The notion that willpower is a finite resource that we all need to conserve -- an idea pioneered by psychologist Roy Baumeister and popularized by this book -- has some pretty high-powered backers. The concept is why President Obama always wears the same color suits, for instance, and is also the explanation for Mark Zuckerberg's perpetual gray T Shirt.
"I'm trying to pare down decisions. I don't want to make decisions about what I'm eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make," President Obama has been quoted saying of his less-than-exciting wardrobe choices. The basic concept behind this thinking is "ego depletion," which says capacity to focus and control our urges is finite and gets used up over time. If you're like the President and need to make a lot of big calls, you'd best conserve it by avoiding frivolous choices like which cereal to have for breakfast.
With so many leaders standing behind the idea, it has to be correct, right? Maybe not. Or maybe not completely, at least. According to New York Magazine's Science of Us blog new research is casting doubt on the willpower orthodoxy.
You have as much willpower as you think you do.
Whether or not President Obama secretly longs for more sartorial experimentation (I'm going to go out on a limb and guess this doesn't top his wish list...) apparently new studies suggests he could probably swap those blue suits for something more daring without any adverse effects on his decision making if he wanted to.
"In several very recent studies--one published in the fall of 2014 and the other published just last month, both in the journal PLOS ONE--the evidence [for ego depletion] just didn't hold up. At this year's annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, there was an entire session devoted to the potential dismantling of this favored idea," reports Science of Us.
The research is ongoing, the post notes, and scientists haven't reached any definitive conclusions yet, but so far the science suggests how much willpower you have isn't a fixed quantity -- instead it can be affected by your attitude. In short, if you think you have infinitive willpower, you just might be right.
Or as Science of Us puts it: "When people believe their willpower is limitless, they're more likely to go after personal goals, they're less likely to burn out, and they're happier. In a sense, when people believe their willpower is limitless, it turns out to be true."
Can the same be said of stress?
These findings are intriguing on their own, but they're also echo recent research into stress in interesting ways. The old understanding of long-term stress was that it was categorically bad for you -- driving up your blood pressure, increasing your risk of heart disease, even making you more likely to develop diabetes or depression -- but new studies have complicated that terrifying picture.
Stress, like willpower, may be largely in your mind. According to the work of Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, if you think you can handle stress, you probably can. "When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body's response to stress," she has explained, which dampens down its negative health effects.
Taken together, these two lines of evolving research are an interesting reminder that not only do our body's capacities control our attitude, but our attitude also controls our body's capacities. Approach stress or decision fatigue with optimism and you may be able to handle a lot more than you first imagined.