Scarcity

by on April 3, 2008 at 2:15 pm in Science | Permalink

The brain’s store of willpower is depleted when people control their
thoughts, feelings or impulses, or when they modify their behavior in pursuit of
goals. Psychologist Roy Baumeister and others have found that people who
successfully accomplish one task requiring self-control are less persistent on a
second, seemingly unrelated task.

In one pioneering study, some people were asked to eat radishes while others
received freshly baked chocolate chip cookies before trying to solve an
impossible puzzle. The radish-eaters abandoned the puzzle in eight minutes on
average, working less than half as long as people who got cookies or those who
were excused from eating radishes.

From the NYTimes with some good advice on test taking, dieting and how to increase your will power over time.

greatzamfir April 3, 2008 at 2:48 pm

I like radishes.

John Dewey April 3, 2008 at 3:14 pm

I always suspected that radishes might be screwing up my brain.

Of course, if the puzzle is truly impossible, then conceivably the radish eaters may have discovered that much sooner than the cookie gluttons.

Finja April 3, 2008 at 3:49 pm

very interesting article. explains why i always go shopping after an exam…

pawnking April 3, 2008 at 4:05 pm

Real life application in negotiations: Drain your opponent by having him fight over something you are prepared to give up on. After his will is expended on this, hit him on what you really want.

Anderson April 3, 2008 at 5:12 pm

“Store of willpower”? Good lord.

In what cells is that willpower stored, I wonder? Or is it an organ?

The pineal gland, no doubt.

anon April 4, 2008 at 12:04 am

Kevin, they do not control for that possibility in that study, but there’s plenty of evidence that what’s going on is not cookie-specific, in the form of about a hundred other depletion studies with various tasks (this is not hyperbole). Other tasks that have been shown to produce impairments on subsequent tasks include:

- thought suppression
- suppressing emotions
- exaggerating emotions
- ignoring distractions
- speaking without saying “um” or “er”
- presenting yourself modestly to a stranger
- presenting yourself boastfully to a friend
- the Stroop task
- taking an exam

Tim April 4, 2008 at 2:31 am

This study proves whatever you want it to prove. The puzzle was impossible to solve, right? That means either radishes decrease your willpower (or it remains the same compared to the cookies’ influence), or they increase your sense of reality; whereas cookies either decrease your ability to accept reality, or they increase your willpower. Either way, radishes are definitely healthier. “Winners never quit, quitters never win, but those who never win and never quit are idiots.”

Anderson April 4, 2008 at 10:01 am

When you overwork particular muscles, they become fatigued and less powerful and it becomes painful to try to push them beyond that point.

Nerve cells are not muscle cells.

I very much doubt that we understand nearly enough about “willpower” to attribute physical characteristics to it such that we could refer to a “store” of it.

I am able to inhibit myself 24/7/365.25 from sex with 16-year-olds, with no perceptible effort whatsoever, despite the fact that many 16-year-old girls are indeed sexually attractive.

OTOH, I find it difficult to drive the speed limit or slower.

I doubt that there are different “willpower” levels in my brain as regards these two issues.

SW April 4, 2008 at 10:55 am

Actually, Kevin’s concern is addressed in one of the Baumeister studies. There was a third group that got no cookies. They persisted about as long as the cookie group. So in this particular case blood glucose was not a limiting factor. However, it’s an excellent point.

Anon April 10, 2008 at 12:23 pm

So willpower is limited? That’s interesting. In some ways that’s good to know. People can take that information and apply it to their daily lives. They’ll be more efficient. On the other hand, in some ways it’s not so good to know. People will use that information to rationalize not doing things they should.

It’s an incomplete study with many other variables and many other ways to look at the situation. Nevertheless, or rather, because of this, it would be good for these scientists to perform more studies on willpower. Maybe they’ll discover a way to make America less apathetic.

Heh, had you going for a minute, didn’t I? Seriously though, it’d probably be a good idea anyway.

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