Friday, June 23, 2006

Is Self Discipline Like a Muscle?

Cordelia Fine has a, well, fine article in The Australian about willpower. Her basic premise is that self-discipline (willpower) is like a muscle. In other words, research seems to indicate that willpower can increase over time if "exercised."

However, willpower, like a muscle, can also get fatigued in the short term. Fine recounts an experiment where subjects were put in a room with both radishes and chocolate chip cookies. One group was told to eat only the radishes and avoid the cookies, while a second group was given free reign with the sweets. Both groups were then asked to solve a puzzle. The puzzle was unsolvable, but the researchers were actually interested in how long the subjects would keep at it before giving up. Those who had to exercise self-restraing with the cookies gave up much quicker than those who didn't.

Read the whole thing here.

So what to take away from all this? Here are a few quick thoughts:
  1. Self discipline may have just as much (if not more) to do with academic success than intelligence,
  2. Self-discipline can be trained.
  3. Being disciplined in some areas may have a spillover effect in others
  4. Sometimes when you're in the midst of a difficult task that requires self-discipline (like an extended writing project), you should cut yourself some slack in other areas.
HT: Greg Mankiw

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