Willpower and belief

I’ve blogged a bunch now about Roy Baumeister’s work on self-control, including the idea that willpower is finite in the short-term, and is depleted throughout the day as you use it. So I feel compelled to post this NYT op-ed claiming something quite different. I don’t know who’s right, but here’s the gist:

In research that we conducted with the psychologist Veronika Job, we confirmed that willpower can indeed be quite limited — but only if you believe it is. When people believe that willpower is fixed and limited, their willpower is easily depleted. But when people believe that willpower is self-renewing — that when you work hard, you’re energized to work more; that when you’ve resisted one temptation, you can better resist the next one — then people successfully exert more willpower. It turns out that willpower is in your head…

…You may contend that these results show only that some people just happen to have more willpower — and know that they do. But on the contrary, we found that anyone can be prompted to think that willpower is not so limited. When we had people read statements that reminded them of the power of willpower like, “Sometimes, working on a strenuous mental task can make you feel energized for further challenging activities,” they kept on working and performing well with no sign of depletion. They made half as many mistakes on a difficult cognitive task as people who read statements about limited willpower. In another study, they scored 15 percent better on I.Q. problems.

I’ll keep my eyes open for a response to this from Baumeister or his colleagues, and let me know if you see one. Meanwhile, this reminded me of a similar phenomenon with respect to IQ:

Yet social psychologists Aronson, Fried, and Good (2001) have developed a possible antidote to stereotype threat. They taught African American and European American college students to think of intelligence as changeable, rather than fixed – a lesson that many psychological studies suggests is true. Students in a control group did not receive this message. Those students who learned about IQ’s malleability improved their grades more than did students who did not receive this message, and also saw academics as more important than did students in the control group. Even more exciting was the finding that Black students benefited more from learning about the malleable nature of intelligence than did White students, showing that this intervention may successfully counteract stereotype threat.

Both of these lines of research suggest that belief matters. Fascinating stuff.