Two recent articles that have me thinking:
In experiments first reported in 1998, Baumeister and his collaborators discovered that the will, like a muscle, can be fatigued. Immediately after students engage in a task that requires them to control their impulses — resisting cookies while hungry… — they show lapses in a subsequent task that also requires an exercise of willpower, like solving difficult puzzles… Baumeister tagged the effect “ego depletion,” using Freud’s sense of “ego” as the mental entity that controls the passions.
Baumeister then pushed the muscle metaphor even further by showing that a depleted ego can be invigorated by a sugary pick-me-up (though not an indistinguishable beverage containing diet sweetener). And he showed that self-control, though almost certainly heritable in part, can be toned up by exercising it.
Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.
Edited to add this article, “The Willpower Circuit“, from Wired:
Mischel has also helped redefine willpower. While we typically think of willpower as a matter of gritting our teeth and outlasting the temptation – staring down the marshmallow, so to speak – Mischel realized that this assumption was backwards. Instead, the ability of delay gratification depended on the “strategic allocation of attention,” a fancy way of saying that some kids know how to distract themselves. Instead of obsessing over the marshmallow – the “hot stimulus” – these patient children covered their eyes or looked away. Their desire wasn’t defeated – it was merely forgotten. “Kids who can delay gratification have a much more realistic understanding of willpower,” Mischel told me. “They know that willpower is very limited. If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it. The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.” There is, of course, something unsettling about this new model of willpower, since it assumes the utter weakness of the will. Resistance is only possible when we’re not actively trying to resist. (emphasis mine)