Everyone who walked into the room where the experiment was being conducted at Case Western Reserve University agreed on one thing: The cookies smelled delicious. They had just come out of the oven and were piled in a bowl, oozing with chocolate chips. On the table next to the cookies was a bowl of radishes. All day long, hungry students walked in, sat in front of the two foods, and submitted, unknowingly, to a test of their willpower that would upend our understanding of how self-discipline works.
At the time, there was relatively little academic scrutiny into willpower. Psychologists considered such subjects to be aspects of something they called “self-regulation,” but it wasn’t a field that inspired great curiosity. There was one famous experiment, conducted in the 1960s, in which scientists at Stanford had tested the willpower of a group of four-year-olds. The kids were brought into a room and presented with a selection of treats, including marshmallows. They were offered a deal: They could eat one marshmallow right away, or, if they waited a few minutes, they could have two marshmallows. Then the researcher left the room. Some kids gave in to temptation and ate the marshmallow as soon as the adult left. About 30 percent managed to ignore their urges, and doubled their treats when the researcher came back fifteen minutes later. Scientists, who were watching everything from behind a two-way mirror, kept careful track of which kids had enough self-control to earn the second marshmallow.
Years later, they tracked down many of the study’s participants. By now, they were in high school. The researchers asked about their grades and SAT scores, ability to maintain friendships, and their capacity to “cope with important problems.” They discovered that the four-year-olds who could delay gratification the longest ended up with the best grades and with SAT scores 210 points higher, on average, than everyone else. They were more popular and did fewer drugs. If you knew how to avoid the temptation of a marshmallow as a preschooler, it seemed, you also knew how to get yourself to class on time and finish your homework once you got older, as well as how to make friends and resist peer pressure. It was as if the marshmallow-ignoring kids had self-regulatory skills that gave them an advantage throughout their lives.
Scientists began conducting related experiments, trying to figure out how to help kids increase their self-regulatory skills. They learned that teaching them simple tricks—such as distracting themselves by drawing a picture, or imagining a frame around the marshmallow, so it seemed more like a photo and less like a real temptation—helped them learn self-control. By the 1980s, a theory emerged that became generally accepted: Willpower is a learnable skill, something that can be taught the same way kids learn to do math and say “thank you.” But funding for these inquiries was scarce. The topic of willpower wasn’t in vogue. Many of the Stanford scientists moved on to other areas of research.
However, when a group of psychology PhD candidates at Case Western—including one named Mark Muraven—discovered those studies in the midnineties, they started asking questions the previous research didn’t seem to answer. To Muraven, this model of willpower-as-skill wasn’t a satisfying explanation. A skill, after all, is something that remains constant from day to day. If you have the skill to make an omelet on Wednesday, you’ll still know how to make it on Friday.
n Muraven’s experience, though, it felt like he forgot how to exert willpower all the time. Some evenings he would come home from work and have no problem going for a jog. Other days, he couldn’t do anything besides lie on the couch and watch television. It was as if his brain—or, at least, that part of his brain responsible for making him exercise—had forgotten how to summon the willpower to push him out the door. Some days, he ate healthily. Other days, when he was tired, he raided the vending machines and stuffed himself with candy and chips.
If willpower is a skill, Muraven wondered, then why doesn’t it remain constant from day to day? He suspected there was more to willpower than the earlier experiments had revealed. But how do you test that in a laboratory?
Muraven’s solution was the lab containing one bowl of freshly baked cookies and one bowl of radishes. The room was essentially a closet with a two-way mirror, outfitted with a table, a wooden chair, a hand bell, and a toaster oven. Sixty-seven undergraduates were recruited and told to skip a meal. One by one, the undergrads sat in front of the two bowls.
“The point of this experiment is to test taste perceptions,” a researcher told each student, which was untrue. The point was to force students—but only some students—to exert their willpower. To that end, half the undergraduates were instructed to eat the cookies and ignore the radishes; the other half were told to eat the radishes and ignore the cookies. Muraven’s theory was that ignoring cookies is hard—it takes willpower. Ignoring radishes, on the other hand, hardly requires any effort at all.
“Remember,” the researcher said, “eat only the food that has been assigned to you.” Then she left the room.
Once the students were alone, they started munching. The cookie eaters were in heaven. The radish eaters were in agony. They were miserable forcing themselves to ignore the warm cookies. Through the two-way mirror, the researchers watched one of the radish eaters pick up a cookie, smell it longingly, and then put it back in the bowl. Another grabbed a few cookies, put them down, and then licked melted chocolate off his fingers.
After five minutes, the researcher reentered the room. By Muraven’s estimation, the radish eaters’ willpower had been thoroughly taxed by eating the bitter vegetable and ignoring the treats; the cookie eaters had hardly used any of their self-discipline.
“We need to wait about fifteen minutes for the sensory memory of the food you ate to fade,” the researcher told each participant. To pass the time, she asked them to complete a puzzle. It looked fairly simple: trace a geometric pattern without lifting your pencil from the page or going over the same line twice. If you want to quit, the researcher said, ring the bell. She implied the puzzle wouldn’t take long.
In truth, the puzzle was impossible to solve.
This puzzle wasn’t a way to pass time; it was the most important part of the experiment. It took enormous willpower to keep working on the puzzle, particularly when each attempt failed. The scientists wondered, would the students who had already expended their willpower by ignoring the cookies give up on the puzzle faster? In other words, was willpower a finite resource?
From behind their two-way mirror, the researchers watched. The cookie eaters, with their unused reservoirs of self-discipline, started working on the puzzle. In general, they looked relaxed. One of them tried a straightforward approach, hit a roadblock, and then started again. And again. And again. Some worked for over half an hour before the researcher told them to stop. On average, the cookie eaters spent almost nineteen minutes apiece trying to solve the puzzle before they rang the bell.
The radish eaters, with their depleted willpower, acted completely different. They muttered as they worked. They got frustrated. One complained that the whole experiment was a waste of time. Some of them put their heads on the table and closed their eyes. One snapped at the researcher when she came back in. On average, the radish eaters worked for only about eight minutes, 60 percent less time than the cookie eaters, before quitting. When the researcher asked afterward how they felt, one of the radish eaters said he was “sick of this dumb experiment.”
“By making people use a little bit of their willpower to ignore cookies, we had put them into a state where they were willing to quit much faster,” Muraven told me. “There’s been more than two hundred studies on this idea since then, and they’ve all found the same thing. Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.”
Researchers have built on this finding to explain all sorts of phenomena. Some have suggested it helps clarify why otherwise successful people succumb to extramarital affairs (which are most likely to start late at night after a long day of using willpower at work) or why good physicians make dumb mistakes (which most often occur after a doctor has finished a long, complicated task that requires intense focus). “If you want to do something that requires willpower—like going for a run after work—you have to conserve your willpower muscle during the day,” Muraven told me. “If you use it up too early on tedious tasks like writing emails or filling out complicated and boring expense forms, all the strength will be gone by the time you get home.”
But how far does this analogy extend? Will exercising willpower muscles make them stronger the same way using dumbbells strengthen biceps?
In 2006, two Australian researchers—Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng—tried to answer that question by creating a willpower workout. They enrolled two dozen people between the ages of eighteen and fifty in a physical exercise program and, over two months, put them through an increasing number of weight lifting, resistance training, and aerobic routines. Week after week, people forced themselves to exercise more frequently, using more and more willpower each time they hit the gym.
After two months, the researchers scrutinized the rest of the participants’ lives to see if increased willpower at the gym resulted in greater willpower at home. Before the experiment began, most of the subjects were self-professed couch potatoes. Now, of course, they were in better physical shape. But they were also healthier in other parts of their lives, as well. The more time they spent at the gym, the fewer cigarettes they smoked and the less alcohol, caffeine, and junk food they consumed. They were spending more hours on homework and fewer watching TV. They were less depressed.
Maybe, Oaten and Cheng wondered, those results had nothing to do with willpower. What if exercise just makes people happier and less hungry for fast food?
So they designed another experiment. This time, they signed up twenty-nine people for a four-month money management program. They set savings goals and asked participants to deny themselves luxuries, such as meals at restaurants or movies. Participants were asked to keep detailed logs of everything they bought, which was annoying at first, but eventually people worked up the self-discipline to jot down every purchase.
People’s finances improved as they progressed through the program. More surprising, they also smoked fewer cigarettes and drank less alcohol and caffeine—on average, two fewer cups of coffee, two fewer beers, and, among smokers, fifteen fewer cigarettes each day. They ate less junk food and were more productive at work and school. It was like the exercise study: As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives—in the gym, or a money management program—that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked. Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything.
Oaten and Cheng did one more experiment. They enrolled forty-five students in an academic improvement program that focused on creating study habits. Predictably, participants’ learning skills improved. And the students also smoked less, drank less, watched less television, exercised more, and ate healthier, even though all those things were never mentioned in the academic program. Again, as their willpower muscles strengthened, good habits seemed to spill over into other parts of their lives.
“When you learn to force yourself to go to the gym or start your homework or eat a salad instead of a hamburger, part of what’s happening is that you’re changing how you think,” said Todd Heatherton, a researcher at Dartmouth who has worked on willpower studies. “People get better at regulating their impulses. They learn how to distract themselves from temptations. And once you’ve gotten into that willpower groove, your brain is practiced at helping you focus on a goal.”
There are now hundreds of researchers, at nearly every major university, studying willpower. Public and charter schools in Philadelphia, Seattle, New York, and elsewhere have started incorporating willpower-strengthening lessons into curriculums. At KIPP, or the “Knowledge Is Power Program”—a collection of charter schools serving low-income students across the nation—teaching self-control is part of the schools’ philosophy. (A KIPP school in Philadelphia gave students shirts proclaiming “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow.”) Many of these schools have dramatically raised students’ test scores.
“That’s why signing kids up for piano lessons or sports is so important. It has nothing to do with creating a good musician or a five-year-old soccer star,” said Heatherton. “When you learn to force yourself to practice for an hour or run fifteen laps, you start building self-regulatory strength. A five-year-old who can follow the ball for ten minutes becomes a sixth grader who can start his homework on time.”
As research on willpower has become a hot topic in scientific journals and newspaper articles, it has started to trickle into corporate America. Firms such as Starbucks—and the Gap, Walmart, restaurants, or any other business that relies on entry-level workers—all face a common problem: No matter how much their employees want to do a great job, many will fail because they lack self-discipline. They show up late. They snap at rude customers. They get distracted or drawn into workplace dramas. They quit for no reason.
“For a lot of employees, Starbucks is their first professional experience,” said Christine Deputy, who helped oversee the company’s training programs for more than a decade. “If your parents or teachers have been telling you what to do your entire life, and suddenly customers are yelling and your boss is too busy to give you guidance, it can be really overwhelming. A lot of people can’t make the transition. So we try to figure out how to give our employees the self-discipline they didn’t learn in high school.”
But when companies like Starbucks tried to apply the willpower lessons from the radish-and-cookie studies to the workplace, they encountered difficulties. They sponsored weight-loss classes and offered employees free gym memberships, hoping the benefits would spill over to how they served coffee. Attendance was spotty. It was hard to sit through a class or hit the gym after a full day at work, employees complained. “If someone has trouble with self-discipline at work, they’re probably also going to have trouble attending a program designed to strengthen their self-discipline after work,” Muraven said.
But Starbucks was determined to solve this problem. By 2007, during the height of its expansion, the company was opening seven new stores every day and hiring as many as fifteen hundred employees each week. Training them to excel at customer service—to show up on time and not get angry at patrons and serve everyone with a smile while remembering customers’ orders and, if possible, their names—was essential. People expect an expensive latte delivered with a bit of sparkle. “We’re not in the coffee business serving people,” Howard Behar, the former president of Starbucks, told me. “We’re in the people business serving coffee. Our entire business model is based on fantastic customer service. Without that, we’re toast.”
The solution, Starbucks discovered, was turning self-discipline into an organizational habit.
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