Positive Vision - Day 18

Our weekly excerpt from the book "Positive Vision"

Day 18 - The Willpower Muscle - The Science of Shmirah

We have seen that one’s environment tends to generate certain behaviors. But it certainly does not determine them.

So the skeptic may ask, “Why should I distance myself? Why can’t people just decide what is right and stick to it! Who cares what the environment is? This is the real world. Everyone has to learn to control themselves.”

This is the stated or understood argument of anyone who fails to filter his devices. Some people even go so far as to apply this argument to their children as well.

“My son is supposedly learning a good portion of the day. Let him control himself!”

This argument is based on a misconception. We don’t typically think about willpower and motivation as a finite resource that is impacted by all of the things we do throughout the day — but it seems that’s exactly how it works. Willpower eventually “runs out,” like a muscle that gets tired at the end of a workout. If you use your “willpower” too much, it becomes depleted. Whenever one is in the place of a nisayon, the only means of escaping the aveirah is by drawing on your willpower. And when it runs out you will succumb to the ta’avos, the enticements, that are lurking in your environment.

Roy Baumeister, the noted social scientist, did the following experiment. He brought subjects into a room filled with the aroma of fresh-baked cookies. The table before them held a plate of the cookies and a bowl of radishes. Some people were asked to sample the cookies, while others were asked to eat the radishes. Afterward, they were given 30 minutes to complete a difficult geometric puzzle. Baumeister and his team found that people who ate the radishes — and therefore resisted the enticing cookies — gave up on the puzzle after about eight minutes, while the lucky cookie-eaters persevered for nearly 19 minutes, on average. Drawing on willpower to resist the cookies, it seemed, drained the subjects’ self-control for subsequent situations.

Common experience also verifies this idea. Picture a student cramming for a test, completely focused on studying. He will eat whatever is around, he may start smoking, and when he gets desperate, may not even change his clothes. There is only so much willpower to go around and when it is all used up on studying, everything else is ignored.

When you are in an unhealthy environment you are constantly taxing your willpower to overcome the nisyonos and eventually, you’ll run out of gas. That is why people find evenings so much more difficult to control their impulses. After a long day of using your energy on a host of things, you may feel drained, stressed, or overwhelmed. It is difficult to call upon the energy to fight the behavior generated by your environment.

This was the trick the “winners” in the marshmallow test understood instinctively. They did not fight their desire to eat the nosh; they avoided it by distracting themselves.

Several years back there was a national anti-drug campaign whose slogan was “Just Say No!” The slogan was dead wrong. And it is not the way to be successful in delaying gratification. It should have been, “Just walk away, leave!”

To change behavior, change the environment.

User Comments:


"BH, this was absolutely the best. It is practical and thus makes it applicable.. Keep up the great work.. South Africa"

Powerful insights. Thanks for sharing.

Very good and explains a lot

AMAZING! It really has helped me understand things better