Jamie Holmes on Willpower as a Scarce Resource

by Reihan Salam

Jamie Holmes of the New America Foundation has written a fascinating piece for The New Republic on the idea of “depletable” self-control:

In the 1990s, social psychologists developed a theory of “depletable” self-control. The idea was that an individual’s capacity for exerting willpower was finite—that exerting willpower in one area makes us less able to exert it in other areas. In 1998, researchers at Case Western Reserve University published some of the young movement’s first returns. Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne Tice set up a simple experiment. They had food-deprived subjects sit at a table with two types of food on it: cookies and chocolates; and radishes. Some of the subjects were instructed to eat radishes and resist the sweets, and afterwards all were put to work on unsolvable geometric puzzles. Resisting the sweets, independent of mood, made participants give up more than twice as quickly on the geometric puzzles. Resisting temptation, the researchers found, seemed to have “produced a ‘psychic cost.’”

As Holmes goes on to explain, this finding has significant implications for how we should understand poverty:


Last December, Princeton economist Dean Spears published a series of experiments that each revealed how “poverty appears to have made economic decision-making more consuming of cognitive control for poorer people than for richer people.” In one experiment, poor participants in India performed far less well on a self-control task after simply having to first decide whether to purchase body soap. As Spears found, “Choosing first was depleting only for the poorer participants.” Again, if you have enough money, deciding whether to buy the soap only requires considering whether you want it, not what you might have to give up to get it. Many of the tradeoff decisions that the poor have to make every day are onerous and depressing: whether to pay rent or buy food; to buy medicine or winter clothes; to pay for school materials or loan money to a relative. These choices are weighty, and just thinking about them seems to exact a mental cost.

In a paper in April 2010, Harvard behavioral economist Sendhil Mullainathan (for whom, full disclosure, I once worked) and MIT’s Abhijit Banerjee applied this same notion to decisions requiring self-control. If a doughnut costs twenty-five cents, they wrote, then that “$0.25 will be far more costly to someone living on $2 a day than to someone living on $30 a day. In other words, the same self-control problem is more consequential for the poor.” And so, in addition to all the structural barriers that prevent even determined poor people from escaping poverty, there may be another, deeper, and considerably more disturbing barrier: Poverty may reduce free will, making it even harder for the poor to escape their circumstances.

All of this suggests that we need to rethink our approaches to poverty reduction. Many of our current anti-poverty efforts focus on access to health, educational, agricultural, and financial services. Now, it seems, we need to start treating willpower as a scarce and important resource as well.

A number of issues come to mind: just as there is a “sleepless elite,” i.e., a small number of people who need relatively little sleep to function, as Melinda Beck reporter in the Wall Street Journal in April, one assumes that there is a “willpower elite.”


For a small group of people—perhaps just 1% to 3% of the population—sleep is a waste of time.

Natural “short sleepers,” as they’re officially known, are night owls and early birds simultaneously. They typically turn in well after midnight, then get up just a few hours later and barrel through the day without needing to take naps or load up on caffeine.

They are also energetic, outgoing, optimistic and ambitious, according to the few researchers who have studied them. The pattern sometimes starts in childhood and often runs in families.

While it’s unclear if all short sleepers are high achievers, they do have more time in the day to do things, and keep finding more interesting things to do than sleep, often doing several things at once.

It seems plausible that members of the “willpower elite” are more likely to be upwardly mobile, or to “stick” to privilege if they were born into it. Holmes looks to tools and strategies that can reduce the acuity of tradeoff-making and that can help young people “strengthen the willpower ‘muscle’”:

While one line of research has found reason to think that drained willpower can be restored in the short term—by taking a walk in nature or watching a humorous video, for instance—studies on how to strengthen the willpower muscle in the long term are far less conclusive. This second line of research seems to be more promising in children than in adults. As Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota, who has done extensive research on willpower, put it, “There might be something of a developmental sweet spot.” In twelve U.S. states, a program called Tools of the Mind is explicitly aimed at improving willpower functions in prekindergarten and kindergarten children. While some of the strategies would be quite difficult in much of the developing world, many are not, or could be adapted.

One dilemma: in an affluent consumer society, tests of willpower are common. The kind of choices that are willpower-depleting are going to be different in an American suburb than in an Indian village. What are the requirements of self-respect and public esteem, and how do they shape the landscape of economic decision-making across social classes? After reading Holmes’s article, school uniforms and other measures designed to deemphasize money-based decisions came to mind, though of course uniforms may well heighten the role of facial symmetry and other distinguishing characteristics.

Holmes’s article brings to mind Virginia Postrel’s wonderful review of Sheena Iyengar’s wonderful book The Art of Choosing. Iyengar is known for her jam experiment:

Sheena Iyengar is the psychologist responsible for the famous jam experiment. You may have heard about it: At a luxury food store in Menlo Park, researchers set up a table offering samples of jam. Sometimes, there were six different flavors to choose from. At other times, there were 24. (In both cases, popular flavors like strawberry were left out.) Shoppers were more likely to stop by the table with more flavors. But after the taste test, those who chose from the smaller number were 10 times more likely to actually buy jam: 30 percent versus 3 percent. Having too many options, it seems, made it harder to settle on a single selection.

Many glib conclusions have been drawn from this result, and Iyengar, by way of Postrel, punctures them:

Now Iyengar is having her own say about the jam experiment and the many other puzzles and paradoxes of choice. More choice is not always better, she suggests, but neither is less. The optimal amount of choice lies somewhere in between infinity and very little, and that optimum depends on context and culture. “In practice, people can cope with larger assortments than research on our basic cognitive limitations might suggest,” Iyengar writes. “After all, visiting the cereal aisle doesn’t usually give shoppers a nervous breakdown.”

This “context and culture” idea seems important.