What is Willpower?
Simply put, willpower is our ability to delay gratification. It is our self-control that helps us resist distracting impulses and persevere. As the American Psychology Association has so nicely put it: “Willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.”
Researchers have found that levels of willpower are consistent over time. If levels of self-control were low as a child, the higher the chance self-control and willpower will be low as an adult.
The most well-known experiment associated with studying willpower is the “marshmallow experiment”. It began in the 1960s by psychologist Walter Mischel. He offered 4-year-olds the choice of a marshmallow now, or two if they could wait 15 minutes. He and other researchers then tracked the performance of these children as they became adults. They found that children who resisted temptation (“high delayers”) achieved greater academic success, better health, and lower rates of marital separation and divorce. Mischel concluded that the ability to delay gratification constituted“a protective buffer against the development of all kinds of vulnerabilities later in life.”
In a second study, 1,000 children were tracked from birth to the age of 32. The researchers found that childhood self-control predicted physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offenses. This was true even when other factors such as intelligence and social class were equated. They even compared sibling pairs and found that the sibling in each pair with lower self-control had poorer outcomes, despite shared family background.