Sep 21, 2020
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Experiments to illustrate how willpower works

Author of the books “Who would have thought! How the brain makes us do stupid things ”and“ Someone is wrong on the Internet ”Anastasia Kazantseva talks about important scientific research that is changing the way we think about willpower.

With each passing year, neuroscience and cognitive psychology are penetrating deeper and deeper areas that once seemed the lot of priests and writers. Today it is clear - if somewhere you can find the answer to the eternal questions about who is to blame and what to do, then only in a search system for scientific articles, such as PubMed or Google Scholar.

According to the WHO, in the third world people most often die from pneumonia, HIV, intestinal infections - their lives depend on the equipment of the nearest hospital. In developed countries, things are different: the main causes of death are coronary heart disease, stroke and lung cancer. The top ten also includes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, colorectal cancer, diabetes, and hypertension. All of these dangers have one thing in common. A resident of a developed country significantly brings his death closer if his ... willpower is poorly developed! And not only is willpower is a matter of survival, strong-willed people are on average more prosperous.

So, imagine an experiment. You are a psychology student and you are being asked to participate in a study of taste. You come to the laboratory hungry. Already in the corridor, there is an intoxicating smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. You walk into the experimental room and see a platter of these lovely cookies on the table - and a platter of radishes. You are told that you must eat at least three radishes, and the biscuits are not needed, they are for other subjects. You are honestly eating a radish. Then you are asked to take part in another experiment: draw a complex geometric shape without lifting the pencil from the paper. In fact, it is impossible to draw it this way, but you do not know about it. You are warned that you can ring the bell as soon as you are ready to surrender.

In addition to the students who had a snack on radishes, the experiment also involved subjects who were not brought to the room with food at all, and those who were allowed to eat cookies in this room, and, on the contrary, were told not to touch the radishes. Subjects who were not asked to eat before solving the puzzle tried to draw the figure on average 33 times; attempts took them 21 minutes. Those who were fed the cookies tried to draw 34 times over a period of 19 minutes. No big difference. But those who were treated to radishes tried to solve the puzzle for 8 minutes and made 19 attempts, after which they despaired and went home.

This experiment, conducted in 1998 by psychology professor Roy Baumeister and his colleagues, immediately made the researchers famous and set the direction for their laboratory for years to come. More and more experiments have confirmed that willpower is an exhaustible resource.

If you have spent your reserves of willpower trying to resist temptation, it will be more difficult for you to make an intellectual effort, and vice versa. One of the most convenient models for studying willpower is in people trying to quit smoking. Over the course of several months, they have to mobilize all their psychological resources in order not to break down, and in the meantime, researchers can observe which factors increase the likelihood of returning to smoking, and which ones reduce. Psychologist Robert West of University College London has figured out the obvious: glucose helps quitters. When they eat sugary lozenges in unlimited quantities, their chances of quitting smoking are increased. However, glucose alone is not enough. If we compare people receiving glucose or sugar substitutes, then in the group taking glucose a little more people drop out, but the difference is not statistically significant. But if you study people who are receiving nicotine replacement therapy (or other drugs for quitting) and at the same time eating glucose or a sugar substitute, it turns out that glucose significantly increases the chances of success. This is logical: the medication taken relieves physical abstinence, and glucose additionally supports willpower, helping to experience the existential horror that a smoker feels when he has lost his usual protection and support.

There is good news too. Willpower can be sustained not only by overeating sweets. It can still be trained like muscles. Roy Baumeister invited the subjects to the laboratory and asked them not to think about the polar bear for five minutes (in the language of science, this is called the thought-suppression exercise). After that, the subject had to stretch the spring until it seemed to him that his hands were tired. The simulator was adjusted individually for each participant, the task was not very difficult physically, and it was known in advance that people tired of trying not to think about the bear throw the spring faster.

After the first experiment, the students were divided into two teams: some were released for two weeks without an additional task, others were assigned self-control trainings - to monitor posture, write down what they had eaten, or artificially regulate their own mood. When the students came to the laboratory again, refraining from thinking about the polar bear affected their reluctance to stretch the spring to a lesser extent, which was not observed in the control group, which did not monitor posture for two weeks.

This story shows that there is a cross-cutting effect of training: the acquired willpower in one lesson will help in other matters. Try straightening your shoulders right now - maybe this will help you do something you want!

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