The Willpower Trap

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.

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Psychologist, Master Certified Coach and Certified EFT Practitioner. She is one of the world’s leading experts in using Emotional Freedom Techniques to help people lose weight without dieting, stop binge eating, and reduce anxiety and stress. She is the author of 4 Books on Emotional Freedom Techniques, the EFT Tips Newsletter, the Binge Eating Teleseminar and the EFT Weight Loss CD. Carol has a thriving coaching practice and is passionate about helping others succeed.

3 thoughts on “The Willpower Trap

  1. Carol,

    It’s been awhile, but this was a good reminder post to land on, especially at this time of year.

    Regarding the marshmallow study, I couldn’t help but wonder how many kids were selected to studied based on the fact they appeared to have the willpower to resist the marshmallow when, in truth, they didn’t like marshmallows:~) I thought of this because I don’t particularly like marshmallows. However, this makes your point. Like you said, the other study showed it was as much the use of skills as willpower that helped the kids do better.

    This is true of almost anything we do. For example, climbing a mountain does take some willpower, but it also takes preparation, finding the right handholds, working with others, sometimes falling back a bit and even stopping to assess where you are before continuing on. I think this true about most of what we do in life; we have to find our own way and our own “skills” to achieve what we want.

    Thank you for this holiday reminder about stress eating and finding our own SKILLS at avoiding it.

  2. Thanks for this interesting read… I think you’re on to something here! 🙂 I always thought my reason for not losing weight before was my ‘lack of willpower’… but over the past 2 years, by finally deciding to start changing my bad eating habits, making healthier choices, and just trying my best one meal, one day at a time… I have lost 210#!! 🙂

    During this journey, I’ve focused more on learning skills to cope with emotional eating, making healthy/wise food choices, etc… and stopped telling myself I ‘couldn’t lose weight’!!

    I’ll be reading more of your articles, but wanted to say THANKS!!

    • Jennifer – congratulations on your weight loss! That is amazing, and you have figured out a lot of the important factors. Warm wishes, Carol

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