Willpower and Self-Control – Research Dusts off “Forgotten” Virtues

chocolate cake on white ceramic plate

You use it every day. When you wake up, in the queue, at work, at the dinner table, in the face of rude people, in the shop. Self-control is also used to do things you don’t feel like doing, such as doing today’s gym in the rain, or finishing this article even though the sun is shining.

Self-control is about the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to achieve long-term goals, or to make more rational choices. In the literature, the term self-regulation is often used, which emphasizes that the person seeks a change in thoughts, feelings or behavior based on an idea of what one wants to achieve.

According to self-control research pioneer Roy Baumeister, we need three elements to achieve lasting lifestyle changes. Firstly, it is important to have motivation for change and set yourself a clear goal. Second, we need to monitor behavior on the way to the goal. The last point concerns willpower and self-control. If you plan to change your lifestyle and switch to healthier habits, it can therefore be useful to know a little about self-control, how and in which areas of life it has an effect, as well as which factors can strengthen or weaken it.

A brief history of self-control

Self-control is central to several cultures and religions, and together with love, joy, peace, tolerance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and humility is one of the core values of Christianity. However, the fascination with self-control ebbed with the reaction to the Victorian era in the early part of the last century. Other values came into focus exemplified in the motto “if it feels good – do it” and in the “me generation” in the 1970s.

In recent decades, however, self-control and willpower have seen a new upswing, primarily due to increased interest among researchers in investigating how these qualities affect humans. One of the pioneers in this field of research is the previously mentioned social and evolutionary psychologist Roy Baumeister. Among other things, he has written the book Willpower – rediscovering our greatest strength, which forms part of the basis for this article. Research dusts off “forgotten” values.

What has been discovered so far?

Self-control and willpower don’t just seem to be better than their reputation. Self-control is not good for myself. It is also positive for those I associate with. Research in psychology has only revealed a couple of characteristics that predict success in a wide range of areas of life, namely intelligence and self-control. While intelligence is more difficult to influence, it is easier to strengthen self-control. People with a high level of self-control have more satisfying relationships, more stable

marriages, increased self-esteem, less shame, but more guilt. The latter increases somewhat because one takes more responsibility for one’s own actions and avoids externalizing or blaming others for one’s wrong actions. A low level of self-control increases the likelihood of blaming others, thus less guilt, but interestingly increased shame or unfounded guilt.

Self-control leads to less anger and a more constructive handling of emotions. People with high levels of self-control are more emotionally stable and have less risk of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorders. As if this were not enough, people with a high level of self-control also have less obesity, better paying jobs, more money in the bank and live longer.

Symptoms of reduced self-control

How can you know if you have a lot or a little self-control? If you answer yes to the following questions, it may be an indication that your willpower is reduced:

  •     Is it more difficult than usual to make decisions?
  •     Do frustrations bother you more than usual?
  •     Are you quick to say something you regret?
  •     Is it more difficult to resist impulses, for example to eat, drink, buy necessary/useless things?

A more thorough assessment of your self-control can be done, for example, through the test “Brief self-control scale test” (google). What is self-control good for? People who have a lot of willpower and self-control make use of this primarily to break bad habits and to develop effective and healthy habits. You take the car to the workshop before it breaks down, avoid “eat-as-much-as-you-want-for-$50 restaurants”, etc. They play offensively rather than defensively. They use self-control not primarily to get through crises and temptations, but to avoid them. Important arenas for self-control are school and education, the workplace and a range of lifestyles.

Self-control seems to have a more moderate effect on the regulation of emotions and mental health, which are better regulated by changing one’s perception of the problem or through distraction. Unfortunately, self-control seems to play an even smaller role in regulating food intake and following diets.

Willpower – a “muscle”

A number of laboratory studies and summary studies suggest that willpower can be compared to muscle function. The strength is reduced by overload, but can be increased over time with regular use. Furthermore, there seems to be a common “pot” of self-control for all areas of life. If we have “used up” our willpower at work, we do not have our own pot of willpower that we can draw from when we get home. However, there is a positive side to this. It works the same way the other way around: Exercising willpower in one area of life increases willpower in all other areas.

Decision fatigue

One factor that eats away at willpower is making many decisions. Have you thought about why the temptations line up when you’re about to check out at the checkout at the supermarket? On a major shopping trip, many choices are made with regard to which goods to buy. Often this process can be complex, where price is assessed against quality. With decreasing willpower throughout the shopping round, the risk of impulsive actions increases, such as for example satisfying temptations at the checkout.

In an interesting study of more than a thousand Israeli prisoners who applied for parole, the researchers investigated which factors influenced the likelihood of the application being granted. To their surprise, they found a clear pattern: Those who got their case up at the beginning of the workday or right after one of the jury’s breaks had a significantly higher probability of being paroled. The chance of parole was about 65 percent immediately after a break and dropped to about 15 percent before the next break. The reason for this is decision fatigue. The jury has a mentally demanding job and must assess the extent to which the person is fit to be released and remain in society. Many things must be weighed for and against. As decision fatigue sets in, the jury is more and more in favor of choices that maintain the status quo, i.e. allowing the prisoner to remain in prison. The researchers assume that both the consumption of food and the break itself help restore the jurors’ willpower.

How to increase willpower?


Sleep – Lack of sleep appears to be an important cause of reduced self-control. Studies have shown that lack of sleep, among other things, increases the risk of cheating, exploiting others at work and engaging in unethical behaviour.

Blood sugar – Many laboratory studies have shown that blood sugar levels affect willpower and self-control.Kelly McGonigal from Stanford University has written the book The Willpower Instinct and recommends regular meals and preferably a plant-based diet that provides optimal blood sugar regulation. Significant fluctuations in blood sugar seem to reduce self-control, which can be experienced with the consumption of sweets and other refined foods, as well as caffeinated drinks and alcohol.

Alcohol – Alcohol reduces self-control via two mechanisms, by reducing blood sugar and by reducing self-awareness, which has to do with how clear a perception one has of one’s strengths, weaknesses, thoughts and feelings. Alcohol therefore increases the risk of actions characterized by inner conflict, i.e. actions that one simultaneously wants and does not want to do (e.g. ordering another drink, fighting, spending too much money, immorality, etc.).

Physical activity – Physical activity is good for a lot, including for strengthening self-control. MRI scans of the brain have shown that the area where self-control and willpower are controlled (the gray matter in the prefrontal cortex) grows with regular physical activity. In addition, the activity makes both the body and the brain more resistant to stress, a factor that appears to reduce self-control.


In the book Willpower – rediscovering our greatest strength, the apolitical and non-religious researcher Baumeister devotes an entire chapter to explaining the connection between self-control and religion from a naturalistic point of view. He writes that religion has been the most powerful promoter of self-control for several thousand years, primarily through divine injunctions and social “pressure” from like-minded people. This creates an environment for strengthening self-control. He further writes that “it appears that regular prayer and meditation work as an anaerobic training session for self-control”, where you interrupt the day’s tasks to focus on something else.

Another mechanism that seems to play a role is the life horizon one has. A narrow “here and now” focus affects self-control in a negative direction, while a broad, long-term focus strengthens self-control.

What motivation one has for religious activities also plays a role. Baumeister writes that people who participate in religious activities only because of external factors (eg to make an impression on others), have a lower level of self-control compared to people who have a strong internal motivation.


A number of activities have been shown to build self-control. What these have in common is that they require focus and concentration over time. A simple exercise is to sit straight up and down on the chair as often as you remember over a couple of weeks.

Other willpower activities:

  •     Concentrate on speaking grammatically correct
  •     Avoid starting sentences with “I”
  •     Learning to play a musical instrument

    Using the non-dominant hand for tasks that are usually done with the dominant hand can lead to significantly increased willpower after two weeks.


Willpower and self-control appear to have a number of positive effects on health and are an important predictor of success in life, and are particularly useful for breaking bad habits and adopting healthy ones. People with high levels of self-control use it more to avoid crises than to get through them. Self-control and willpower is something that can vary throughout the day, and not everyone has the same amount of these qualities. The good news is that you can strengthen self-control through good lifestyle habits, your outlook on life and everyday activities as mentioned above.

In the end, self-control and willpower are only a tool and can be used for both good and bad choices. To live a successful, happy and productive life, one must therefore develop more than willpower and self-control. Just as important as having self-control and willpower is having the knowledge and wisdom to make good decisions about when and how to use this.


  • American Psychological Association. (2012). What you need to know about willpower: The psychological science of self-control. Washington: APA (www.apa.org/helpcenterwillpower. pdf).
  • Association for Psychological Science. (2012, March 8). Want to limit aggression? Practice self-control. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 11, 2017 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120308120028.htm
  • Baumeister, R. F., & Tierney, J. (2012). Willpower: rediscovering the greatest strength. London: Allen Lane.
  • Danziger, S., Levav, J., & Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(17), 6889-6892.
  • Tangney, J. P., Baumeister, R. F., & Boone, A. L. (2004). High selfcontrol predicts good adjustment, less pathology, better grades, and interpersonal success. Journal of personality, 72(2), 271-324

Allan Fjelmberg, MD, MPH, DipIBLM

As a Norwegian based medical doctor certified in Lifestyle Medicine he currently serves as the medical director of Skogli Health and Rehabilitation Center, Lillehammer. Through consultations, presentations, articles and other public health-related activities, he motivates people to utilize the potential that a healthy lifestyle has both in prevention and treatment of disease.

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