Ever wonder if you have enough willpower to stop stress eating and lose the weight you want?
5 decades ago, there was a famous study, fondly called the “marshmallow study.”
Preschool kids were asked to sit in front of a marshmallow, and not eat it for a full 15 minutes.
The kids who were successful at accomplishing this task were studied over the next 2 decades and shown to do better in almost every area of life than kids who grabbed the marshmallow and ate it right away.
For instance, kids who delayed gratification:
- scored hundreds of points higher on standardized tests in school
had stronger relationships
- were promoted more often, and
- were happier.
Unfortunately, to this day, this study is misinterpreted. Most people draw the wrong conclusion, by assuming that the only reason (among all the possible reasons) that some kids were better at delaying gratification is that they had more “willpower.” That they were somehow stronger, in some way, to be able to withstand the temptation. Period.
This is the same simplistic conclusion that we make when we think about why we don’t change our own bad habits. When we fall off the wagon and overeat, we blame it on a lack of willpower. When we succeed, we also attribute it to our persistence and commitment to the goal. Either way, we blame or give credit to one single factor – the almighty willpower.
This is tragically wrong…
It’s wrong because it’s incomplete, and it’s tragic because it gives us no wiggle room when things don’t go as we would like. When you believe your ability to make good choices depends only on willpower, you will eventually stop trying. It’s not something you can get more of, really…and the more you use it, the more you use it up and the more likely you are to quit.
This pattern keeps you in a depressing cycle starting with massive commitment to change, and followed by eroding motivation and relapse into old habits.
That’s the willpower trap.
Fortunately, a follow up study, showed that what seems like will, may be more about skill. The kids who were successful developed skills to manage the challenge. Some even developed clever strategies, like distracting themselves or creating a game out of it, until the researchers returned.
In fact, it was shown in this later study that when kids were taught skills, 50% more were successful. No willpower necessary.
One of the biggest barriers to success is NOT lack of willpower, but the belief that willpower is the key to change.