for all “phobias” from flying to spiders (and thank God there are no flying spiders). If we don’t know the real cause of climate change or if there is no cause at all, how then can any of our changes help achieve the goal? They can’t because it is simply a guess…and a very expensive guest at that. (Please don’t make a climate change argument – I love nature and animals and this topic was selected to highlight decision-making)

It may sound as if I just made an argument against emotional decision making. But in truth, regardless of the logic of my climate change point, I bet I changed no one’s mind on the issue. The reason…emotions are the strong motivators behind what, when, where and how we do things. So if emotions play such a key role, where did the “mental will-power” mantras come from?

Will-power and the ability to delay small, instant gratification for larger, long-term benefits is a proven component of success. In the 1960s and 1970s, Walter Mischel conducted a ground-breaking study on delayed gratification and self-control in children. Called the Marshmallow Experiment, it examined the difference between children willing to forego the immediate gratification of eating a marshmallow “now” for the benefit of receiving two “later.” The real revelations came in a longitudal study of participants and their later life successes. Those children that demonstrated an early ability to delay gratification scored higher on the SATs, coped better with stress, and managed interpersonal interactions with greater success.

All very good evidence that “will-power” is a key component to achievement. The issue, which psychologist like David DeSteno are now considering, is “where does this will-power come from?” And it appears that logical, cognitive strategies are least effective. The problem with mental strategies is that they are quick to wear thin. Studies show that when a person exerts will-power in one situation, they are highly unlikely to exert it in the next—especially when those events occur close together. And any mental stress (things as simple as addition or remembering a set of numbers) reduces cognitive will-power strategies. So a bad day at work will sidetrack other goals…like that after work trip to the gym. It is why “avoiding alcohol” is an effective strategy in AA. Temptation erodes mental conviction. The problem is, of course, that avoidance is not an effective strategy when trying to achieve something.

Psychologist are starting to postulate that the strength of will power may be more related to our emotional strategies than our rational ones. Take weight loss as an example. Logic dictates that gaining weight is bad for our health and general well-being. Most dieters can create fantastic plans and lists of to-dos that include all kinds of promises for health, diet and exercise. Most however fail, which is why weight-loss is a billion dollar industry.

In weight studies the evidence demonstrates that married people tend to gain weight and those getting divorced lose weight. That would seem counter-intuitive if one considers the turmoil and stress created in a divorce. Shouldn’t happy people who are supported by a spouse have the ability to better focus on a weight-loss goal?

The marriage-divorce studies may demonstrate more clearly the emotional motivation related to weight gain and weight loss. Married people have the same number of rational reasons to stay fit, but the recently divorced have strong emotional reasons to get in shape…be it revenge, finding a new love, turning a new page. And, anyone who has experienced a divorce or break-up can attest that those are more powerful motivators than just wanting to fit into your jeans.

If we look beyond relationship factor, we may discover why some people maintain a healthy level of fitness and others do not. Since we all have the same “rational” reasons to stay fit, there must be an emotional component to exercise and eating “right.” Most likely, “fit people, have better emotional motivators. Perhaps they have emotional strategies that equate to going to a wedding every weekend or having a first date lined up. Perhaps they find enjoyment in the exercise time and process. They may focus more on the feeling of being fit than how they look or the health benefits. They may simply be addicted to the endorphin release exercise creates.  But again…these are all emotional motivators.

We see a similar trend in smoking cessation. Smokers understand the risks related to the behavior. Any rational person can reach the conclusion that smoking is harmful at best and deadly at worst. Most smokers use a variety of methods to quit and in most cases it takes several attempts and years to stop. Few smokers will opt for the “cold turkey” route. Yet, there is one group of smokers who have a very high success rate, little recidivism and use the cold turkey method. Smokers who survive heart attacks are very effective at quitting. It’s not that they have more information than those still smoking. Their will-power comes from an emotional motivator—fear of death…specifically their own.

Whether your goal is to write a book, lose weight, grow your business or advance your education, it appears that in addition to your strategic, cognitive goal list you need to develop sound emotional reasons to reach your objectives. Not reasons that make “sense” but reasons that make you “feel good.” It may be more advantageous not to focus on a bigger pay check, but on how the achievement will make you feel. Forget about losing weight to fit a pants size, instead imagine going to the beach with a body you don’t feel the need to hide under a big beach towel. Don’t worry about how to publish, market or sell the book, just write it.

I think it all boils down to something we often discuss on this blog…passion. Find the passion, write the steps to achieve the dream, and keep those things top of mind…or in simpler terms…turn your to-do’s into desires.

5 replies »

  1. “Find the passion, write the steps to achieve the dream, and keep those things top of mind…or in simpler terms…turn your to-do’s into desires.”

    That’s quite an inspirational statement, Ermias Asghedom would be proud.

  2. Okay this was a fascinating read! And I know its true because my decision and follow through on leaving a comment was based solely on me knowing I’d feel better emotionally…umm, anyway, lol, I was especially interested in the Marshmallow Experiment for my lil ones.

    Also, I agree with Inkposts, that line is awesome! 😉

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