The Neurobiology of Willpower

Dr. Keith WittNeurobiology

There’s been a lot of research done in the past fifty years on willpower. Willpower is our ability to decide on a course of action and stick to it, and it’s associated with lots of positives like success, self-esteem, and high SAT scores.

But how does willpower play out in the brain? As it turns out, willpower involves a complicated arrangement between our left and right frontal lobes.

We know that the right frontal lobe of our brain holds our reflexive habitual responses to stimuli from our outer and inner worlds. We see a car coming—outer world stimulus—and instinctively step aside. We imagine a car coming—inner world stimulus—and instinctively step aside. Such reflexive stepping aside when we see or hear a car approaching is a habit, and habits persist and are difficult to change. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. If a habit can protect us instantly without conscious thought, our brains are going to hold on to that habit and not let it go. If we sense a threat and react without thinking—usually within thirty milliseconds (less than one tenth of a second)–we’re practicing a self-protective habit and are slightly more likely to survive another day.

Our left frontal lobe learns new material (new routines like words, actions, or thoughts) relatively quickly. The human gift of conscious awareness is centered in our left frontal lobe, and focused concentration in learning new routines is one of our best human gifts. Unfortunately, we have to consciously do something different lots of times to create a new habit, and this takes more time in the clutch—up to one and a half seconds — and requires willpower. In other words, consciously learning a new behavior and practicing it is a function of our left frontal lobe, which learns quickly, reacts slowly, and usually needs extensive repetition to create new habits, which means we usually need to deliberately choose a new behavior lots of times before it is fully programmed into our habit-dominated right frontal lobe.

Willpower can be enhanced with focused attention and consistent action in service of goals, but also diminished by selfishness and procrastination. It’s also affected by states of consciousness. Fatigue, low blood sugar, anxiety, depression, and intoxication all reduce willpower. Confidence, physical/emotional harmony, and conscious resolve all increase willpower.

How can we operationalize this understanding to improve our lives? First of all, we can practice conscious awareness and acceptance of what is. Awareness and acceptance open up many paths to insight and progress, and both can be cultivated by frequently asking ourselves questions like:

  • What do I want to accomplish and do better right now? A this moment, how do I want to use willpower to improve my life?
  • Where am I procrastinating right now, and am I willing to do some action towards that goal right now?
  • What are the deeper issues that might be beneath any resistance or procrastination right now? Do I simply have a habit of avoiding, or are there reasons I’m resisting a particular action?
  • Right now, am I willing to decide to take right action, to follow through, and to monitor how I feel?
  • Am I willing to notice how anxiety tends to ease with assertive decision-making and action?
  • Am I willing to keep practicing assertive action, knowing it will eventually become a positive habit, and will generally increase my willpower?

In the late 60’s Walter Mischel of Stanford asked small children to delay eating one marshmallow for fifteen minutes so they’d get an additional one. The kids with the most willpower later reliably had higher SAT scores and more success than kids with the least willpower. Willpower predicted these future SAT scores and success better than any other measure.

Willpower can be learned and strengthened with practice!
Study after study by Walter Mischel, Roy Baumeister, and many others have demonstrated that willpower improves with practice!

Set yourself a daily willpower task. Put chocolate where you can see it, but don’t eat it. Meditate for ten minutes every morning no matter what! Exercise every other day (as long as you’re not injured) whether you feel like it or not! Compliment your husband or wife at least twice a day, and never miss a day!

Tasks like these both build good habits and increase willpower.
Try them, you’ll be glad you did!


Image Credit: Dino Reichmuth on Unsplash.