What Comes Before Discipline and Willpower
Imagine you’re looking for a particular book. You walked to a neighbourhood book store around the corner and saw that the book you want costs $20. You whipped out your iPhone, did your research online and found out that the same book you want is available for $15 at a bookstore 10 minutes down the road.
Would you make the trip to save $5?
Now let’s say that instead of a book, this time you want to buy a laptop. The electronics store you’re in sells the laptop you want for $2050 but a quick check online reveals that the same laptop is available at another store 10 minutes down the road for $2045.
Now would you make the trip?
You should, because in both cases, you’re saving the same amount of money for the same amount of work. Yet according to Nobel Prize winning researchers Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, most people don’t. In their experiment (with different numbers), 68% of respondents would make the extra trip for the cheaper book but only 29% would do it for the cheaper laptop. Similar surveys were conducted and they always get similar results. My Money Blog, for example, did one.
We are, as Dan Ariely puts it, “Predictably Irrational“, and price relativity is just one of the many he explored in his best selling book.
All You Need Is Willpower
I was reading a blog post by a popular weight loss guru when the idea for this post struck. The post was published in a major media’s blog in Australia – the equivalent of New York Times in the United States – and it attracted hundreds of mostly positive comments. Like most other weight loss gurus out there, this guy is abrasive and self-confident. He has that big white smile, a ripped body and likes to point at you.
“Weight loss is easy”, he declared. All you have to do is consume less than you burn. Drink more water, eat more greens, avoid unhealthy fats and exercise. He didn’t exactly put it that way, but that’s the essence of the post. I am sick and tired of people writing these posts so I usually ignore them when I have the misfortune of getting sucked in. But in this case, the guru ended with an interesting note. He said that barring diseases, people who fail to lose weight lack the discipline and willpower to control themselves.
It’s a message commonly perpetuated in the self-improvement industry – be it weight loss, personal finance or business. The idea is, with enough willpower, you can achieve whatever you set out to do.
There’s just one problem with that.
I can still remember my health and fitness teacher shout, “Mind over matter!”. I was, at the time, studying in Singapore and students in the little island were put to an annual fitness test called NAPFA. One of the tests NAPFA involved is to jog 2.4km in – if I remember correctly – under 11 minutes or so. Most students have no problem passing the test. A friend of mine, let’s call him “John”, wasn’t most students. He was overweight and a geek who spends 99% of his conscious time on a chair. It was him my teacher directs his “advice” to.
What my teacher assumes, of course, is that willpower is an unlimited resource. But recent studies found otherwise.
Psychologist Roy Baumeister conducted an experiment where he had two groups of subjects attempt to solve an impossible puzzle. The twist is he wanted to see if willpower is unlimited. So he made one group do an activity he thought would drain their willpower:
- The first group ate radishes – a food that requires willpower to consume.
- The second group ate freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.
If willpower is unlimited, the group that ate radishes should last just as long as the one that ate cookies in trying to solve the impossible puzzle. I think it’s safe to assume that’s what most people expect: How long you persist on a difficult task shouldn’t be affected by what you ate.
But numbers don’t lie: Those who ate radishes gave up in 8 minutes, on average, while those who ate the cookies lasted more than twice as long.
The result of the study have many implications in your life. It suggests that if you spend your willpower controlling one part of your life, another part will suffer. For example, if you’re constantly resisting what you want to eat, you are at an increased risk of shopping on impulse. If you’re constantly trying to get that amazingly sexy colleguae out of your head, you probably won’t be performing at your best.
So when that guru say people who fail to lose weight lack the discipline and willpower to control themselves, he’s either asking his readers to sacrifice other parts of their life in favor of their weight or he’s just showing a stunning lack of knowledge of human behaviour.
Because from my personal observation, some of the most persistent entrepreneurs, professionals, fathers, mothers, teachers – or any other occupation, for that matter – are overweight.
To be sure, willpower can be trained. Small changes in your life, like brushing your teeth with your opposite hand, can accumulate with time and boost your willpower in other parts of life.
It doesn’t matter how strong your willpower is if you don’t know when to apply it.
But it doesn’t matter how strong your willpower is if you don’t know when to apply it. I started this article with a simple example of a financial blind spot. For most people, it didn’t even occur to them to apply their willpower to go ahead and make that trip to save $5.
$5 maybe too small for you to consider, but multiply that by how many times you make decisions like that and it can really add up. And what if you can save $500, so that instead of paying $55,000 for a car, it now costs you $54,500?
Now consider this scenario:
- Save $20,000
- One-third probability you’ll save $60,000, and two-third probability that you’ll save no money
Which would you choose? Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman did the study (using lives instead of dollars) and found 72% of subjects prefer option 1. But when they changed the options to:
- Lose $40,000
- One-third probability to you’ll lose no money, and two-third probability that you’ll lose $60,000
78% of subjects chose option 2.
Both options 1 are identical – yet people changed their decisions when the question is framed in a different way. The experiement shows our aversion to losses – so averse we are to losing things, that we tend to be risk-seeking when it comes to preventing it.
That’s, of course, not a good thing. Let’s say you invest $1000 in a company stock that subsequently plunged by 50%. All rationale tells you to sell the stocks now and cut your losses but your loss aversion compels you to hold on, just in case it goes back up. If history is any guide, it almost never does.
On the health front, various studies have shown that much of what we eat – and the quantity of it – are largely subconscious. According to Brian Wansink of Cornell Food and Brand Lab, larger plates result in larger servings – by about 25 to 28% – and therefore larger consumption. Not only that, he also found that watching TV while you eat distracts you from your food and increases your consumption by more than 40%.
Inspired by the study, another group of researchers at the University of Utah found that not only does the sight our meals matter, even the sight of each bite matters. Larger forks, they found, made people eat less.
Meanwhile in the office, studies have shown that the proximity and visibility of food may increase an adult’s consumption. Just by changing the opaque candy bowl to a clear one, subjects ate 80% more candies, increasing their consumption from 3.1 candies to 5.6. Moving the bowl closer to the subjects increased their consumption by an additional 2.1 candies.
Heck, even your friends directly influence how much you eat. As someone becomes obese, the study found, his or her friends were 57% more likely to become obese too.
In all these examples, willpower doesn’t come into play. If you don’t know what’s affecting your behaviour, you can’t apply willpower to resist it.
The Step You Skipped
Does that mean you should ignore willpower altogether? Of course not. Persistence and self-control have been shown to be the best predictor of succcess in any field, not talent, IQ or even background.
But before you develop your willpower, look first for the quick win: consciousness. The common problems of your life – be it your weight, your finances, your relationships, your career, etc – are usually the result of unconscious living, not a lack of willpower.
The good news is, consciousness is easily fixed. Once you know them, it’s easy to change. For example, now that you know of your unconscious triggers to eat, you can simply alter your environment to help you achieve your goal. Minimize your exposure to unhealthy food by
- Going to the supermarket once a month instead of once a week (this will also help you “magically” reduce your grocery spending).
- Make it inconvenient to consume junk food and convenient to consume healthy ones. One way to do this is to stock up on the latter at home but having none of the former.
- Avoid watching as much advertisements as you possibly can. There’s a reason why advertisers spend billions of dollars to advertise: because they work.
- By very choosy who you make friends with. Think: lunch breaks, snacking, dinners and even your choice of spending your free time to watch a movie or to exercise.
- And when you eat, be aware of how much is on your plate and don’t watch TV.
When you really know why you do what you do, you can work with your nature – a much easier task than “willing” your way out of eating that chocolate cake.
And as you spend more time in your new environment, you’ll develop new habits and interests (the new science of environmental psychology studies how the environment affects human behaviour). Suddenly you find yourself complelled to do the things you know you need to do (perhaps by making new friends) but never able to “will” it.
Image source: Literary Tourist
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