The Psychology of Self-Control: How Willpower Works

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Willpower Instinct" by Kelly McGonigal. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What role does the prefrontal cortex play in willpower? Why does having a larger prefrontal cortex give you an advantage in life? Can we train our brains to increase self-control?

The psychology of self-control starts in the prefrontal cortex. Although it may not seem fair, those with more developed prefrontal cortexes have more willpower and tend to be more fit and successful than those with a smaller prefrontal cortex. However, there are ways you can work to strengthen your self-control.

Keep reading for more information about the psychology of self-control and tips to strengthen yours.

How Your Mind Affects Your Willpower

Most people think of willpower or self-control as the ability to resist temptation. When we say, “I have no willpower” we mean we can’t say no to ourselves. We believe we can’t eat just one potato chip; we will eat the entire bag. We believe we can’t pull ourselves away from the couch and Netflix even when we know it’s time to go to the gym. 

Saying “no” to our impulses is just half of the willpower equation. We need to be able to say “no” to some things (perhaps that third glass of wine or second cupcake) and “yes” to others (maybe working out, going to bed earlier, or eating more broccoli). Whether it’s a “yes” or a “no,” willpower usually involves choosing the more difficult of two options. Accessing your willpower means opting for the harder choice instead of giving in to what seems alluring in the present moment.  This is how the psychology of self-control works.

How Our Willpower Evolved

You might think the need for willpower is a modern invention, but even our Stone Age ancestors required it. Not only were they tasked with finding food and avoiding large predators, they also had to cultivate the skills to live successfully in tight-knit tribes. Since they weren’t well equipped to survive on their own, they had to be good neighbors, parents, and mates—which meant they required willpower to control their impulses. Possessing strong self-control allowed them to share food, cooperate, and collaborate with each other for hunting and protection. It also helped them choose suitable mates for reproduction. 

As time went on, human societies became larger and more complex, and self-control became even more important. Our brains had to develop a more sophisticated self-control system to adapt to more complicated social circumstances. The brain’s prefrontal cortex began to evolve, growing larger and more closely connected to other brain regions. 

Today, humans have a larger prefrontal cortex—relative to our brain size—than any other species. It controls much of what we pay attention to, think about, feel, and do.

Prefrontal Cortex: Willpower Control Center

The psychology of self-control starts with the prefrontal cortex. As with other human traits, some people have a bigger, better-developed prefrontal cortex than others, which makes a difference in their behaviors. When people with a larger prefrontal cortex think of saying yes to a second helping of dessert, their brains remind them that this is a bad idea, and they say no instead. When they want to go to the beach instead of studying for final exams, their prefrontal cortex reminds them that only A-plus grades will get them into medical school. 

It may not seem fair, but people with larger prefrontal cortexes usually have more willpower, and as a result, they lead easier lives. 

The research: Studies have shown that self-control is more important than IQ scores in predicting academic success. And the benefits don’t stop there: People with a larger prefrontal cortex tend to make more money, go further in their careers, have longer lasting relationships, and so on. 

How the Prefrontal Cortex Works  

The prefrontal cortex has different regions that perform the three functions of willpower. You considered these three functions—I will, I won’t, and I want—when you chose your Personal Willpower Challenge. Each region plays a role in protecting us from our impulsive desires. The left side handles “I will.” The right side handles “I won’t.” The lower middle portion keeps a record of long-term goals and desires. The faster and more efficiently each region functions, the more reliable your willpower will be.  

To illustrate how critical the prefrontal cortex is, consider the story of Phineas Gage, an American railroad foreman in 1848. Gage was involved in a terrible explosion that shattered his skull and blew out parts of his brain, but somehow he survived. Doctors patched up his head, and in a few months the outer skin healed. But because Gage’s prefrontal cortex was missing, his personality was completely altered. Before the accident, he was quiet, gentle, respectful, and “possessing an iron will.” After the accident, he was mean, impulsive, and behaved “with animal propensities.”

Most of us will never suffer this kind of disability, but we’ve all put ourselves in situations where our prefrontal cortexes are compromised. If we’re tired, drunk, or even just distracted, the prefrontal cortex can’t do its job efficiently. That means we won’t be able to access our willpower, and we’ll be more likely to give in to impulse. 

The Duality of Our Brains

Some scientists say we have “one brain but two minds.” One mind caters to immediate gratification. The other mind delays gratification in the interest of long-term goals. We’re conflicted because we want two competing rewards—the 30-second happiness of eating a cupcake and the longer term happiness of a healthy, trim physique. We know we can’t have both, but that doesn’t stop us from wanting both. 

Willpower Hack: Pay Attention to Small Decisions

So if our brains are pulled between opposing interests, what can we do about it? Start paying attention to tiny decisions—especially those you make without even realizing it. 

Most of the millions of choices you make every day occur on autopilot, but if you want to improve your willpower, you need to choose smarter. Learn to pay attention when you’re making a choice that’s related to willpower. The goal of shining a spotlight on these small decisions is avoiding blind distraction. The choices we make while distracted are almost always founded on impulse, not long-term goals.

Marketers learned long ago to take advantage of our tendency for distraction. They figured out they could tempt consumers with “impulse buys” by installing candy displays near the cash registers and putting up loud, garish merchandise exhibits. When we’re distracted, we just grab a candy bar off the rack and throw it into our cart. We’re not making a decision; we’re answering to an impulse. 

The research: When asked how many food-related decisions people make in one day, most people guessed an average of 14. But when they actually recorded each food-related decision they made in a day, they found it was more like 210. This shows how many of our decisions are “unconscious” decisions. 

Example: People who work at home often notice they feel urges to snack more often than when they work in an office or public space. At home, the kitchen is right there in your peripheral vision all day, so it’s easy to gravitate toward the refrigerator without considering whether or not you’re hungry.  

We need to train our minds to be self-aware and recognize when we’re making choices. That means realizing what we’re doing at the moment we’re doing it.

The Psychology of Self-Control: How Willpower Works

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Willpower Instinct summary:

  • That willpower isn't a character trait but rather an innate instinct that's wired into our brains
  • How marketers can use "neuromarketing" to influence you to purchase more
  • How you can harness your innate willpower to achieve your goals

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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