Recent research has dealt with the possibilities of increasing research. Early experiments showed that we seem to have a limited amount of willpower. If we are stressed by using willpower on one task, we cannot or do not focus as long on another task.
Another experiment showed a relationship between sugar levels and willpower. When our body has a ready supply of energy, we can continue working longer.
Mark Muraven, a graduate student, designed some simple experiments to see what things might affect a person’s willpower.
1. One group was told to work on their posture for two weeks. They should try to sit or stand up straight,
2. Another group was told to record the food they ate, with no instructions to make any changes.
3. A third group was told to work for positive attitudes. When they felt discouraged or unhappy, they should try to smile and enjoy themselves more.
The student expected the third group to show the most improvement. He was surprised to see that their efforts didn’t create any change in willpower. The first two groups showed the most improvement. It was as if strengthening willpower was like building muscles through exercise.
The researcher also discovered two aspects of willpower as with physical strength:”Power and Stamina.” It was their mental stamina that had improved. (Baumeister and Tierney, Willpower, 2011, pp. 139-142.) The subjects would keep trying for a longer time at tasks like trying to solve an impossible puzzle.
But this was only the beginning. The really amazing research was done by Meg Oate and Ken Cheng in Australia. They recruited people who had a strong desire to improve in one of three areas: physical fitness, study habits, or money management. Half the subjects were kept on a waiting test to be a control group.
Physical Fitness subjects were given membership in a gym, worked with a researcher to plan individual workouts, and kept of log of their exercise.
The Study Habits group set long-term goals, divided class assignments into smaller steps, and kept a study log.
The Money Management group created personal budgets, kept a record of income and expenses, and kept a log describing their feelings and how they avoided temptation.
Participants in all three groups showed improved willpower. Those on the waiting lists did not.
A Surprising Result
What came as a surprise to researchers is that when willpower increased in one area, there was often improvement in other areas. Students working on physical fitness often showed improvement in study habits, in spending habits, and other areas like smoking fewer cigarettes and controlling their anger better. (Baumeister and Tierney, Willpower, 2011, pp. 133-137)