Where's Your Willpower?

New research suggests that dedicated dieters have no more willpower than those who can’t resist the pumpkin pie. Casey Schwartz on how reframing your thoughts can change your appetite.

11.24.10 10:39 PM ET

"I get four hours of sleep a night, eat 1,200 calories a day, and my closet has been on the cover of Organized Living—twice,” Elizabeth Banks’ character announced on 30 Rock this month.

We all know a few Elizabeth Banks—people who cruise through life at a steady clip of can-do energy. They sail out of bed at first light to run five miles through rain and snow. Then there’s the rest of us. We fumble through our days in a fog of procrastination, failed diets, and neglected New Year’s resolutions, unable to muster the will to do the things we know we should.

Why do some people have so much willpower, and how can we boost our own? According to new research, it may simply be a matter of reframing what willpower is.

The concept of willpower is frequently sourced to Rene Descartes, the 17th-century philosopher who championed the idea of free will as “the ability to do or not do something.” Later, psychologists explored the mental processes—impulses, desires, ambitions—that lead us to act, or not act, when an urge strikes us. But for something that looms so large in the minds of the public—and would make for one hell of a pharmaceutical windfall if you could put it in a pill—the way that willpower actually works remains strangely mysterious.

Could it be because there’s no such thing? In the world of neuroscience, which concerns itself with what actually happens in our physical brains, willpower rests on shaky ground. In fact, recent neurological findings are challenging our traditional view of willpower—and questioning whether it actually exists at all.

At Joy Hirsch’s lab at Columbia University’s Neurological Institute, researchers studied two groups of overweight people: those who were at a “homeostatic” level (not gaining or losing weight) versus those who had lost up to 10 percent of their previous weight. Both groups were shown the same images of food while lying in an fMRI scanner. 

“You would expect the same response to the same stimuli,” Hirsch said. But instead, her team discovered that brain activation differed significantly between the two groups in response to the images they were seeing. Researchers are now investigating the likely hypothesis that in those subjects who had lost weight, images of food provoked a heightened sense of reward compared to those subjects who were at their usual weight.

Recent neurological findings are challenging our traditional view of willpower—and questioning whether it actually exists at all.

Essentially, it appears that the subjects’ brains were trying to get them to return to “normal” by attaching an amplified appeal to images of food so they would eat more and bounce back to their previous weight. It’s a conspiracy of the neurons, and exactly the type of primitive drive that is at odds with what we call willpower. Looked at this way, willpower is a struggle against instinct.

Think of it this way: Our ancestors didn’t need willpower to go for a run because the only time they ran was when they were chasing something or something was chasing them. When we run today, it’s usually to stay in shape. We don’t have that motivating factor of trying to catch our dinner as it hops away, or the fear of death as a polar bear nips at our heels. We use willpower instead—a more modern and, in some ways, unnatural notion.

Which is why willpower, says Hirsch, is weak. Compared to these basic, primitive drives, it has trouble holding up. In fact, willpower may be so weak that it is not even “a meaningful idea,” says Hirsch, when it comes to understanding how to make change in our lives.

Instead, current neuroscience holds that “impulse control” is more accurate than willpower—a slight but important distinction. The idea of impulse control is a much more specific vision of what’s happening in the brain when we experience the tug of old habits, whether it’s food or sex or drugs or booze. It’s the ability to mitigate any stimulus that sets off the brain’s reward circuitry. Unlike willpower, impulse control is not a judgment about the strength of one’s character. This is not just a politically correct revision. The concept of impulse control comes from a better understanding of the brain mechanisms that underlie self-restraint.

For anyone facing the challenge of changing their habits, thinking in terms of impulse control is much more likely to lead to success than thinking about willpower, because impulses are temporary, whereas lack of willpower is a character flaw. Many psychotherapists encourage patients to think of the urge they are feeling—whether it is to reach for the chocolate cake or race to the corner store to buy a pack of cigarettes—as an impulse, a biological event in the brain that will pass.

Real change comes from reframing the issue, not from white-knuckling your way through every temptation. No one has more or less willpower than anyone else—the people who seem to have more of it have simply learned that impulses are temporary and treat them as such. Arm yourself with that knowledge next time you feel like giving in to your urge to eat a whole pint of frozen yogurt, and putting it away after a few spoonfuls should be a lot easier.

Casey Schwartz is a graduate of Brown University and has a Masters Degree in psychodynamic neuroscience from University College London. She has previously written for The New York Sun and ABC News. Currently, she's working on a book about the brain world.