Updated: Feb 13
This week local lockdown measures are being reintroduced in the north west of England because we lacked the willpower to socially distance from friends and family outside our households. GeoVLE's History and English Tutor, Lauren Brooks, explores the concept of willpower here and goes so far as to say it is a complete myth.
Much of our socially-accepted understanding about delayed gratification (aka willpower) came from a study called Stanford Marshmallow experiment, published in 1972 by Professor Walter Mischel, and then supported by a follow-up study in 1989 by the same author.
The initial study tested four year old children on their willpower to resist immediate, smaller reward, in order to receive double the reward if they resisted the immediate temptation for a short while. The reward was in the form of one marshmallow or one pretzel stick (depending on the child’s preference), and double that were they to wait 15 minutes. The follow up study in 1989 proposed that the children who were able to resist the temptation of the immediate reward were considered more cognitively and socially competent adults, who achieved better academic success and coped better with frustration or stress.
Now, for me, defining ‘cognitively and socially competent adults’ rings alarm bells. This can be an extremely subjective perspective, and I would argue that most adults have pros and cons in all departments. Social competency is particularly subjective, and oftentimes those who are regularly considered socially ‘eccentric’ are those with neurobiologically determined behavioural disorders such as autism, AD(H)D, depression, bipolar disorder, BPD, OCD and schizophrenia - all of which tend to have significant differences in the brain’s function, chemistry and structure, making something like delayed gratification less likely to achieve and impulsivity more likely to occur. The rhetoric of ‘poor willpower’ perpetuates the stigmatising of these disorders. It becomes even more confusing when there are mounting bodies of research and evidence that those figures we laud as ‘remarkable’ or ‘genius’ throughout history are often the most plagued by social and cognitive impairments, and who do not fit into the ‘normal’ patterns of success.
“Stand out by being the same as everyone else” is a confusing message to receive as a child.
There is also significant evidence that willpower is not just down to the individual’s willingness to persevere. A 1998 experiment by Roy Baumeister suggests that willpower is not a never-ending resource, and actually depletes through the course of the day. He had two groups enter a room with the smell of freshly-baked cookies, and asked one group to help themselves to them, while the other group were asked to refrain from eating them and instead to eat from the bowl of radishes that were offered. Both groups were then asked to complete a task of solvable anagrams. The result: those who ate the cookies were able to withstand the task on average around 10 minutes longer than those who ate radishes, who gave up sooner, suggesting that the longer we withstand temptation, the more challenging and frustrating it becomes to do so.
Now we have two studies suggesting alternative results; willpower equals success, and using too much willpower equals giving up faster. My argument here is that perhaps both studies are true, and that we must learn how to utilise the fact that willpower depletes, whilst also utilising that resisting temptation can achieve greater success. The power, in my view, lies in the balance.
Mischel’s study has stuck far more in popular culture and expected societal norms than Baumeister’s.
The message we so often plague each other and ourselves with is, ‘it’s your own fault that you are failing, because you don’t exercise willpower’, as though willpower and delayed gratification is something that we choose, rather than something that we are more prone to being able to exercise or even the time of day we are trying to get through a more mundane task.
A study published in 2016 confirms that personal challenges with delayed gratification do in fact correlate with mental health conditions such as addictive behaviours and weight maintenance issues. But as far as I’m aware, minimising the issue as ‘personal choice’ has not halted our addiction rates or obesity rates. All this rhetoric does, instead of question why some may struggle more than others with their ‘willpower’, is cause deep-seated shame and frustration that, in turn, often exacerbates the issue rather than make it any better. Shame tends to make us reach for comforts rather than eschew them in favour of a brand new, clean and shiny coping mechanism, and so the cycle is dangerous and ultimately ineffective, and should be removed from our societal narrative.
Those with good willpower can also suffer at the hands of this dangerous narrative. If willpower is in fact a depleting resource, then even the hardiest of us are susceptible to a sudden drain of willpower on a bad day, week or month, or the year 2020?!
The concept of ‘you’ll only do as well as you force yourself to’ is a nightmare for the growing pandemic of perfectionism - a far more insidious trait than the title suggests - causing ambitious people to set unrealistic expectations for themselves which cannot be met on particularly bad days. This can quickly make someone usually more capable of withstanding boredom and temptation feel a sense of failure, which causes a sense of shame… and the same cycle as above perpetuates.
So now we ultimately end up with the group of people with problematic delayed-gratification regulation feeling ashamed of their inability to exercise willpower, and on the other hand a group of people good at exercising willpower feeling ashamed that they can’t exercise it as consistently as they want to, because it’s a depleting resource and variable to the unique challenges of the day. Messy.
The problem is, this narrative is deeply ingrained and has as such slid into the narrative surrounding education. Children who struggle to complete their homework or focus on a task at school are simply ‘not trying hard enough’, and children better able to regulate willpower have a bad day and get told they ‘didn’t try as hard as usual’, which seems a weighty and harmful message to lump onto a six year old (and believe me, those messages stick and are very difficult to get rid of in later life).
Forcing children to sit quietly, politely and completely focused on what is often mundane, rote learning can cause a lot of internal frustration, creating links for young brains that suggests ‘learning is boring’ ‘learning is hard’ ‘I’m bad at learning’. It’s not a stretch to see the connection between this early-years message translating into bored, uninspired teenagers looking for stimuli outside of the education system that don’t fill them with boredom and shame. This is not the way to bring up the next generation of motivated, curious and creative adults that we require to tackle the extremely pressing climate crisis ahead of us.
This rhetoric also vastly underestimates the positive qualities that come from those moments that willpower has depleted to an all time low. Procrastinating work that we need to do can lead to creative bursts, where ideas and art come to life. People who leave things to the last minute can often be brilliantly useful when things need to be done at the last minute, as they have adapted to being able to focus during high-stress situations. Perhaps this doesn’t immediately translate to better educational results, but when we think of all the people that we rely on in our Emergency Services, that cool-head and focus in the midst of chaos are absolutely vital to the role - and all of a sudden whether the doctor performing CPR in ER tended to hand her essays in early or late at university doesn’t seem so important anymore.
More impulsive tendencies are linked to increased creativity too; these tend to be the exact employees you need when a project goes awry, as the sudden need for a quick solution tends to be exactly what impulsive minds are good at. It also seems that Bill Gates, the second richest man in the world, has no qualms with employing those with poor delayed-gratification skills; he is famous for stating “I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”
Embracing the depletion of willpower can also force us into a state of play, seeking novelty and pleasure without a specific need to complete a goal or purpose - something that adults still need just as much as children do, and partaking in it sparks creativity, problem solving and stronger relationships with others, whilst eschewing it can cause stress, frustration and even links to a higher chance of criminal activity.
The challenge today is changing this narrative, particularly with children and in the education system. So please, now that your children are working at home with you, try to not to expect so much from their (or your!) willpower, particularly as they are so far removed from their usual teaching and learning environment, and self-learning is very much a skill that needs to be developed. What we need is to tell those with good willpower that it’s okay to run out of it sometimes, and not to tell those with less of it that it is shameful and unproductive. A middle ground can be achieved, which I will be exploring in a later blog post.
If you would like your children to be part of an interactive environment where learning is fun, homework is optional and the need to exercise willpower is unnecessary, then join some of our safe and socially distanced online summer camps or daily GeoScool classes. We are also offering study skills sessions, where we can help identify the type of patterns a child may have with regards to their willpower and teach them positive coping mechanisms for either stronger or weaker regulation abilities.