• Bill Petrie

Do you struggle with willpower?


Welcome to the experience of being human!

Most of us have set New Year's resolutions.

Yet, somehow we lacked the willpower to carry them through.

This is not our fault.

Research has shown that we have even have less willpower than chimpanzees. In this remarkable study people were pitted against chimpanzees on tasks of delayed gratification.

40 students from Harvard University and the Max Planck Institute in Germany and 19 chimpanzees from the the Wolfgang Koehler Primate Research Center were the subjects of the study.

First, both chimps and humans were presented with their favourite treats - sweets and so on for the humans and grapes for the chimps - and they were asked to choose either 2 or 6 of their favourite treats.

Both chimps and humans naturally chose six treats rather than just two - just as we would expect.

Then chimps and humans were given a new choice.

With the treats in front of them, they could choose to have two treats immediately or they could wait two minutes to get six treats.

This produced unexpected results.

72 percent of the chimps chose to wait the two minutes and got the six treats.

But, only 19 percent of the humans chose to wait for the much larger reward.

So, how do we understand this?

Well both chimps and humans have two relevant brain systems.

The first is a primitive motivational system that operates via dopamine.

Dopamine makes us desire a particular outcome.

Whenever we feel ‘I’ve got to have that [fill in the box],’ dopamine is behind this desire.

We see delicious food and this system kicks in.

Now, the dopamine system works very well when we’re living in the wilds because it makes sense, for example, to eat food whenever it’s available.

In modern life, however, guzzling all available food is a sure-fire way to ensure that we will probably die young.

Without brakes on the dopamine system, we’re in deep trouble.

So, what helps us with self-control?

Well, this is a function of what we call the prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the modern brain that sits behind our forehead and eyes and it is this part of the brain that can say ‘no’ to desire.

And, that's what both chimps and humans use to say 'no.'

Now, compared to chimpanzees, each of us has a very large prefrontal cortex.

So, at first glance, we might think that we should easily have more 'no-power' than chimps.

But, most of us don't.

And, the reason for this is that our prefrontal cortex is so advanced that it has another part of itself that can rationalise about the future in such a way that it unconsciously serves the dopamine system and so we go for instant gratification.

So, we can, for example, say to ourselves: “Oh to hell with it, I’ll wait for the extra treats next time” and that favours the dopamine (instant gratification) system.

And, that’s why we’re worse than chimps at delaying gratification.

We use our imagination to kid ourselves.

The result is that, despite a huge prefrontal cortex, when most of us are presented with something that promises to give us pleasure, we find it hard to say ‘no’ – at least to say ‘no’ consistently and indefinitely.

This is particularly the case when we can see or smell desired items. And, desired items are everywhere – in food stores, on Amazon, in clothes shops, in liquor outlets, on Facebook, in advertising… almost everywhere that we look in city life.

So, what do we do?

How can we have more self-control?

How can we develop that part of the prefrontal cortex that has the ability to say ‘no?’

Well, neuroscientists have demonstrated that when we meditate, besides all the many other benefits, our brains develop a greater ability to say ‘no.’

And, the good news is that you don’t have to meditate for ten thousand hours to start feeling the benefits.

Research has shown that after just three hours of the right kind of meditation practice there is improvement in attention and self-control.

And, after just 11 hours of meditation, researchers are able to see actual physical changes in the brain.

So, through meditation, you can develop your prefrontal cortex and its ability to say ‘no.’

So, that’s one thing that you can do to develop your ‘no-power.’

Then there are all sorts of strategies that you can adopt that have been shown to be helpful and you can use these to trick your brain.

Research has shown, for example, that the more immediate the possibility of immediate gratification, the greater the pull - via the dopamine system – to fulfil that desire.

The obvious conclusion, then, is that it’s helpful to remove the possibility of immediate gratification.

So, if your bête noire is chocolate, it’s best to keep chocolate out of site - preferably out of home and handbag.

If your temptations lie in the direction of alcohol, it’s best not to have alcohol visible when, for example, you open the fridge, and it’s better still to get all alcohol out of your home altogether.

If your vice lies in buying photographic equipment, it’s best not to visit the website of your favourite photographic shop.

In this way, the prefrontal cortex's 'no-power' is given preference over the dopamine instant gratification process more of the time.

Another tip - a strategy used by many psychotherapists in the know - is the ‘ten minute rule.’

As we have seen, the dopamine system may well trump the prefrontal cortex’s ability to say ‘no’ if the possibility of gratification is immediate.

So, you can use the ‘ten minute rule’ to shift the odds.

If you want to eat chocolate, for example, you can make a rule that you will only eat chocolate after you have waited ten minutes after the impulse appears.

What research has shown is that, if this 'ten minute rule’ is applied, there is a significantly greater chance that your prefrontal cortex will be able to make a wise decision.

And, now that you know how potentially destructive the possibility of immediate gratification is, you can use your imagination to increase your willpower odds.

You can, for example, shop online for food instead of facing endless rows of temptation in the supermarket.

A trick that both my wife and I use when shopping online is to select what we want and then put those items into our shopping carts.

This often convinces our dopamine systems that we have already got the item and that feeling that comes with unfulfilled desire – that tense sense of ‘wanting’ – often then subsides.

Then we leave it for a day or more and that gives our prefrontal cortices a fighting chance of saying 'no' to the items that we don't really need.

Another insight that comes out of research in this area that I find very helpful is the realisation that we’re extremely bad at predicting outcome.

I, for example, can easily convince myself that eating is going to give me more mental energy.

What actually happens is that, after I have eaten, blood is redirected from my brain to my gut in order to digest the food I have just eaten and that makes me feel mentally sluggish.

Not at all what I had hoped for!

And, we can fool ourselves in so many other ways too.

We see an ice cream that is lactose-free and we happily ignore the sugar content and think to ourselves that that ice-cream is good for us.

We tell ourselves that dark chocolate is not fattening and we buy flavoured dark chocolate where the bar contains plenty of sugar in the filling and plenty of calories in the chocolate itself.

An alcoholic may tell himself that one drink isn’t going to do any harm and a shopaholic may convince herself that she can afford something because there are still funds available on the credit card.

Somewhere inside we often know what the outcome is going to be but we go unconscious through what I call the ‘F-it response':

‘F-it,’ I am just going to have that ice cream/drink/hamburger/chocolate/ … you name it.

And, that’s where mindfulness really comes in handy.

If we can stay conscious enough, we can think the consequences through.

Yes, if I eat this ice cream, I will get some relief from the tension of wanting.

Yes, the blood sugar spike will make me temporarily feel happier. But then I will crash energetically and I will feel guilt, shame and remorse and my weight will go up.

Yes, I will get relief from tension if I buy that lens/ those shoes/ that handbag but I will have the pressure of paying that extra amount on credit for a long, long time.

So, what helps us to stay conscious?

Well meditation and mindfulness - again - are the prime way in which we can build our ability to stay more conscious (i.e. more mindful throughout our day).

Another thing to be aware of is that it is also helpful to become clear about (and to keep a steady eye on) our long-term goals.

Imagining yourself feeling comfortable in summer clothes may help you not to eat that bag of jelly babies right now.

Imagining being able to travel may help you not to fritter money away in other ways.

Then there is the creation of accountability.

Most coaches use this to help their clients succeed in their program.

It’s much harder to kid ourselves if we have to report our progress to someone else - particularly a professional who understands the psychology and neuropsychology of willpower.

So, there you have some of the ways in which you can increase your 'no-power:'

  • Meditation and mindfulness

  • Building the 'no-power' via the 'ten-minute rule'

  • Being aware of the ways in which we kid ourselves

  • Getting rid of the possibility of immediate gratification

  • Tricking the mind with the online shopping basket

  • Putting attention on long-term goals rather than on immediate gratification

  • Avoiding enticing cues

  • And, getting the help of a professional

Who knows, if you try them, you may even get better than a chimp!


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