Is Willpower Only a Matter of Motivation and Attention?

October 31, 2012 Katharina Lochner

introverts miss leadership chances

The Impact of Motivation on Willpower

Some time ago, we learned that our willpower is a limited resource. Tasks requiring self-control like for example decision-making consume energy and (mentally) exhaust our willpower, we become ego-depleted. The more ego-depleted we are, the harder it will be to exert willpower and the poorer will be our decisions. In order to re-gain our willpower, we need to re-boost our mental resources, for example by resting or eating glucose. However, recent research suggests that the loss of willpower is not so much due to exhausted mental resources, but rather to a shift in motivation and attention. This would mean that we could still exert willpower, even after having made many decisions, if only we stayed with our task and were motivated to complete it.

Researchers Michael Inzlicht from the University of Toronto and Brandon J. Schmeichel from Texas A&M University had their study participants complete ego-depleting tasks and asked one group to try their best, whereas they told the other group that the task would help research on Alzheimer’s disease. The latter group outperformed the former group. The authors conclude that “exerting self-control at Time 1 causes temporary shifts in both motivation and attention that undermine self-control at Time 2”. Thus, motivation and consciously maintaining our attention with the task can overcome the effects of ego-depletion.

The original article was published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

An article on the Creativity Post which outlines this study also summarises other research on the topic. For example, Veronica Job, Carol Dweck and Gegory Walton found people who believed willpower was an unlimited resource to show fewer signs of ego-depletion than people who believed in willpower being a limited resource.

Again, motivation seems to be a key factor to performance. It appears to be the key to improving working memory capacity, as we learned in the post “How to become smarter”. Furthermore, motivation is an important predictor for the performance on IQ tests, but also for positive life outcomes like academic performance or employment, as Angela L. Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania and her colleagues found in their study.

The good news is that we apparently have more control over what we do than we might often thing. The bad news, however, is: motivation requires effort. No pain, no gain. So very true!

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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