Why resolutions may end in failure (article and NPR segment on willpower)

Submitted by gary on
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Blame It on the Brain
The latest neuroscience research suggests spreading resolutions out over time is the best approach

Willpower, like a bicep, can only exert itself so long before it gives out; it's an extremely limited mental resource.
Given its limitations, New Year's resolutions are exactly the wrong way to change our behavior. It makes no sense to try to quit smoking and lose weight at the same time, or to clean the apartment and give up wine in the same month. Instead, we should respect the feebleness of self-control, and spread our resolutions out over the entire year. Human routines are stubborn things, which helps explain why 88% of all resolutions end in failure, according to a 2007 survey of over 3,000 people conducted by the British psychologist Richard Wiseman. Bad habits are hard to break—and they're impossible to break if we try to break them all at once.

Some simple tricks can help. The first step is self-awareness: The only way to fix willpower flaws is to know about them. Only then can the right mental muscles get strengthened, making it easier to succeed at our annual ritual of self-improvement.

The brain area largely responsible for willpower, the prefrontal cortex, is located just behind the forehead. While this bit of tissue has greatly expanded during human evolution, it probably hasn't expanded enough. That's because the prefrontal cortex has many other things to worry about besides New Year's resolutions. For instance, scientists have discovered that this chunk of cortex is also in charge of keeping us focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract problems. Asking it to lose weight is often asking it to do one thing too many.

In one experiment, led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.

Here's where the results get weird. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Prof. Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a "cognitive load"—making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation.

This helps explain why, after a long day at the office, we're more likely to indulge in a pint of ice cream, or eat one too many slices of leftover pizza. (In fact, one study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that just walking down a crowded city street was enough to reduce measures of self-control, as all the stimuli stressed out the cortex.) A tired brain, preoccupied with its problems, is going to struggle to resist what it wants, even when what it wants isn't what we need.

There's something unsettling about this scientific model of willpower. Most of us assume that self-control is largely a character issue, and that we would follow through on our New Year's resolutions if only we had a bit more discipline. But this research suggests that willpower itself is inherently limited, and that our January promises fail in large part because the brain wasn't built for success.

Everybody knows that the bicep has practical limitations: If we ask the muscle to hold too much, it will give out and drop everything on the floor. And just as our muscles get tired after a tough workout, and require a rest to recuperate, so does the poor prefrontal cortex need some time off.

In a 2002 experiment, led by Mark Muraven at the University at Albany, a group of male subjects was asked to not think about a white elephant for five minutes while writing down their thoughts. That turns out to be a rather difficult mental challenge, akin to staying focused on a tedious project at work. (A control group was given a few simple arithmetic problems to solve.) Then, Mr. Muraven had the subjects take a beer taste test, although he warned them that their next task involved driving a car. Sure enough, people in the white elephant group drank significantly more beer than people in the control group, which suggests that they had a harder time not indulging in alcohol.

The implications of this muscle metaphor are vast. For one thing, it suggests that making lots of New Year's resolutions is the wrong way to go about changing our habits. When we ask the brain to suddenly stop eating its favorite foods and focus more at work and pay off the Visa…we're probably asking for too much.

The willpower-as-muscle metaphor should also change the way we think about dieting. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University who has pioneered the muscle metaphor, has demonstrated in several clever studies that the ability to do the right thing requires a well-fed prefrontal cortex.

In a 2007 experiment, Prof. Baumeister and his colleagues found that students who fasted for three hours and then had to perform a variety of self-control tasks, such as focusing on a boring video or suppressing negative stereotypes, had significantly lower glucose levels than students who didn't have to exert self-control. Willpower, in other words, requires real energy.

In another experiment, Mr. Baumeister and his colleagues gave students an arduous attention task—they had to watch a boring video while ignoring words at the bottom of the screen—before asking them to drink a glass of lemonade. Half of the students got lemonade with real sugar, while the other half got a drink with Splenda. On a series of subsequent tests of self-control, the group given fake sugar performed consistently worse. The scientists argue that their lack of discipline was caused by a lack of energy, which hampered the performance of the prefrontal cortex.

Since the most popular New Year's resolution is weight loss, it's important to be aware that starving the brain of calories—even for just a few hours—can impact behavior. Skipping meals makes it significantly harder to summon up the strength to, say, quit cigarettes. Even moderation must be done in moderation.

The final piece of the willpower puzzle is distraction. Research by Walter Mischel at Columbia University and others has demonstrated that people who are better at delaying gratification don't necessarily have more restraint. Instead, they seem to be better at finding ways to get tempting thoughts out of their minds.

For instance, Prof. Mischel has found that four-year-old children who are better at resisting the allure of eating a marshmal low—they get a second marshmallow if they can wait for 20 minutes—are the ones who sing songs, play with their shoelaces or pretend the marshmallow is a cloud. In other words, they're able to temporarily clear the temptation out of consciousness. (Prof. Mischel has also shown that these "high delayers" go on to get higher SAT scores and have lower body-mass indexes as adults.) Because they know that willpower is weak, they excel at controlling the spotlight of attention: When faced with candy, they stare at the carrots.

While this willpower research can get dispiriting—the mind is a bounded machine, defined by its frailties—it also illustrates some potential remedies. Prof. Baumeister figured that it might be possible to strengthen willpower by exercising it, and in 1999, he asked a group of students to improve their posture for two weeks. Interestingly, these students showed a marked improvement on subsequent measures of self-control, at least when compared to a group that didn't work on sitting up and standing straight.

The lesson is that the prefrontal cortex can be bulked up, and that practicing mental discipline in one area, such as posture, can also make it easier to resist Christmas cookies. And when a dangerous desire starts coming on, just remember: Gritting your teeth isn't the best approach, as even the strongest mental muscles quickly get tired. Instead, find a way to look at something else.
—Jonah Lehrer is the author of "How We Decide" and "Proust Was a Neuroscientist."


amazing and refreshing...

I just threw half my new year resolutions out of the window and will concentrate on only a 3 of them for the first half of the year..! one of course is getting rid of porn/masturbation addiction! :)

Thanks for the article Gary...


This all makes sense to me


I think I was figuring this out with what I was going through. I was trying to explain it with this blog entry.
So yeah I agree. I think my diet and supplements I am taking now are helping my brain a good bit. As well as some of the physical activity.
The other part is my brain is getting a workout and starting to adjust to the added work. I like that. I think it means I will be able to deal with more as time goes on. I am starting to see how my brain works some. It is how I was able to take a break from reuniting during all of this. I needed that break. With out the workout my brain had been getting during this whole addiction breaking process I see I would not have been able to take some needed time off. It still took awhile for me to get to the point where I could take some time off. I also see that I came back sooner than I wanted too. That points to my brain getting that "fatigue" again so I "relapsed" and came back sooner than I wanted. I am ok with that. My brain is still gaining its endurance. It will just get stronger from now on I think.

my eating habits have changed over the last month or so. I eat constantly if I can. Not much just 5 6 or 7 small meals snacks a day. As healthy as I can make them. That pasture part in the article is interesting. I have been using an inversion table for that time period also. It has helped with minor low back pain and well yeah my posture has improved greatly. I walk without slumping. I have been doing most if not all of what the article says to do to help the mind beat temptation (addiction) and it is working for me. Am I perfect on diet no but getting closer. I am starting to see real benefits of a stronger mind by working it out and giving it what it needs to succeed.

Very good article I think everyone should read it and try and figure out how to make it work for them.

Thanks for posting this one it really helps.

be safe

I went back to the post you linked to..

and saw one of the reply posts you had written when you were particularly down...struggling to reach the 30 day mark...and how you fought it and how you honestly shared the experience....really moved at reading that.....you are my inspiration James....! I mean it...


Thank you SOOOO much Gary

That's a remarkable metaphor - treating the brain as a muscle.

Here's something that should be added to your toolbox: removing triggers is a huge part of helping willpower work. The person who habitually has a cigarette after dinner has set up dinner to be a smoking trigger. It takes an extra amount of willpower to overcome a trigger, even when we have set it ourselves. I think that's one of the reasons hypnosis has worked for people.


makes sense...

well if the brain is overloaded with too many resolutions then it becomes difficult to follow any one...seems like yet another reason why GTD should be implemented in every one'e life...I guess folks would already know about this celebrated method of time(priority) management by David Allen....its a farily simple and intuitive (duh!) process of taking control of one's life...but then how many of us can follow through?.....


that is why I actaully

that is why I actaully started cutting things out of my routine even distractions. I stopped some of my exercise, reading, meditation and a few other things. It was strange I could feel the "fatigue" setting as you can tell by my blog entry. I have started adding things back in slowly and it seems to be OK so far. We will see if I can get everything back in. I am reading for now and doing so exercise as well as keeping my diet as good as possible. I think sometimes cutting back on things helps well it did for me.

No recess!

Just a rant.
What just came to mind is the emphasis today on children always "doing something", rather than just playing. Kids today may go from school, then 3:00 pm soccer practice, 4:30 pm music lessons, Dinner, homework after dinner, reading at bedtime. Then all starts over again the next day. Schools are also eliminating recess.
I never had homework in elementary school. I had some baseball, and swim team in the summer.
Kids need to have time to let their minds wander, to play, to make up games, to get away from adults.
My son, when in third grade, was given 100 math problems every night, and reading assignments. After a few months, he said he hated school. And this is a boy who loved learning new things. The teacher suggested he might have ADD, because he liked to wander around the classroom, socializing with the other kids (his attempt to makeup for lost play time). We took him out of 3rd grade, and out of school for 3 years. He went back to school for 6th grade, and was lucky to have good teachers through middle school..
In high school, he tired on all the busy work, and the mostly bad teachers - and again started to hate school. So he took his GED's after grade 10, and went on to college.
It's amazing what overloading the nervous system can do to kids.
Hunter-gatherer kids didn't sit on their ass, in hard chairs for 7 hours a day, listening to strangers babble on. They learned what was relevant, from adults they had a relationdhip with.