When Does a Belief that Willpower is Unlimited Help Motivation and When Does it Hurt?
By Joshua John Clarkson, Ashley Otto and Edward Hirt
Whether it be impulse purchases on Amazon, binge watching Netflix, sticking to a workout routine, or eating healthy, the process by which we regulate and control our thoughts, actions, and behavior has been a longstanding area of interest within psychology. To that end, one of the more interesting phenomenon within the study of self-control as of late is the belief that our ability to successfully regulate our behavior—what is termed our willpower capacity—is either limited or unlimited (Job, Dweck, & Walton, 2010).
The belief itself certainly has interesting consequences; indeed, those who endorse an unlimited belief in willpower capacity are more likely to engage in successful self-control in the form of improved cognitive functioning, decreased procrastination, and even higher term GPA (Job, 2016). These consequences are certainly noteworthy, but they also raise important questions for researchers about how people actually engage in self-control (see Hirt, Clarkson, & Jia, 2016). In particular, any theory of self-control must explain not only how our ability to successfully regulate our thoughts and actions depends on our willpower capacity, but also our beliefs about that capacity (see also Clarkson, Hirt, Jia, & Alexander, 2010). In other words, the ways in which we presently understand – and thus model – self-control must account for the effects of the mere belief individuals possess regarding the extent to which their self-control abilities or willpower capacity is either limited or unlimited.
Within this context, our research sought to understand the extent to which the documented consequences of these willpower capacity beliefs were malleable. That is, while a wealth of research demonstrates the importance of these willpower capacity beliefs for self-control performance, our interests turned to the conditions under which these consequences were most likely to arise. Specifically, we wanted to understand whether these beliefs were susceptible to contextual variations. This potential for contextual variation is critical, as any malleability would offer insight into the intricacies of the relationship between willpower beliefs and self-control performance. In particular, this malleability would inform when believing willpower is unlimited could potentially undermine self-control performance and when believing willpower is limited could potentially elevate self-control performance.
To assess this possibility, we focused on feelings of ease or fluency in the retrieval of information (Schwarz, Bless, Strack, Klumpp, Rittenauer-Schatka, & Simons, 1991) and specifically the role of ease associated with individuals' willpower beliefs. For instance, we experimentally altered whether individuals experienced feelings of ease (vs. difficulty) in retrieving instances consistent with their preexisting beliefs in willpower capacity. We then presented participants with a task involving self-control. Across experiments, we had participants complete a series of multiple solution anagrams (see Clarkson et al., 2010), respond to scenarios related to impulse purchases (see Rook & Fisher, 2005), and indicate their willingness to delay gratification (see Vohs, Baumeister, & Schmeichel, 2012).
The findings consistently revealed that those who naturally endorse an unlimited willpower theory exhibited greater self-control performance when their belief was associated with ease (vs difficulty). Conversely, those who naturally endorse a limited willpower theory exhibited greater self-control performance when the belief was associated with difficulty (vs ease). In other words, the seminal effect demonstrated by Job and colleagues (2010) was demonstrated when individuals' willpower theory was associated with ease but reversed when individuals' willpower theory was associated with difficulty.
To understand why these feelings of ease were impacting the efficacy of individuals’ willpower beliefs, we sought to explore the means by which these beliefs in willpower capacity impact individuals’ self-control performance. Specifically, we focused on the extent to which individuals' willpower beliefs elicit different baseline levels of perceived mental focus and concentration (Clarkson, Hirt, Chapman, & Jia, 2011). In short, we proposed that a belief in an unlimited willpower capacity would lead individuals to perceive themselves as more able to concentrate and focus on tasks of self-control than would a belief in a limited willpower capacity.
Importantly, however, we only expected this perception to arise when individuals’ beliefs were associated with ease, as feelings of ease engender confidence in individuals' beliefs whereas feelings of difficulty engender doubt in individuals' beliefs (Tormala, Petty, & Briñol, 2002). Thus, while associating a belief in an unlimited willpower with ease should reinforce individuals’ assessment of their abundant resources, associating a belief in an unlimited willpower with difficulty should lead individuals to question whether their resources are so abundant and, as a result, reduce their perceived ability to focus on tasks of self-control. Conversely, while associating a belief in a limited willpower with ease should reinforce individuals’ assessment of their scarce resources, associating a belief in a limited willpower with difficulty should lead individuals to question whether their resources are so scarce and, as a result, elevate their perceived ability to focus on tasks of self-control.
Our findings provide support for this proposition and thus insight into not only why fluency impacts the efficacy of individuals’ willpower beliefs but also how beliefs in willpower capacity more generally impact self-regulation.
As a final observation, the questions motivating this research are questions we believe need to be raised in this literature as theoretical perspectives on 'ego depletion' and self-regulation more broadly adapt. What predicts good self-control? Why do our beliefs exert such a powerful influence over our abilities to self-regulate? When might our beliefs—especially those shown to enhance self-control—betray us? These questions coincide with new perspectives that present a highly fluid conceptualization of self-control while offering specific insight into both when and why these critical willpower beliefs exert a malleable impact on individuals' self-control performance.
Joshua John Clarkson received a Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Indiana University and a Ph.D. in Marketing from the University of Florida. His research interests focus broadly on the social and meta- cognitive processes underlying human behavior and offers specific contributions to the areas of attitude strength and structure, persuasion, and self-regulation. Josh is currently an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Cincinnati.
Ashley Otto received her Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati. Her research interests focus primarily on the areas of judgment/decision making and self-control. Ashley is currently an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Baylor University.
Edward Hirt received a Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Indiana University. His research interests include self-regulation, self-protective behavior, social cognition, and judgment/decision making. Ed is currently a Professor of Psychology at Indiana University.
Clarkson, J.J., Hirt, E.R., Chapman, D.A., & Jia, L. (2011). The impact of illusory fatigue on executive control: Do perceptions of depletion impair working memory capacity? Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2, 229-238.
Clarkson, J.J., Hirt, E.R., Jia, L., & Alexander, M.B. (2010). When perception is more than reality: The effect of perceived versus actual resource depletion on self-regulatory behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 29-46.
Hirt, E.R., Clarkson, J.J., & Jia, L. (Eds.). (2016). Self-Regulation and Ego Control. San Diego, CA: Elsevier.
Job, V. (2016). Implicit theories about willpower. In Hirt, E.R., Clarkson, J.J., & Jia, L. (Eds.), Self-Regulation and Ego Control (pp. 204-228). San Diego, CA: Elsevier.
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Schwarz, N., Bless, H., Strack, F., Klumpp, G., Rittenauer-Schatka, H., & Simons, A. (1991). Ease of retrieval as information: Another look at the availability heuristic. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 195-202.
Tormala, Z.L., Petty, R.E., & Briñol, P. (2002). Ease of retrieval effects in persuasion: A self-validation analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1700-1712.