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What Does Willpower Look Like in the Brain?

The science of giving more rather than giving up

People often talk about “recipes for success,” and one of the core ingredients has to be willpower. Evidence suggests that traits such as self-discipline — the ability to control impulsive tendencies — are strong predictors for positive life outcomes. But what principles actually influence willpower? And what is going on in the brain when people feel motivated?

Self-discipline and persistence are primarily about mindset. People naturally vary in their intrinsic perseverance, but particular thinking patterns make it easier or more difficult to keep going. In a 2016 study, around 6,000 online-course students wrote an essay and then assessed the quality of essays by their peers. Students who examined high-quality essays were discouraged by the excellence of their peers, and their final academic grades were worse than the grades of students who examined lower-quality essays. When people see friends and acquaintances performing well, it can sometimes damage their own determination to do well.

The researchers from that study ran a second experiment to better understand why students felt discouraged by peer excellence. They tested their motivation by offering them an opportunity to write a second essay after completing their assessments. While 43% of people who rated poor essays wanted to write again, only 27% of people who rated excellent essays felt that way. The researchers’ analysis suggested that people were more likely to give up after seeing great work because they lost confidence in their own ability to write a good essay. People frequently judge their own talent in relation to the accomplishments of others, which is a major hazard for self-confidence. According to the data, this motivational decline affected good writers as much as it affected relatively bad writers.

Rather than learning from the good performance of others, people often feel threatened and demotivated by the strengths of their peers. But there are defensive strategies that protect against this kind of self-sabotage. Researchers in 2015 recruited a group of university students and analyzed their theories and beliefs about willpower. Students who strongly agreed with statements such as “After a strenuous mental activity your energy is depleted and you must rest to get it refueled again” believed in a limited-resource theory of willpower. In contrast, students who strongly agreed with statements such as “Your mental stamina fuels itself; even after strenuous mental exertion you can continue doing more of it” believed in an abundant-resource theory of willpower.

When facing a tough school schedule over the course of an academic term, the students who endorsed a limited-resource theory procrastinated more, ate less healthy food, had less control over their spending, and ended up with a lower grade point average. The students who believed in abundant willpower — the kind that isn’t easily drained by mental effort — were better able to handle the self-regulation demands of a challenging program. In other words, mindset is key. Optimistic beliefs and forceful determination may not move mountains, but they can help boost self-discipline and improve performance. People who impose an undue limit on their own willpower may be quicker to give up at the first sign of a hurdle.

Although perseverance is productive and self-limiting beliefs are counterproductive, it’s also essential to know when to quit. Persevering with unworkable plans leads to wasted time and effort that could be better spent on more effective choices. Evidence suggests that the ability to withdraw from unattainable goals is associated with fewer reported physical health problems, lower depression scores, and lower levels of stress hormones such as cortisol during the day.

Overall, the highest levels of productivity and well-being are likely to come from a good balance between persevering through hardship toward attainable goals, and disengaging from action plans that lead to unrealistic goals. Ambition is rewarding, but impracticality is disempowering.

What’s going on in the brain when people feel either motivated or ready to give up? Apathy is common among people who suffer from Parkinson’s disease. Medication that boosts the level of dopamine in the brain — a neurotransmitter involved in motivation and reward — can help ameliorate symptoms. Researchers have found that people with Parkinson’s who are off their medication feel less motivated to exert effort to earn rewards. Fortunately, dopamine treatments can boost their levels of motivation closer to the levels found among healthy people, suggesting that neurotransmitters such as dopamine may play some role in the appraisal of mental effort.

The highest levels of productivity and well-being are likely to come from a good balance between persevering through hardship toward attainable goals, and disengaging from action plans that lead to unrealistic goals

Among healthy people, apathy is associated with a reduced tolerance for physical effort, and weaker connectivity between the anterior cingulate cortex (a brain area involved in judging how much effort a particular reward is worth) and the supplementary motor area (a brain area involved in action planning). Impaired communication between motivation-related brain areas and action-planning brain areas may explain why some people are quick to give up on plans that require effort.

The anterior cingulate cortex has been linked to motivation in other studies too. In people undergoing brain surgery, researchers found that delivering an electrical charge into the area increased people’s heart rate, and gave them a feeling of challenge along with the motivation to overcome it. One study participant reported the feeling as “more of a positive thing like… push harder, push harder, push harder to try and get through this.” It may be that brain areas such as the anterior cingulate cortex underlie normal feelings of perseverance.

But what can people do to boost their willpower when they most need it? A 2019 review paper pulled together all existing evidence-based strategies for improving willpower and reducing self-control failures. The researchers distinguished between societal strategies such as laws or taxes that disincentivize harmful behaviors, and self-deployed strategies that people can use to give themselves a much-needed boost.

One of the self-deployed strategies included “temptation bundling:” People allow themselves a desirable reward (e.g. listening to a favorite music album) only when they fulfill a desired action (e.g., cooking healthy food rather than ordering fast food). The researchers also highlighted the role of “commitment devices,” such as promises made in front of friends or family to develop healthier habits. When broken promises are associated with embarrassment and reputational costs, people are less likely to give up.

There are many other strategies that assist willpower and self-control too, from mindfulness techniques to better planning and goal-setting. But at its heart, willpower depends on the right ethos. People who start from an optimistic viewpoint, with no pre-prepared psychological limits, are more likely to persevere in reaching the goals that are right for them.


Erman Misirlisoy, PhD


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