As far as examples of willpower go, one of the most impressive you’ll
ever find is the “incredible Buddha boy”chronicled in GQ a few years back by George Saunders. The boy had been meditating under a tree for seven months, evidently without food or water. It was a display of self-control so haunting that readers couldn’t help but wonder how such a person could exist while the rest of us find it so hard–really, impossible–to rise from the couch and go to the gym, or read a book, or in some cases just reach the remote.
The prevailing scientific wisdom says that people operate with a finite supply of self-control. In an insta-classic study from the 1990s, psychologists found that test participants who pushed themselves to suppress a thought for six minutes subsequently gave up more quickly on an unsolvable anagram than those who came into the puzzle fresh. Exerting self-control on an initial task evidently drained people of persistence for a second one. Willpower seemed to tire a bit every time we use it, a little like a muscle.
But Newton’s apple aside, few scientific insights emerge on the scene in perfect form. While the depletion model of self-control has been validated by more than a hundred empirical studies, it remains rife with limitations and rough edges. In an upcoming paper for Trends in Cognitive Science, a research team led by Michael Inzlicht of the University of Toronto not only points out some of the theory’s shortcomings but proposes an alternative: iIt’s not that our willpower weakens, it’s that our motivations change.
Read the whole story: Fast Company