Willpower is best used with care
A DECADE ago when I was an undergraduate psychologist, a departmental librarian called Anne was doing something any psychologist would say was impossible. Every year, with near-perfect accuracy, she would predict which third-year undergraduates would be awarded first-class degrees.
Anne didn't know how their essays were rated, what A-level grades they hadunder their belts, or how they scored on IQ tests. (All information many would say was essential to forecasting final results.)
All she knew was how often she had seen students in the department library: reading course notes, photocopying journals, borrowing books. And the handful of students who Anne saw a lot - conspicuously more often than the other students in the same year - were going to geta first.
Anne was working on the principle that in academic achievement it is self-discipline, not talent, that counts. Ten years on, a study published recently in Psychological Science has come to exactly the same conclusion.
Psychologists Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman descended on the eighth grade of a large public school in the northeast of the US. As the autumn leaves fell, each ofthe 160-odd children took an IQ test, then they (and their parents and teachers) answered questionnaires that probed self-control. Are you good at resisting temptation, they were asked. Can you work effectively towards long-term goals? Or do pleasure and fun sometimes keep you from getting work done?
The children were also given a real-life test of their ability to delay gratification. Each washanded a dollar bill in an envelope. They could choose either to keep it or hand it back and get $2 a week later. Their decision was carefully recorded.
The researchers returned in spring. They took note of each child's grades and then looked back to see both how clever, and how self-controlled, that student had been in autumn. What, they wanted to know, was the most important factor in schoolgrades?
The psychologists discovered it was self-control, by a long shot. A child's capacity for self-discipline was about twice as important as his or her IQ when it came to predicting academic success.
At first glance, research of this sort is a comfort to those of us not exploding with raw talent. The science seems to back up the writer Kingsley Amis's well-known advice that "the art of writing isthe art of applying the seat of one's trousers to the seat of one's chair". Why, in that case anyone can write a book. Yet a small problem remains; namely, the problem of keeping the seat of one's trousers applied to the seat of one's chair.
Amis kept to an "unflinching schedule" of 500 words a day, according to The Guardian. (No doubt the young Amis would have returned the seductive singledollar bill to the researcher with barely a hesitation.) But just as we all have different levels of physical endurance so, too, do we differ in the strength of our will.
Some people are simply more susceptible to temptations and distractions, and we all sometimes reach the limits of our willpower sooner than we would like. "Programs that build self-discipline may be the royal road to buildingacademic achievement," psychologists Duckworth and Seligman conclude from their findings.
So what can we do to strengthen self-discipline, to transform ourselves from impulsive dollar-snatchers to lofty long-term investors in future success?
Help lies in seeing willpower as a muscle, recent research suggests. The "moral muscle", as it has been called, powers all of the difficult and taxing mentaltasks that you set yourself. It is the moral muscle that is flexing and straining as you keep attention focused on a dry academic article, bite back an angry retort to your boss, or decline a helping of your favourite dessert. And herein lies the problem: these acts of restraint all drain the same pool of mental reserves.
Take, for example, a group of hungry volunteers who were left alone in a room...
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