Summary of

Why willpower is overrated


0.3 min

In light of the recent revelation that willpower is a lie, the main takeaway here seems to be that self-reported high self-control people don’t naturally push themselves to have higher willpower; instead they use mindhacks like


Two main ways to measure self control.

One is with the self-control scale first published in 2004. This asks participants to agree or disagree with statements like “I am good at resisting temptation” and “I don’t keep secrets very well.” (See the whole questionnaire here.)

“Those self-report scales are really meaningful; they predict ‘the good life,’” Michael Inzlicht, a University of Toronto psychologist who studies self-control, says.

A second way to measure self-control is to actually test it, behaviorally, in a situation. In a classic (and increasingly challenged) self-control study, psychologist Roy Baumeister had participants resist the smell of just-baked cookies.

Again, you’d assume people who say they are good at self-control excel at these tasks that demand a lot of restraint, right? That wasn’t the case. The results showed “there’s either a very small, almost trivially sized, relationship between these two types of measures or there’s no relationship at all,” says Blair Saunders, a University of Dundee psychologist and the lead author of the study. “I think that’s the strongest conclusion you can make.”

The article goes on to explain that psychologists think the two kinds of tests (brain teasers, resisting cookies in the lab) are related. But it turns out there’s little correlation. People who self-report as good at self control don’t do particularly well in the lab’s self control tests.


1) Perhaps the self-control we employ when struggling through the Stroop task is not the same as when we’re resisting the urge to eat a plate of delicious cookies.

In which case psychologists need to redefine ‘self-control’ in more careful terms.

2) The self-report scale is picking up on something else besides willpower to inhibit thoughts and feelings — things like habits, personal preferences, or the result of people living in a less tempting environment.

Maybe the people who are good at self control design their environments to be less distracting.

3) It could also be due to something researchers call the “reliability paradox.” Basically, on a hard test like the Stroop, there isn’t a huge range of scores. That lack of variation can make it difficult to use the test to access individual differences.

But in the meantime, know that the case against willpower as a means of achieving goals is growing in the published literature.

This is but one study; meanwhile the case against willpower is growing.

The paper stumbled on a paradox: The people who were the best at self-control — the ones who most readily agreed to survey statements like “I am good at resisting temptations” — reported fewer temptations throughout the study period. To put it more simply: The people who said they excelled at self-control were hardly using it at all.


Recent research suggests:

1) People who are better at self-control actually enjoy the activities some of us resist — like eating healthy, studying, or exercising.

‘want-to goals’ are more likely to be achieved than ‘have-to’ goals.

2) People who are good at self-control have learned better habits.

Habits are a mindhack. Build them and you’ll get better results.

“People who are good at self-control … seem to be structuring their lives in a way to avoid having to make a self-control decision in the first place,” Galla tells me. And structuring your life is a skill. People who do the same activity, like running or meditating, at the same time each day have an easier time accomplishing their goals, he says — not because of their willpower, but because the routine makes it easier.

The ability to resist the immediate gratification was found to correlate with all sorts of positive life outcomes, like SAT scores and BMIs. But the kids who were best at the test weren’t necessarily intrinsically better at resisting temptation. They might have been employing a critical strategy.

They changed their perception of the object or action.

The really good dieter would find a way to invoke internal disgust at a cupcake, instead of eating it.

3) Some people just experience fewer temptations.


4) It’s easier to have self-control when you’re wealthy. When Mischel’s marshmallow test is repeated on poorer kids, there’s a clear trend: They perform worse, and appear less able to resist the treat in front of them.

This is not confirmed.