Does Willpower Guarantee Failure?

Intimate Strangers

Gail Gauthier is an author who writes about the works of other authors. Her website discusses the book The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. Specifically, Gauthier considers the thoughts of Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a Stanford University health psychologist in the field of science-help, which seems to involve combining practices from the Eastern tradition, like yoga, with Western medicine.

Dr. McGonigal has observed that people tend to act like whatever group they hang around with. In regard to this, Gail Gauthier wrote:

This is one of the reasons obesity seems to ‘run’ in families. In fact, McGonigal claims that a woman with an obese sister has a 67 percent increased risk of becoming obese herself. It’s not so high for men with obese brothers — their risk is just 45 percent. Additionally, though, having a friend become obese increases an individual’s risk of becoming obese, too. By a whopping 171 percent. Thus we’re not just talking genetics here. It’s the influence of a group. Willpower failure spreads among people.

McGonigal, in other words, holds the belief that willpower failure and self-control can both be contagious. When we can’t control ourselves, it’s because control is partly usurped by societal bonds, forged by the “mirror neurons” that give us the instinct to imitate the behavior we see around us. Conversely, there is also the phenomenon of “goal contagion” which means focused behavior can rub off on the people nearby.

Incentivizing change

When it comes to influencing behavior to affect the obesity epidemic, one intervention is seldom mentioned — money. Journalist Benita Matilda tells of research done by the Mayo Clinic. The subjects were 100 Mayo Clinic employees and dependents from ages 18 to 63, whose weight loss efforts were tracked for a year, with some being financially rewarded and some not. Matilda says the result:

[…] suggests that weight loss study participants who received financial incentives were more likely to follow the weight loss program strictly, and they noticed a reduction in their body weight when compared to those participants who didn’t receive any incentives.

But let’s see what some young people say about willpower. Their thoughts are known because they were posted on Dr. Pretlow’s Weigh2Rock website. A 15-year-old girl who weighed 230 pounds at the time said, “[A]ll you have to do is have will power and cut down your eating…,” which may be overly optimistic. Others have different feelings and opinions.

A 13-year-old girl, 170 pounds:

I really want to lose weight but it’s really hard with what is in my house. I have no will power!

A 13-year-old girl, 225 pounds:

My mum is such a b*tch!!!! I asked her ‘can you please stop buying junk’ I told her ‘please stop buying the junk food, I have no will power and you always offer it too me.’

An 18-year-old girl, 260 pounds:

i’m afflicted with emotional eating!!! ever since 12 years old, i’m such a jellyfish, i have no will power or self control whatsoever. i’m probably going to eat myself to death.

Dr. Pretlow believes compulsive eating is not a problem that succumbs to willpower. When people are addicted to a hard drug, willpower alone is not effective. The foreward of Dr. Pretlow’s book, Overweight: What Kids Say, was written by John P. Foreyt, Ph.D., of Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. It says:

The ideas of Dr. Pretlow’s book are quite controversial, given our strong cultural dependence on food and belief by many that weight loss is only a matter of will power. I applaud Dr. Pretlow for his unwavering efforts, in the face of considerable opposition from mainstream medicine.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Time Management Tuesday: Can You Catch Willpower/Discipline From Others?,” GailGauthier.com, 05/07/13
Source: “Weight Loss can be Achieved by Financial Incentives: Study,” Science World Report, 03/08/13
Image by Bill Strain.

UPDATED 6/24/13: This post was updated to correctly identify Kelly McGonigal as author of “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.”

Comments

  1. Thank you for mentioning me in this post. I do want to point out, though, that I didn’t write “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It,” Kelly McGonigal did. She works with people trying to change a variety of behaviors, including those involved with weight issues. My big interest is the behaviors involved in managing time, such as discipline, and I discussed her thoughts on willpower in relation to that.

    • Pat Hartman says:

      Dear Gail Gauthier,

      Sorry for the goof. The sentence should read something like this:

      Gail Gauthier is an author who writes about the works of other authors. Her website discusses the book The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. Specifically, Gauthier considers the thoughts of Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a Stanford University health psychologist…

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