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The Willpower Instinct Summary – This is my book summary of The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal.
I have written an in-depth summary of each chapter. It will give you a good idea of what the original book is about. If you have read the book, this condensed version might help you recall what you have learned.
The Willpower Instinct is based on “The Science of Willpower,” a class Kelly McGonigal offered to the public through Stanford University’s Continuing Studies program.
Some of the Topics You Will Learn Include:
1. How to train your brain to get better at self-control
2. How to train your willpower muscle
3. What are willpower traps
4. How marketers use the promise of reward system
5. How to avoid stress-induced willpower failures
6. How feeling bad leads to giving in
7. How to delay gratification
8. Meet your future self
9. How social influence causes willpower failures
10. How to catch self-control
11. Why trying to suppress thoughts, emotions, and cravings doesn’t work
12. What can you do with your cravings
If you want to read the science behind each topic, you will find lots of references of scientific research and scientific studies in this book.
At the end of each chapter, the author lays out practical strategies which you can apply immediately to your life challenges. She calls it the “willpower experiments.”
Who is This Book For?
If you want to become a better version of yourself, this book is for you. And if you have a goal such as to quit smoking, lose weight, get out of debt, become a better parent, overcome addiction, stop procrastination, or sticking to an exercise program, you will find this book valuable.
Before you proceed, it’s best that you understand the definition of willpower according to Kelly McGonigal
“Willpower is a biological instinct, like stress, that evolved to help us protect ourselves from ourselves.”
And she writes,
“Science is painting a very different picture of willpower. It’s an evolved capacity and an instinct that everyone has – a careful calibration of what’s happening in your brain and body.”
The Willpower Instinct Summary – Chapter One
What is Willpower?
Willpower comprises I will power, I won’t power, and I want power.
The “I Will” power is the ability to do what you need to do even if a part of you wants to do something else.
The “I Won’t” power is the ability to resist temptations.
The “I Want” power is the ability to exert self-control by remembering what you really want, instead of following your immediate desires.
Why Does Willpower Matter?
When you make use of these three powers, you will have better control of your attention, emotions, and actions which will then help you achieve your goals and be a better version of yourself.
The Neuroscience of Willpower
Willpower starts in the brain, specifically in the prefrontal cortex. There are three regions in it, each one handling different tasks. The “I will” region will help you start and stick to boring, difficult, or stressful tasks. One area handles the “I won’t” power in which it holds you back from following your impulses or cravings. And the area that handles the “I want” power remembers and keeps tracks of your goals and desires.
The Importance of the Prefrontal Cortex to Self-Control
The author cites the story of Phineas Gage, the most famous case of prefrontal cortex brain damage. When the foreman lost this part of his brain, he also lost his will power, his won’t power, and his want power.
She then says that you too can temporary lose your willpower even with your prefrontal cortex still intact. This happens when you are drunk, deprived of sleep, or distracted.
But you can also temporarily lose your willpower and fail in your willpower challenge even when you are rested and sober. This is because the brain has a mind of its own.
The author says,
“Some neuroscientists go so far as to say that we have one brain but two minds – or even, two people living inside our mind. There’s the version of us that acts on impulse and seeks immediate gratification, and the version of us that controls our impulses and delays gratification to protect our long-term goals. They’re both us, but we switch back and forth between these two selves. Sometimes we identify with the person who wants to lose weight, and sometimes we identify with the person who just wants the cookie.”
The conflict between the two minds or the two selves creates a willpower challenge.
What is a Willpower Challenge?
Here’s the author’s explanation.
“Part of you wants one thing, and another part of you wants something else. Or your present self wants one thing, but your future self would be better off if you did something else.”
The First Rule of Willpower
You got to know yourself first. To do this, you need to develop self-awareness. This means you got to be able to notice what you are doing as you are doing it and understand why you are doing it. And at the end of the day, reflect on your actions or behaviors so that you are aware of the decisions you took related to your willpower challenge.
Can You Train Your Brain to Get Better at Self-Control?
The answer is yes.
The author suggests you do it by planting temptation traps around your home or office to challenge your “I won’t’ power. To challenge your “I will” power, she proposes that you create an “I will” power obstacle course. Or you could train your brain to become a finely tuned willpower machine through meditation.
A simple but powerful meditation technique for training your brain and increasing willpower is the five-minute breath focus.
Here’s what the author says about breath focus.
“It reduces stress and teaches the mind how to handle both inner distractions (cravings, worries, desires) and outer temptations (sounds, sights, and smells). New research shows that regular meditation practice helps people quit smoking, lose weight, kick a drug habit, and stay sober.”
At the end of chapter one, the author lists the steps to help you get started with the five-minute brain training breath focus.
The Willpower Instinct Summary – Chapter Two
What Happens When You’re Experiencing a Craving
Every cell in your body is saying “I want.” Another part of you says, “I won’t.” It’s like a battle happening inside of you, a battle between two parts of yourself. In this moment, you need to find the inner strength to control yourself (I will) from giving in to your urges.
Will You Succeed or Fail in Your Willpower Challenge?
Whatever the outcome, the author suggests you ask, “What was my body doing?”
Yes, it’s not just your mind. Your body is involved too.
Kelly McGonigal says,
“Science is discovering that self-control is a matter of physiology, not just psychology.”
The Biology of Self-Control
When something triggers your craving, the brain is taken by promise of reward. The brain releases dopamine which will activate the impulsive part of you. The wiser you will prompt its willpower instinct to do whatever it can to not give in to the impulse.
This is the time when you need the pause-and-plan response.
What is the Pause-and-Plan Response and What Does it Do?
When there is a need for you to exercise self-control, there is a coordinated set of changes in the brain and body. These changes help you to resist temptations and override self-destructive urges.
The pause and plan response starts when you perceive there is an internal conflict; the inner battle between two different goals or two different parts of you.
The pause-and-plan response triggers the brain and body to slow down with the aim of controlling your impulses.
What it does, according to the author, is to protect you from yourself. And this is what self-control is about.
However, the willpower instinct doesn’t always kick in. Why is that?
To answer this question, the author talks about heart rate variability or the body’s “reserve” of willpower.
Heart rate variability is a physiological measurement of the pause-and-plan response. It is a tool used to predict who will resist temptation, and who will give in.
If you’re healthy, your heart rate speeds up a bit when you inhale and slows down when you exhale. When people are under stress, heart rate goes up, and variability goes down. If you have high heart rate variability, you have more willpower available for whenever temptation strikes.
Why do some people have high heart rate variability? Why do they have more willpower reserve?
Here are some of the factors that influence your willpower reserve.
1. What you eat
2. Where you live – your environment
The author says,
“Anything that puts a stress on your mind or body can interfere with the physiology of self-control, and by extension, sabotage your willpower.”
4. Certain emotions like anxiety, anger, depression, and loneliness
5. Chronic pain and illness
She provides tips to help you improve your body’s willpower reserve. They are:
1. Getting a good night’s sleep
2. Spending quality time with friends and family
3. Participating in a religious or spiritual practice
4. Doing the five-minute breath focus meditation
In addition to those mentioned above, the author says that there is one way to immediately boost your willpower reserve.
It is slowing your breath down to four to six breath per minute or ten to fifteen seconds per breath.
For enhancing self-control, she says that physical exercise is the willpower miracle.
Sleep Deprivation Saps Your Willpower
The prefrontal cortex is the self-control center. If you deprive yourself of sleep, the prefrontal cortex loses it power. Your body suffers too because the cells are unable to properly absorb glucose to provide you with energy.
You become susceptible to stress, cravings and temptations. You have trouble controlling your emotions and focusing your attention. And with the lack of energy, you cannot handle your “I will” power challenges.
It leads to giving in. You will regret your action which will then spiral to shame and guilt.
The good news, you can recharge your self-control.
The author offers these suggestions which are based on sleep research and studies.
1. Getting a single good night sleep can restore brain functions to an optimal level
2. Getting enough sleep early in the week can act as a reserve to counteract sleep deprivation later in the week
3. Taking a short nap will help you restore focus and self-control
In order to recover from stress and the daily self-control demands of your life, she encourages you to relax your body and mind. Studies show that allowing yourself physical and mental rest will provide many health benefits including increasing your willpower reserve.
The Willpower Instinct Summary – Chapter Three
Why Self-Control is Like a Muscle
Roy Baumeister did numerous studies on the limits of willpower. He found that people who performed a concentration task will not only lose their attention over time, their physical energy will also be depleted. He also discovered that when people controlled their emotions, it would lead them to spend money on something they didn’t need on top of displaying emotional outbursts. And people who resisted sweets are not only triggered by the cravings of chocolates, that act of self-control prompted them to procrastinate.
He observed that people’s self-control deteriorated over time. He also found that people ran out of willpower with each successful act of self-control.
His observations and findings led him to hypothesize that self-control is like a muscle. When it is used, it gets tired. If you don’t rest the muscle, you can run out of strength completely.
What it means is, an exhausted brain and body is one of the causes of willpower failures.
The author suggests that you pay attention to when you have the most willpower. Take notice also when you are most likely to give in or give up. Once you become aware of when you feel the most recharged and refreshed, use this knowledge to plan your schedules.
Is Self-Control Limited?
The brain gets less active and tired with repeated acts of self-control. It happens not because the brain runs out of energy but because it decides to conserve its energy when it senses that the body’s energy levels are dropping.
To ensure that your body is well-fueled, the author suggests that you eat foods that provide lasting energy.
“Most psychologists and nutritionists recommend a low glycemic diet – that is, one that helps you keep your blood sugar steady. Low-glycemic foods include lean proteins, nuts and beans, high-fiber grains and cereals, and most fruits and vegetables—basically, food that looks like its natural state and doesn’t have a ton of added sugar, fat, and chemicals.”
How to Train the Willpower Muscle
The author provides a few ideas for you to try out on how to strengthen your “I won’t” (not do) and “I will” (will do) powers.
She also suggests that you do self-monitoring by keeping track of something you don’t usually pay attention to. The purpose of this exercise is to let you notice what you are about to do, and then choose the most difficult thing instead of the easiest. This exercise will train your brain to get used to pausing before acting.
A professor at the University of Cape Town have collected evidences and proven that physical exhaustion is a trick played on the body by the mind. He said that fatigue is not a physical event but a sensation or emotion.
It led scientists to consider that willpower depletion too might actually be due to running out of will and not out of power. They said that it actually reflects a person’s belief and not actual limitation.
In order to determine if you have really run out of willpower, the author suggests that you push through that feeling of wanting to give in or give up. You can find inspiration by reminding yourself of what you really want which means, tapping into your “I want” power.
At the end of the chapter she says,
“We cannot control everything, and yet the only way to increase our self-control is to stretch our limits. Like a muscle, our willpower follows the rule of “Use it or lose it.”
The Willpower Instinct Summary – Chapter Four
In the previous chapters, the author mentions that the reasons people lose self-control include an exhausted self-control muscle, low blood sugar levels, stress, and sleep deprivation.
In this chapter, the author says that another reason why people give in to temptations is because they make a conscious choice and not due to the lack of self-control. This is because when people do something good, they feel virtuous and justify that they deserve a reward.
In other words, being good gives them permission to be bad.
The author writes,
“When it comes to right and wrong, most of us are not striving for moral perfection. We just want to feel good enough – which then gives us permission to do whatever we want.”
But people don’t have to do good deeds to feel good or virtuous.
Studies have shown that people even gave themselves credit for what they could have done, but didn’t. Feeling virtuous also made them refused to do something good when they were asked to do so.
When researchers asked these licensed indulgers how they felt about their choices, they said that they didn’t feel guilty. They said they deserved a reward for their good behavior. And they felt in control.
Psychologists call this moral licensing.
How to Avoid this Moral Licensing Trap
One way to avoid this trap is to pause and ask if you label your behavior as good when you succeed at a willpower challenge or bad when you fail. Another tip is to be aware if you are using your “good” behavior as an excuse to give yourself permission to do something “bad.”
The Problem with Progress
Contrary to popular belief, focusing on progress is a trap of moral licensing. When you make progress on a goal, you will feel motivated to engage in self-sabotaging behavior.
This happens because of the presence of the two competing selves. One part of you wants to achieve your long-term goal while the tempted self wants immediate gratification. Progress satisfies your rational self temporarily and so the brain turns off its mental processes in relation to that goal. This is when the tempted self takes over and influences you to give in to the voice of indulgence.
The author says that progress itself is not the problem. It becomes a problem only if you listen to your feeling instead of sticking to your goal.
To avoid abandoning your goal, change your view about it. Don’t see your progress for resisting temptation as good behavior and thus deserving a reward. Remind yourself of your “why.”
Kelly McGonigal writes,
“Remembering the “why” works because it changes how you feel about the reward of self-indulgence. That so-called treat will start to look more like the threat to your goals that it is, and giving in won’t look so good. Remembering the why will also help you recognize and act on other opportunities to accomplish your goal.”
Borrowing Credit from Tomorrow
Another willpower trap is what the author calls borrowing credit from tomorrow. It is when you expect that you will make better decisions tomorrow than you do today. You see the promise of future good behavior; that you will make whatever behavior change starting tomorrow.
To overcome it, aim to reduce variability of your behavior day to day.
Here’s how the author explains it.
“View every choice you make as a commitment to all future choices. So instead of asking, “Do I want to eat this candy bar now?” ask yourself, “Do I want the consequences of eating a candy bar every afternoon for the next year?” Or if you’ve been putting something off that you know you should do, instead of asking “Would I rather do this today or tomorrow?” ask yourself, “Do I really want the consequences of always putting this off?”
The Halo Effect
Another kind of moral licensing is the halo effect. The halo effect occurs when you justify a vice because of just one virtuous aspect. It is usually when something indulgent is paired with something more virtuous.
Here are a few examples.
Shoppers who buy chocolate for a charity will reward their good deed by eating more chocolate.
Bargain-hunters who get a good deal may feel so virtuous for saving money that they buy more than they intended.
Gift-givers may feel so generous that they decide they, too, deserve a gift.
Marketers use the halo effect by using magic words to make you feel good. As you already know, this will make you sabotage your goal. The common words that marketers use are “Buy 1 Get 1 Free,” “Fat Free,” “All Natural,” “Light,” “Fair Trade,” “Organic,” and “For a Good Cause.”
To avoid giving in to the halo effect, pause and ask yourself if the choice you are going to make is consistent with your goals.
The Willpower Instinct Summary – Chapter Five
The Promise of Reward
There is an area in the brain known as the reward system. When this part of the brain recognizes an opportunity or a promise of reward, it releases dopamine. The opportunity or trigger can be food, alcohol, shopping, Facebook or anything else that captures or captivates your attention.
The release of dopamine creates arousal – seeking, wanting, cravings, and desires. You feel awake. It triggers anticipation, pleasure, or satisfaction. You will feel motivated to make an action plan.
But it also makes you unaware of a fake promise of reward, a threat to your self-control.
When your focus of attention is on the object of desire, you are willing to work for it or to repeat an action over and over. Driven by the need to chase pleasure, you feel less concerned about long-term consequences and effects to your well-being. You also become susceptible to other kinds of temptations.
The author says,
“Our brains mistake the promise of reward for a guarantee of happiness, so we chase satisfaction from things that do not deliver.”
How Marketers Use the Promise of Reward System
Restaurants, grocery stores, clothing stores, and casinos are a few examples of retailers and marketers who use the knowledge and understanding of dopamine to trigger consumers’ promise of reward system.
Some of the strategies they use are:
1. Offering free food samples
2. Offering novelty and variety
4. Time pressure or scarcity cue
5. Scents and appetizing odors
6. Scratch-and-win discount cards
7. Pictures of models
8. Free catalog subscriptions
9. All you-can-eat buffets
How to Put Dopamine to Good Use
The author suggests that you dopaminize boring and least favorite tasks or chores. Introduce a reward for each one to make it appealing. If the rewards of your actions are far off in the future, squeeze a little extra dopamine out of neurons by fantasizing about the eventual payoff.
The Dark Side of Dopamine
High levels of dopamine in the brain can make you get hooked on the promise of reward. It will lead to addiction, compulsion, and obsession.
The other negative side effect of dopamine is it creates anxiety and stress because dopamine triggers the release of stress hormones. This means you will experience mixed inner feelings of desire and stress at the same time.
So when you give in to a temptation because of the dopamine rush, it’s either because of the promise of reward or to relieve anxiety.
The Effects of Damage to the Brain’s Reward System
Dopamine triggers wants and desires. If the dopamine-producing brain cells are damaged, you will lose your motivation, desire, and may eventually feel depressed. What is left in life if you live without desires?
The author says,
“A life without wants may not require as much self-control – but it’s also not a life worth living.”
The author concludes that desire is the brain’s strategy for action. It is neither good nor bad. It can be a threat to self-control or a source of willpower. It is up to you how you use it. What’s important is not to be fooled by the promise of reward as a guarantee for happiness.
In this chapter, you will also learn how to test the promise of reward by mindfully indulging.
If you are on diet, or have been on and off, this research finding might be of interest to you.
“Research shows that people who practice this mindful-eating exercise develop greater self-control around food and have fewer episodes of binge-eating. Over time, they not only lose weight, but they also experience less stress, anxiety, and depression.”
The Willpower Instinct Summary – Chapter Six
What Do You Do When You Feel Down, Anxious, or Stressed?
You’d probably turn to dopamine-releasing activities that provide the promise of reward or the promise of relief. These activities could be eating, drinking, shopping, watching television, surfing the internet, gambling, or playing video games.
Using these strategies will not make you feel good. You will feel guilty instead. Studies have proven it.
Why Does Stress Lead to Cravings?
The brain wants to protect your mood. It does it by pointing you to take action which it thinks will make you feel better and happy. You’ll end up craving for anything or any activity which your brain associates with the promise of reward or relief.
How to Avoid Stress-Induced Willpower Failures
One of the ways is to choose a strategy that doesn’t require you to turn to a temptation. Another strategy is to give up using guilt and self-criticism.
Here are Stress-Relief Strategies that Work:
2. Playing sports
3. Praying or attending a religious service.
5. Listening to music
6. Spending time with friends and family
7. Getting a massage
8. Going outside for walk
10. Doing yoga
11. Spending time with a creative hobby
Real stress relievers release brain chemicals such as serotonin, GABA, and oxytocin. Unlike dopamine, these brain chemicals do not trigger the release of stress hormones. In fact, they reduce stress hormones in the body and induce the relaxation response.
Anxiety and Terror Trigger Dopamine Release
What are humans terrified of the most?
Their own death. Their mortality.
Whenever you “see” or are reminded of death on the news or other form of media, it triggers a panic response in the brain causing anxiety. Anxiety is the feeling of terror, and hopelessness. When you are in this state of mind, you become susceptible to all sorts of temptations as a means to look for hope and security.
Studies have shown that people who think about their death shop more, spent more on comfort foods, and eat more chocolate and cookies. People who watched reports of death on the news responded positively to advertisements for luxury products. And people who watched a death scene in a movie were willing to pay three times more for something they didn’t need.
Sometimes terror management doesn’t lead to temptation but procrastination. People postpone important matters that they should take care of as a way to avoid facing their vulnerability.
The “What-the-Hell” Effect
“The “what-the-hell” effect describes a cycle of indulgence, regret, and greater indulgence.”
Researchers observed that when people failed their willpower challenge, they felt bad about themselves. They went through the feeling of shame, loss of control, loss of hope, anger, overwhelmed, or guilt. The most common destructive emotions were shame and guilt.
The feeling of guilt led to “what the hell” thinking. Since they have given in to their willpower challenge, they felt that they might as well eat more, drink more, or smoke more. They wanted to feel better for giving in to the temptations or impulses. And the only strategy they knew of was to do more of what made them felt bad about.
The “what-the hell-effect” can happen to any willpower challenge such as smokers trying to quit smoking, dieters trying to lose weight, alcoholics trying to stay sober, and shoppers trying to stick to a budget.
How to Break the “What-the-Hell” Cycle
Based on studies, psychologists discovered that self-forgiveness or self-compassion can break the “what-the-hell” cycle.
And to forgive yourself for indulging, you need to stop criticizing yourself.
The author says,
“Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both the “I will” power and “I want” power.
Why Does Self-Forgiveness Work?
“One reason forgiveness helps people recover from mistakes is that it takes away the shame and pain of thinking about what happened. The what-the-hell effect is an attempt to escape the bad feelings that follow a setback. Without the guilt and self-criticism, there’s nothing to escape. This means it’s easier to reflect on how the failure happened, and less tempting to repeat it.”
How to Avoid the Willpower Trap of Unrealistic Optimism to Feel Better
The authors says,
“Optimism can make us motivated, but a dash of pessimism can help us succeed. Research shows that predicting how and when you might be tempted to break your vow increases the chances that you will keep a resolution.”
The author suggests that you apply optimistic pessimism by imagining yourself in a willpower failure situation. When you do it, observe what it feels like and what you might be thinking.
“Planning for failure in this way is an act of self-compassion, not self-doubt. When that moment of possible willpower failure hits, you will be ready to put your plan into action.”
The Willpower Instinct Summary – Chapter Seven
Why Do People Choose Immediate Gratification at the Cost of Future Happiness?
The author introduces a term called delay discounting. What it means is, the longer you have to wait for a reward, the less it is worth to you. Even two minutes delay can lower its perceived value.
Another reason why people choose immediate gratification and fail to exercise self-control is because of bounded willpower. When you do not see the reward right in front of you, you behave in a rational manner. But when the reward is right there staring on your face, you cannot resist it. You don’t want to miss out.
These are the two reasons why most willpower challenges, from alcoholism and addiction to weight gain and debt, fail.
How to Delay Gratification? How to Shift Your Brain to Self-Control Mode?
When you see a reward right in front of you, it triggers dopamine-induced desire. You want it now. To resist the temptation, put the physical reward at a distance; somewhere you cannot see or reach out for it easily. When you create a distance, the brain treats this wait as future reward since you can’t have it now.
Another effective method is to wait for ten minutes before acting on your impulse.
The author says,
“If, in ten minutes, you still want it, you can have it – but before the ten minutes are up, bring to mind the competing long-term reward that will come with resisting temptation.”
Another strategy to resist immediate gratification is to reframe your choice.
The author writes,
“When you are tempted to act against your long-term interests, frame the choice as giving up the best possible long-term reward for whatever the immediate gratification is.”
How to Commit Your Future Self to a Desired Course of Action
When you set a goal, the rational self sets a desired course of action. But there is your tempted future self who wants immediate gratification. When it is wrecked by fear and exhaustion, the tempted future self often decides to change the course that your rational self has set.
To avoid the tempted self from sabotaging your goal, you can use a strategy called precommitment. What it means is to limit your options so that the tempted self has to follow your rational self’s course of action.
The author offers three strategies you can apply to precommit your future tempted self. The first one is to make choices in advance before your future self is blinded by temptation. The second method is to make it difficult for the tempted self to give in. And finally, make immediate gratification more painful if you give in.
You 2.0 – Your Future Self
You 2.0 is an idealized version of you, a totally opposite personality to who you are now.
The author says,
“We think about our future selves like different people. We often idealize them, expecting our future selves to do what our present selves cannot manage.”
“However we think of our future selves, rarely do we see them as fully us.”
Why Do People Treat Their Future Selves Like Different People?
The brain has developed the habit of treating the future self like another person, a stranger. This is unable to access the thoughts and feelings of the future self. And because of this, there is a disconnection which leads to making short-sighted decisions
A psychologist at New York University noticed that people who feel connected to their future selves are able to have self-control.
The author provides three ideas for getting to know your future self.
Create a future memory by picturing yourself doing something in the near future. Neuroscientists say that imagining the future helps people delay gratification.
Send an e-mail or letter to your future self. Write about your feelings, what you are doing to meet your long-term goals, your hopes, and so on.
Imagine a hoped-for future self.
At the end of chapter seven, the author talks about farsighted people; those who always delay gratification. This is also a self-control issue.
People who are farsighted find it difficult to indulge. They have a hard time taking a break from work or are anxious about spending money beyond purchasing their basic needs. They even postpone their present happiness.
If you act like a farsighted person, you’ll find suggestions on how to handle this issue in this chapter.
The Willpower Instinct Summary – Chapter Eight
Willpower is Contagious
As mentioned in earlier chapters, humans have a multitude of selves. They are the impulsive self, the wiser self, the rational self, and the future tempted self. In this chapter, you are introduced to the social self.
Your social self is shaped by what other people think, want, and do or what you think they want you to do. The good thing about it is it can help you achieve your willpower goals. The bad part of it is it can cause willpower failures because you can catch other people’s behaviors and indulgences. You can be swayed into emulating other people’s bad habits or positive changes.
You can influence others with your actions too. Your choices can serve as an inspiration or temptation.
How Social Influence Causes Willpower Failures
The brain has specialized cells called mirror neurons. These neurons make you mirror other people’s behavior in the following ways:
You unintentionally mimic someone’s physical action.
“When you see someone else reach for a snack, a drink, or a credit card, you may find yourself unconsciously mirroring their behavior – and losing your willpower.”
Someone’s emotion affects yours.
“… a coworker’s bad mood can become our bad mood – and make us feel like we’re the ones who need a drink.”
You “catch” other people’s temptations.
“Seeing someone else engage in your willpower challenge can put you in the mood to join them. When we imagine what other people want, their wants can trigger our wants, and their appetites can trigger our appetites.”
You can also easily catch someone else’s goals in a way that changes your behavior. You can catch self-control as well as self-indulgence. Psychologists call it goal contagion.
But, if you are committed to your goal, you will not give in when you see other people giving in to temptations. It can enhance your self-control instead.
If you fear that you will be influenced to give in to other people’s choices or temptations, the author suggests this.
“The best way to strengthen your immune response to other people’s goals is to spend a few minutes at the beginning of your day thinking about your own goals, and how you could be tempted to ignore them.”
How to Catch Self-Control
When you observe, or merely see evidence, that other people ignore rules and follow their impulses, you are more likely to give in to any of your impulses.
So to catch self-control, find a role model with willpower, someone who has succeeded in the same challenge you are facing. This will work because research shows that thinking about someone with willpower can increase your own.
The Influence of Social Proof
The need to fit in causes people to follow along what other people do. If they do the right things, it would be good for you because it will help you strengthen self-control.
If your tribe does something that challenges your self-control, it will interfere with your willpower challenge. It will be difficult for you not to act like them. This is because the brain works in such a way that it will easily absorb other people’s goals, beliefs, and actions into your decisions.
This is why it is important that you find people who share the same goal as you.
You can also use the power of pride to develop self-control. For it to work, make your willpower challenge public. When you believe that people are watching you, you will feel motivated to do the right thing.
It’s not wise to use shame as a means to develop self-control. Shame may cause the “what-the-hell effect” which, as mentioned earlier, will create a cycle of guilt, indulgence, and more guilt. In certain cases, social shaming might work as a preventive measure.
The Willpower Instinct Summary – Chapter Nine
The Ironic Rebound
Research findings show that people who suppress their thoughts as a strategy to fight their temptations are most likely to give in and lose self-control. The more they try to not think about or feel something, the stronger it will become. No matter what they do to push it away, it will rebound. It doesn’t matter if it is a fear, desire, or any unwanted inner experiences.
This effect called ironic rebound explains why the “I won’t” power fails.
Why Thought Suppression Doesn’t Work
Thought suppression doesn’t work because of the way the brain handles the command NOT to think, feel, or do something. One part of the brain will follow your command and direct your attention to anything but the prohibited thought. Another part of the brain will look for any evidence that you are thinking, feeling, or doing whatever you don’t want to think, feel, or do. It will direct your attention to the thing you are trying to avoid.
The part of the brain that follows your command uses mental energy and is easily drained by distractions, fatigue, stress, alcohol, illness or other mental drains. When this happens, the other part of the brain which doesn’t use mental energy is in control and will fill your mind with the thing you are trying to avoid.
How to Avoid Ironic Rebound
Give up trying to control unwanted thoughts and emotions.
Studies show that when participants were given permission to express the thoughts they were trying to suppress, the thoughts did not come back to conscious awareness.
The Problem with Dieting
Many dieters failed in their attempts to lose weight because of thought suppression. Trying to get rid of the thoughts of foods or prohibiting certain foods from their thoughts increased their desires.
What Can You Do with Your Cravings?
The author suggests the following tips based on a study.
Notice that you are thinking about your temptation or feeling a craving
Accept those cravings but don’t act on them. Don’t distract yourself from the thought or feeling. Don’t argue with it.
Remember your goal and remind yourself of your commitment.
How to Turn an “I Won’t” Challenge to an “I Will” Challenge?
Whenever you do something that you say you won’t do, it is because it helps you fill a need. It could be to reduce stress, to have some fun, or to seek approval. The solution is to do something new and healthy that fills that need.
You can also think in terms of missed opportunity. Think of what you could be doing that will benefit you instead of wasting your time and energy on behaviors that go against your goals.
Another strategy is to focus on what you want to do instead of what you don’t want to do. For example, instead of saying, “I don’t want to be late,” say, “I want to be the first person to arrive.”
Another strategy to help you handle cravings or any destructive impulses without giving in is a technique called surfing the urge.
The author writes,
“… one of the best side effects of surfing the urge: You learn how to accept and handle all your difficult inner experiences, and no longer need to turn to unhealthy rewards for comfort.”
Here’s a summary of how to surf the urge.
When an urge takes hold, pause for a moment. Pay attention to the urge but don’t try to change or get rid of it. Notice whatever sensations you are feeling in your body and try to describe what and how each one feels like.
You can read how a research scientist did an experiment with smokers using this technique in chapter nine.
The Willpower Instinct Summary – Chapter Ten
Chapter ten is a summary of chapters one through nine. The author presents her final thoughts here.
“We’ve seen again and again that we are not one self, but multiple selves. Our human nature includes both the self that wants immediate gratification, and the self with a higher purpose. We are born to be tempted, and born to resist. It is just as human to feel stressed, scared, and out of control as it is to find the strength to be calm and in charge of our choices. Self-control is a matter of understanding these different parts of ourselves, not fundamentally changing who we are.”
“If there is a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention. It’s training the mind to recognize when you’re making a choice, rather than running on autopilot. It’s noticing how you give yourself permission to procrastinate, or how you use good behavior to justify self-indulgence. It’s realizing that the promise of reward doesn’t always deliver, and that your future self is not a superhero or a stranger. It’s seeing what in your world—from sales gimmicks to social proof – is shaping your behavior. It’s staying put and sensing a craving when you’d rather distract yourself or give in. It’s remembering what you really want, and knowing what really makes you feel better. Self-awareness is the one “self” you can always count on to help you do what is difficult, and what matters most. And that is the best definition of willpower I can think of.”
Buy the book: The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal.
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