The Science of Willpower Including Wanting What You Want To Want

The American Psychological Association has an interesting write-up of recent research into willpower. One definition of willpower is the delaying of short term gratification to achieve long term goals. The article includes a detailed discussion of a debate in the field of willpower research. The debate hinges on whether willpower is unlimited or depletable and both sides have evidence to support their argument. Interestingly those that argue it is depletable site research showing a reduction in Anterior Cingulate Cortex activity correlating with reduced willpower. The Anterior Cingulate Cortex is a very well connected part of the brain which has been linked to many functions (see Appendix).

Patric Hagmann July 1, 2008, Hagmann P, Cammoun L, Gigandet X, Meuli R, Honey CJ, et al. (2008) Mapping the Structural Core of Human Cerebral Cortex. PLoS Biol 6(7): e159, Creative Commons Attribution Generic 2.5 License

What is particularly interesting about this article is the discussion of the evidence that suggests that willpower can be increased. Thus there is evidence that suggests that avoiding stimuli that increase the probability of short-term gratification reduces this type of behaviour. Although this might appear obvious, there is a subtle nuance in that repeated exposure to such stimuli can reduce willpower according to the depletion model. Another approach is to devise responses to these stimuli a strategy referred to as implementation intention. This is captured in the phrase ‘wanting what you want to want’ (see below). Another evidence based strategy is to use willpower routinely by engaging in activities where this is required. They give the example of regular exercise. The article also suggests tackling goals one at a time.

Wanting What You Want to Want

Jeremy McCarthy has a write-up of the research here where he uses the memorable phrase ‘Wanting What You Want to Want’.


#5 Studies That Tell Us About the Brain’s Awareness Centre – The Anterior Cingulate Cortex (AKA Brodmann Area 24)

YouTubing the Brain’s Awareness Centre: The Anterior Cingulate Cortex – Brodmann Areas 24 and 25

Brodman Areas Part 3. Brodmann Area 25 – The Anterior Cingulate Cortex

Index: There are indices for the TAWOP site here and here Twitter: You can follow ‘The Amazing World of Psychiatry’ Twitter by clicking on this link. Podcast: You can listen to this post on Odiogo by clicking on this link (there may be a small delay between publishing of the blog article and the availability of the podcast). It is available for a limited period. TAWOP Channel: You can follow the TAWOP Channel on YouTube by clicking on this link. Responses: If you have any comments, you can leave them below or alternatively e-mail Disclaimer: The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.


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