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Willpower: It's All in Your Mind

When it comes to willpower, it just may be the thought that counts.

A new study suggests that Americans believe they have less stamina for strenuous mental activity than their European counterparts, and that’s an indication that people in the U.S. think of their willpower as being in limited supply.

More than 1,100 Americans and 1,600 Europeans – including 775 Swiss and 871 German-speaking adults – participated in the study, which tested the validity of a widely used psychological assessment tool called the Implicit Theory of Willpower for Strenuous Mental Activities Scale.

People taking the assessment are asked to rate their level of agreement with statements such as, “After a strenuous mental activity, your energy is depleted, and you must rest to get it refueled again.”

Americans in the study were more likely to indicate that they needed breaks to rest and recover after performing mentally taxing activities, while their European counterparts reported feeling more invigorated and ready to jump into the next challenging task immediately.

“What matters most is what we think about our willpower,” said the study’s lead author, University of Illinois educational psychology professor Christopher Napolitano. “When we view our willpower as limited, it’s similar to a muscle that gets tired and needs rest. If we believe it is a finite resource, we act that way, feeling exhausted and needing breaks between demanding mental tasks, while people who view their willpower as a limitless resource get energized instead.”

Napolitano and co-author Veronika Job of the University of Zurich concluded that the secret to having ironclad willpower lies in believing that you have an unlimited supply of it.

“Your feelings about your willpower affect the way you behave – but these feelings are changeable,” Napolitano said. “Changing your beliefs…can have positive effects on development, leading to healthier behaviors and perceptions of others.”

 

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