Whip out your moral muscle!

Abstract: There’s a ‘muscle’ in your body that could make you healthier…and wealthier…

What’s long and hard and brings a smile to the face of many a woman? You’re right: it’s the decision of whether or not to have another piece of chocolate cake; and if decades of research are anything to go by, it’s what makes us successful in life. No, not the chocolate cake…the other thing.

If there’s something that separates us humans from our fellow animals, it’s the capacity for higher thought. A wild animal never really ponders whether or not to eat something. It never struggles with the greater philosophical question surrounding the morality of consuming another living thing. It just chomps it.

There are of course many examples in the animal kingdom where food, instead of being eaten immediately, is stored for later, or transported to a mate or offspring; but this is genetically embedded as instrumental in their survival as a species. It’s instinctive.

It’s only us humans that grapple with the concept of delayed gratification – whether to eat something now or delay eating it until later, or even just walk away from it altogether.

It’s called willpower, and it’s both a burden and a defining element of civilisation. It’s also a key, some would say, not only to survival, but also to personal success.

One such person is Roy F. Baumeister, a leading professor of social psychology, based in Tallahassee, Florida. Over the last three decades he has concentrated on studying self-control and willpower, so he must know what he’s talking about. After all, it takes a lot of willpower to study something like that for more than thirty years!

But I digress. His research has linked studies of the developing behaviour of a thousand people around the world over a period of 32 years, who, from an early age displayed evidence of strong willpower. These included young children who, in one famous experiment, when offered the choice of either a single marshmallow immediately or two if they could wait 15 minutes, showed impressive evidence of delayed gratification.

Taking into consideration differences in sex, culture, intelligence, and social class, he has concluded that those who showed greater willpower matured into adults who were happier, healthier and, yes, you guessed it, wealthier.

On the other hand, those children who showed a supposed lack of willpower were more likely to fare poorly at school; develop behavioural problems such as drug abuse, eating disorders or alcoholism; be unhealthy and end up working in a low-paying job with little savings.

Of course, research into social psychology will always suffer the same retarding challenge: it studies human behaviour, which is often inexplicable and fraught with complications. Besides, people tend to be a little elastic with the truth when answering questions about themselves. Therefore care should always be taken in interpreting research results in isolation and out of context.

However, Professor Baumeister has, in typical American fashion, managed to compress all his experience and insight into a handy, easy-to-market catchphrase, which has a certain element of logic to it: “moral muscle”.

He suggests that willpower – or self-control – is not only a critical component of how disciplined we are in managing our thoughts and controlling our emotions and impulses, and therefore helps define our moral orientation – but that it also displays the characteristics of muscles in our body: if overused, it can become fatigued; it, therefore, needs constant feeding; but if exercised properly, it can be honed to perfection.

His research has shown that people exposed to tasks that drew on their willpower, such as refusing delicious chocolates, perform poorly at later tasks that demand willpower. This suggests we have a limited well of willpower and that it differs from person to person; but, importantly, it is connected to sugar levels in our body, the same sugars that power our muscles.

This was underscored by tests that showed that people continually supplied with sources of glucose were able to continue exercising willpower for longer than those that weren’t. Also, people who got plenty of rest were able to draw on more willpower than those who pushed themselves too hard.

But more dramatically, his research suggests that willpower – our so-called moral muscle – can be developed and perfected through incremental exercises. Even purposefully offering someone a response to their question with a complete sentence as opposed to a simple grunt, or doing something seemingly as ridiculous as doggedly operating a computer mouse with the other hand can provide longer-term benefits (even if it means your report takes days to complete instead of hours!)

So, if the good professor is correct, and you want to become more successful in your career, start training your willpower. And so the next time someone asks you if you want another piece of chocolate cake, don’t just shrug your shoulders – provide them with a philosophical treatise on the benefits of delayed gratification, or just tuck in…but with your elbows.

Originally published in the March 2012 edition of Leadership magazine