Willpower: A Game Of Strategy Willpower is a familiar phrase, but what is it really and where does it come from? What happens in the mind when you resist your impulses in the face of temptation? One researcher used marshmallows and a bunch of 4-year-olds to answer those questions.
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Willpower: A Game Of Strategy

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Willpower: A Game Of Strategy

Willpower: A Game Of Strategy

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Today, In Your Health…

SHAPIRO: Renee, hey, sorry to interrupt. I know I'm new here. But isn't the In Your Health segment usually on Thursdays, not Mondays?

MONTAGNE: Well, yes. It was on Thursdays, as some listeners will know, but we're changing our habits over here at MORNING EDITION, Ari. Welcome to being here for the switch. We'll now be doing this segment on Mondays. And in honor of the switchover, we're devoting the segment today to, guess what, habits -how to sustain good ones, how to resists bad ones.

And our first story is about something that plays a big role when you're trying to resist a bad habit: willpower. NPR's Alix Spiegel took a look at how willpower operates in the mind.

ALIX SPIEGEL: Mike Harmon couldn't explain what had happened to his willpower. Fifteen years ago, he told me, his willpower was something that he could count on, something he could use, for example, to quit smoking. But then his girlfriend left. And when she left, he says, his willpower seemed to leave with her.

Mr. MIKE HARMON: Willpower - I don't have it anymore.

SPIEGEL: What happened to your willpower?

Mr. HARMON. I don't know. I couldn't tell you.

SPIEGEL: I met Harmon at the Baltimore County Stop Smoking Hypnosis Clinic a couple of weeks ago. He was there with 16 other people who also seemed to have misplaced their willpower. That's why they were at the clinic at 9 on a Thursday night for a session of group hypnosis. They all felt they had the motivation, but their willpower had somehow malfunctioned.

People like Neecy Riley, a woman in her 40s who sat next to Harmon.

Ms. NEECY RILEY: You know, I'm seeking help because I need something beyond me. My willpower is not doing it. I can't do it on my own.

SPIEGEL: Riley went on to explain that willpower comes from within. She couldn't say where within, exactly. Was it the head? Was it the heart? But a woman near her, Velma Dunn, was pretty clear on this point.

Ms. VELMA DUNN: Your soul, the pit of your stomach, you know, the deepest depths of within your body.

SPIEGEL: Willpower is a very familiar word, but what is it really? What actually happens in the mind when you resist your impulses in the face of temptation?

Professor WALTER MISCHEL (Psychology, Columbia University): If you think about willpower, you can break it down into two processes.

SPIEGEL: This is Professor Walter Mischel, a psychologist at Columbia University. Mischel has a long history with willpower. In fact, he was one of the first people to look at the process of willpower in detail.

Back in the '60s, Mischel did a series of studies, now popularly known as the marshmallow tests. He took 4-year-old kids, one by one, put them in a room with a marshmallow or cookie on the table in front of them, then explained that they could either eat the treat immediately or, if they could wait until he got back, have two instead.

Now, some of these kids could hardly wait a minute. Others lasted as long as 20. And Mischel believes that you can learn most of what you need to know about the actual process of exerting willpower from the strategies employed by these children.

There are two basic strategies, he says, and the first is not very complicated.

Prof. MISCHEL: Distract yourself. You know, play with your toes or get involved in singing a song, or play with something else.

SPIEGEL: Minus the playing with toes, this same method is used by adults who resist impulses. They simply shift their attention when temptation crops up.

Now the second strategy, says Mischel, is more complicated. It involves actively changing the way you think about the object of desire.

Prof. MISCHEL: Now the natural, the normal, the prewired way in which a 4-year-old will be thinking about those marshmallows, if she lets herself think about them, is how yummy and chewy they're going to taste.

SPIEGEL: The same can be said of a smoker or an alcoholic. They'll focus on the immediate pleasure of an experience. We'll think of the temptation, Mischel likes to say, in a hot or emotional way. And that makes it harder to resist. But if you do want to resist, says Mischel, what you need to do is think about the object you desire in a cold, cognitive way.

So, for example, to help the children resist the treat, before leaving the room, Mischel told the kids to imagine the treat in front of them differently.

Prof. MISCHEL: Think about those marshmallows as if they're just cotton puffs, or clouds. That instruction with the 4-year-old has a dramatic effect on her ability to wait for the thing that she couldn't wait for before.

SPIEGEL: And the dynamic is identical for adults. By refocusing thinking on, say, long-term consequences, it's easier to resist an impulse. Of course, actually using these strategies is one of those things easier said than done, which is why the Baltimore County Hypnosis Clinic is in no immediate danger of going out of business.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

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