Where There’s a Will…

Good news for those of you who complain that you’re “just not smart enough” to get the best grades — Cordelia Fine reports in an article published in The Australian that new research suggests that it’s self-discipline, and not necessarily raw talent or intellect, that makes the biggest difference in academic achievement. (This idea has always been around, mind you, but this is new research. :-P) The article describes a study that tried to measure the self-discipline of eighth graders, and found their capacity for self-control to be about twice as important as simple IQ for determining success in school.

So that’s a relief, huh? All I have to do is apply myself more, and I can do better in school, right? Not so fast, Ms. Fine warns. It’s obvious from the get-go that some people have stronger willpower than others; some of us are way better at the whole self-control thing. That in and of itself certainly contributes to our level of success (or lack thereof) at anything — I need to have a desire to succeed, and then exercise the willpower to work and struggle to accomplish my goals.

So? You’ve been reading that kind of stuff on inspirational posters for years now, right?

Here’s where the article strikes off in a slightly different direction. Fine reports that “help lies in seeing willpower as a muscle, recent research suggests.” “Oh,” I thought. “Here comes the bit where they talk about building up your willpower, so it becomes stronger over time, blah blah.” But that’s not the angle at all, at least not initially. What’s meant in this context is that just like a physical muscle, your willpower has limits. It can get worn out.

In an experiment she describes, researchers sat some hungry volunteers down in front of a plate of radishes, and a plate of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies. Some of the volunteers were told only to eat radishes ( 🙁 ), while others could eat the cookies ( 🙂 ). A third group wasn’t hungry, and didn’t eat anything at all.

Next, these folks were taken to a different room, and given a difficult puzzle to solve. (In fact, it had no solution. Evil, evil researchers!) It seems that the people who ate chocolate chip cookies, or who ate nothing at all, spent about twice as long puzzling over the puzzle as those who ate radishes. The implication, according to the researchers, is that the radish-eaters had already exhausted a large chunk of their available willpower dutifully resisting the siren call of the chocolate chips, and didn’t have much left to spend on a stupid puzzle.

Interesting thought, eh? The article does go on to acknowledge the fact that we can, in fact, increase our willpower, and that exercising it in one area of our lives tends to strengthen it in all areas. The quick fix, though, seems to be to use our limited willpower sparingly and carefully.

Perhaps this idea ties in with this earlier post about the Paul Graham’s article “Why Nerds Are Unpopular” — energy and will power that popular students may use to stay popular (especially if they don’t have much of it to begin with) is channeled instead toward academic self-control by more successful students (um, read “nerds”? ;-)).

Something to think about, if you have the energy. 😛