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Will Power, Should I Make the Effort?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Thomas Edison

The two quotations stand in contrast to one another. The first says that will power does not help and does not work, while the second says that, given enough determination or “sweat” you too can function at the level of a genius. Which is the correct interpretation of will power?

I was raised with the belief that if you try hard enough you can succeed. I was told that, to try hard means to have what my family called, “stick-to-it-iveness.”

However, are avoiding temptation, using perspiration, trying hard enough, inborn or mental? In other words, is will power biological or a matter of how you choose to think? This is an important question because the answer often determines how a person goes about doing things. Take the example of a college student who knows there is an exam the following day. He does not study because he knows he just doesn’t have the will power to sit and put in the energy to prepare for the test. When he receives a failing grade, he is confirmed in his belief that he just does not have the determination to succeed at school, so, why bother?

Many people who procrastinate are just like the failing student. Because they are convinced that they do not have that “it,” that will power, make no effort to get the job done in a timely manner.

In her 2008 book, “Health at Every Size,” nutritionist Linda Bacon argues that, because of how the brain’s hypothalamus works, it is a “myth” that anyone can will himself to lose weight by maintaining a diet. “It’s not your fault,” she writes, because, “biology is so powerful that it can make you break that diet.” Again, based on Bacon’s conclusion about “will” many people can tell themselves that it’s not worth the effort to lose weight because they are helpless against how the brain works. These people may conclude that they should give up trying and eat all they want.

On the other hand, psychologists, Greg Walton, Carol Dweck and Veronica Job, willpower is indeed limited, but only if that is the a person holds. They found that, after an exhaustive review of research in this area, “that when people believe that willpower is self-renewing — that when you work hard, you’re energized to work more; that when you’ve resisted one temptation, you can better resist the next one — then people successfully exert more willpower. It turns out that willpower is in your head.”

Walton and Dweck come to the following conclusion:

“At stake in this debate is not just a question about the nature of willpower. It’s also a question of what kind of people we want to be. Do we want to be a people who dismiss our weaknesses as unchangeable? When a student struggles in math, should we tell that student, ‘Don’t worry, you’re just not a math person?’ Do we want him to give up in the name of biology? Or do we want him to work harder in the spirit of what he wants to become?”

This blog is based on an article written by Walton and Dweck in the New York Times, November 26, 2011. The article can be found at the following URL:

In addition, Greg Walton is an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford, is the author of “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.”


So, what do you tell your children when they complain that some of the subjects they are studying at school are hard? There was a time, not long ago, when it was believed that girls cannot do well in math and because of their gender. The result was that most women did not go into fields that involved math and science. Once society’s attitudes changed, partially motivated by the women’s liberation movement during the decade of the seventies and later, females went into the fields of medicine, physics, and all areas of science
 and math so that, today, it is taken for granted that your physician may be a female.

How have you been affected by your beliefs about willpower, both in the present and past?

Your comments are welcome.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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