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By: Dr. Stacey Naito – Physician and IFBB Pro
Tempted Then, Tempted Now
Are you able to resist temptation, or do you cave in when something irresistible beckons? Scientists state that the level of willpower we have as children extends into adulthood, particularly in emotionally charged situations. A famous test, conducted in 1970 by psychologist Walter Mischel, measured willpower in preschoolers by offering them a marshmallow, then informing them that they could either consume it immediately, or wait 15 minutes, in which case they would receive a second marshmallow. Almost 70 percent of the children opted for immediate gratification, while those who were willing to wait showed greater self-control which continued throughout their lives. This study was followed up in 2011 by B.J. Casey at Cornell University, who assessed self-control in nearly 60 subjects from the initial study. Subjects with low self-control as children still had low self-control as adults, while those with greater willpower exhibited the same self-discipline in adulthood. In addition, those with more willpower had higher SAT test scores than their impatient fellow subjects.
When Emotions Are Involved
An interesting feature about the differences in willpower in Casey’s study is that they emerged when there was an emotional component to the situation. Through neuroimaging techniques, Casey examined brain activity in subjects while they tried to ignore photos of happy faces. Subjects with less willpower had stronger activity in the ventral striatum, which is involved in processing rewards and positive social cues, while those with more willpower had more activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with impulse control. Casey concluded that individuals use their brains differently when challenged to practice self-control.
Can You Strengthen Willpower?
It may be pure torture to deal with the internal conflict of wanting that piece of cake and knowing that you are better off avoiding it, especially as the day wears on. That is because willpower seems to be a finite resource which is zapped by trying to control your temper or ignore distractions while you are at work. Any sort of decision-making process also saps us of our willpower stores. Luckily, there is a large body of research which suggests that willpower can be strengthened like a muscle, simply by training oneself regularly. You can start willpower training by redirecting your thoughts and avoiding triggers which tempt you.