What's the benefit of learning to increase willpower?

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There have been many, many studies conducted around the world, that have shown a wide array of benefits that stem from self-control and willpower. Walter Mischel's famous 'Marshmallow Test' demonstrated the long-term predictability of high levels of self-control and willpower in benefitting an individual at practically every stage of their life. Mischel's results have now been backed up by a number of other studies, including the comprehensive 'Dunedin Study' which has tracked nearly a thousand participants annually since their birth in the early 1970's. So, exactly what kind of benefits has self-control and willpower been shown to predict? Here's a sample: 

  • Increased happiness
  • Better health
  • Higher levels of academic success
  • More success in their careers
  • Larger incomes
  • Longer and more satisfying relationships
  • Lower levels of stress and anxiety
  • Lower levels of crime
  • Less addiction to drugs and alcohol
  • A longer life

Based on this list, it's fair to say that willpower are well worth striving for. But what exactly is it?

What exactly is willpower?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, willpower is defined as:

"Control exerted to do something or restrain impulses"

Willpower is often linked to Roy Baumeister's model of ego-depletion, which is the idea that self-control and willpower rely on a limited amount of mental resources that can be used up. When we consider the Oxford Dictionary definition above, the ego-depletion approach helps to explain why we can exert control or restrain impulses easily at times, while struggling greatly to do so at others. Psychologist and author, Kelly McGonigal suggests the following three ways to think about willpower:

  1. I Will power – the ability to what you want to do, when part of you doesn't want to do it.
  2. I Won't power – the ability to say no, when you need to say no, and yes when you need to say yes.
  3. I Want power – the ability to find motivation when it matters.

Exerting willpower is about harnessing McGonigal's three powers of I will, I won't, and I want. Being able to do this, not only helps you achieve goals that are important to you, but also avoid situations or behaviours that are likely to be bad for you, in both the near and distant future.

Why is willpower important for good education and life outcomes?

Given the definition of willpower above, it's likely becoming very obvious to you why willpower is considered such a virtuous skill. Having the ability to exert willpower when needed will likely lead to a very positive influence on education and broader life outcomes. Consider the types of behaviours that it might promote:

  • A focus on activities that lead to better future outcomes, such as practice, study and homework.
  • A great ability to turn down 'fun' activities in order to productive activity such as completing homework or study assignments
  • Increased likelihood to choose healthy alternatives in terms of food and leisure activities
  • An increased ability to say no to unhealthy activities such as smoking, drug taking, drinking, or unsafe sex.
  • The ability to manage emotions in specific situations - including self-restraint against using verbal and/or physical abuse.

Many have looked at the positive effects on behaviour that increased self-control and willpower provide and concluded that, while an ideal character or behaviour trait, it's something that we either do or don't have. This of course, leads to the well worn nature versus nurture debate, leaving us with the question of whether self-control and willpower are skills that can be acquired and increased.

Can willpower be taught?

The science here is pretty clear – yes. Willpower is a skill that can be learned and improved and, it can be surprisingly easy to learn, as one example from Walter Mischel's studies indicates. Mischel described a group of young children who were unable to wait for 15 minutes to receive a second marshmallow indicating low levels of self-control and willpower. In fact this group were unable to wait even 1 minute! Mischel's team instructed in a willpower technique - in this case to picture the marshmallow as not real. To imagine a frame around it as if it was a picture of a marshmallow rather than the real thing. When applying this technique, children were able to easily increase their willpower and hold out for the full 15 minutes, to receive their reward of a second marshmallow. 

What this tells us is that self-control and willpower ability is actually the ability to have strategies to cope with tests of our willpower when they arise. Research by Mischel and many others over the past 40-plus years has provided a number of proven strategies to help children, teens and adults alike to improve their self-control in any given situation.

Willpower and Passion Arena

In understanding the importance of willpower and self-control to education success, Passion Arena's programme is structured to support the improvement of these attributes in students. Our first step is to introduce willpower and self-control (along with other core non-cognitive skills) to students so that they understand the benefits of learning and mastering such skills. Then, we'll introduce a series of focused episodes to introduce the specific strategies, encouraging students to test which strategies work best for them, and to apply these strategies to the outcomes and goals that are most important to them.

Watch a Passion Arena episode about willpower

To get an idea of how we introduce our non-cognitive skills and, in particular willpower, click the button below to watch a Passion Arena episode that relates to willpower.

Want to find out more about willpower?

Books on willpower:

If you'd like to dive further into understanding willpower, we recommend the following books. Click on the titles for more information.

Willpower: Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength
By Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, And What You Can Do To Get More Of It.
By Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.

The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is The Engine Of Success
By Walter Mischel

Self-Control: Developing Amazing Willpower To Achieve Goals That Matter
by Allan Davidson


Videos on willpower:

There are many videos on both willpower and self-control. Here we've provided video's from Roy Baumeister as one of the leading authorities in willpower.


Roy Baumeister. Willpower: Self-control, decision fatigue, and energy (16min)

Roy Baumeister - Willpower: Self-Control, Decision Fatigue, and Energy Depletion (59min)

Kelly McGonigal: The Willpower Instinct – Talks at Google (54min)


Academic papers on willpower:

The academic papers below represent a tiny fraction of the research available on willpower and self-control, while we hope the studies below prove useful, if you have a specific area of willpower training you want to address, we recommend searching Google Scholar

Willpower depletion and framing effects
Authors: Thomas de Haana, Roel van Veldhuizenb. First Published: June 2015

Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: A meta-analysis.
uthors: Hagger, Martin S.; Wood, Chantelle; Stiff, Chris; Chatzisarantis, Nikos L. D.  First Published: Jul 2010

Ego Depletion—Is It All in Your Head? Implicit Theories About Willpower Affect Self-Regulation
Authors: Veronika Job, Carol S. Dweck, and Gregory M. Walton. First Published: April 2010

Self-Regulation, Ego Depletion, and Motivation
Authors: Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs. First published: 7 August 2007