Resolutions and Willpower

Have you made a New Year’s resolution? Can you stick to it?

It’s funny how the start of the New Year signifies a need for a remodel of certain aspects of our lives. And that we believe, for the most part, that this New Year will suddenly give us the motivation to do so. Why January 1st? Is there any science backing our newly found enthusiasm for self-improvement at the beginning of every calendar year? 

The ‘fresh start’ feeling that accompanies the New Year is actually, maybe not surprisingly, a behavioural psychology concept; it exclaims the sudden inspiration found in the “newness of the year”. In 2014, the Fresh Start Effect was published online in the Management Science Journal, authored by Katherine Milkman and colleagues. 

A central piece to this concept is that the new year signifies a ‘temporal landmark’. This is simply a date, day or event that is associated with the start of a new time period. From this, it is theorised that having started in a new time period, the slate is clean, and any past distresses are left behind. This allows for more optimism and goal directed behaviour. 

This explains the salad eating, caffeine withdrawn, Pilates obsessed population of January! 

However, as the year progresses, few seem to maintain their resolutions. Gyms get quieter, pizza becomes a regular fix, and the past resolutions seem of little importance. As the goals become more difficult to keep, people’s willpower and tenacity are tested. Can science explain why some have more perseverance at these times than others?

Willpower has been a curiously investigated topic since the late 1990s. In the original work, a well-known psychologist Dr Roy Baumeister and colleagues, formed two groups of people and brought them into a room that had a tray of cookies and a tray of radishes. One group is told to resist the radishes, while the other group is told to resist the cookies. (There’s definitely one group I would rather be in!) Some of the subjects had been on diets and the room was filled with a baking aroma, making the resistance a more mentally difficult willpower driven task. Following this, they were then asked to solve a puzzle. The puzzle was unsolvable and the time they persevered with the puzzle was recorded. 

They found that those that had to resist the radishes tended to persevere with the puzzle for longer. The hypothesised conclusion was that willpower is a limited resource. Those that only had to resist the radishes used less willpower, therefore reserving more for the puzzle: this is also known as ego depletion.  

So, what do we need more of to increase our willpower reservoir to become the January population all year round? Baumeister believed this to be glucose availability.

However, more recently Dr Veronika Job and colleagues from Stanford University conducted experiments to explore whether the individual’s beliefs about their own willpower affected its depletion. It was found that only those who believed that their willpower was of limited resource, had a beneficial effect in self-control behaviour after a sugar intake. It is rather enigmatic how the psychological and physiological interact! So, is willpower limited or is glucose not the resource? 

There is still no singular explanation agreed upon in terms of understanding willpower levels. Perhaps more grit is needed to find the whole answer!

So, what actually happens in the brain to exert willpower? A particular brain hub has been identified as concomitant to exerting tenacity; it is known as the anterior mid-cingulate cortex (aMCC). 

In a review by Dr Alexander Touroutoglou and colleagues, the aMCC is referred to as a structural and functional hub to address the sheer number of connections the aMCC has with other parts of the nervous systems. The aMCC receives information from these several systems in order to perform effort and energy calculations to thus utilise the body and its systems for a given task. How much glucose does each brain area need? 

Further, elevated levels of aMCC are recorded when performing difficult tasks, especially tasks where greater resistance to complete them is felt i.e., more willpower needed.

Whether you are currently invested in your New Year’s resolution, or you have already given up on it completely, I hope you now understand a little more about the desire of the New Year and the neuroscience of willpower in the everyday. 

Written by Emma Walsh and edited by Maureen Whalen.
Emma is a first year neuroscience student at the University of Edinburgh.

Andrew Huberman podcast – 

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Katherine Milkman – 

Science direct, Alexandra Touroutoglou – 

American psychological association – 

Veronika Job – 

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