W is for… Willpower

The Psychologist A to Z continues.

Suggested by Tamsyn Hawken @HealthPsychTam

In a study of social attitudes discussed by Claudia Hammond in her 2016 book extract, researchers noted that between 1994 and 2010 the percentage of respondents saying people were poor due to their laziness or lack of willpower had increased from 15 per cent to 23 per cent, while the proportion citing injustice in the system had declined from 29 to 21 per cent.

If you’re in need of tips for breaking bad habits, listen to episode 2 of PsychCrunch, the podcast from our Research Digest.

There are cognitive skills and strategies that can be learned in order to delay gratification, said the late Walter Mischel when we spoke to him in 2014. ‘This is very good news because it allows a much more optimistic view than the one that willpower is very much a trait that you can’t do much about.’

Roy Baumeister’s ego depletion account – the notion that willpower is a fuel that gets burned away with effort – has been the subject of high-profile failed replication attempts. And a study led by Mario Wenzel and covered on our Research Digest suggested that even if the effect is genuine it may not be relevant. They concluded that we should focus on the mechanisms that matter and less on laboratory-induced blips in performance.

Anorexia has been described as ‘an extreme manifestation of willpower’ – see the discussion in Nancy Tucker’s 2016 ‘New voices’.

- Our Psychologist A to Z so far is collected here.

Illustration by Karla Novak.

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