Willpower is the ability to resist immediate temptations to attain long-term goals. It is having the self-control to resist that piece of cake, drink, cigarette, or any other temptation or bad habit. It is learning to not procrastinate and to buckle down to do the task at hand or work toward that long-term goal. And, it’s very hard for many of us to develop and maintain.

For example, cognitive researchers have recently looked into willpower and how it relates to establishing new behavior patterns. Some of their discoveries are as counterintuitive as they are fascinating. One of those has to do with a phenomenon called moral licensing.

If we’ve been successfully dieting for a while, we may come to the point where we congratulate ourselves on how well we’re doing. Before we know it, we might tell ourselves, “I’ve been doing so well on my diet lately, I deserve a treat!” Then, we’ll overindulge in unhealthy food and undo a good deal of the progress we’ve made.

Moral licensing seems to result whenever we turn our behavior into a test of personal virtue. Attaching a moral dimension to a change in behavior tends to work against us and derail us from reaching our goals. We may be more effective if we simply stay with our desires. Remembering why we want this change and the rewards that will result from a healthy diet seems to be a better way of staying on track. There’s something about the way our minds are wired that makes us look for opportunities to be “bad” whenever we’ve succeeded at being “good” for a while.

Another phenomenon that feeds moral licensing is one psychologists call the halo effect. If a product is labeled “healthy choice,” “low-calorie,” or some other designation we tend to associate with virtue, the halo effect kicks in. Subconsciously, we tell ourselves that it must be okay to eat this because it says “healthy choice” right on the label! This is also the case whenever product is marketed with the
mention that the company makes a donation to a charity with every purchase. Even if the product is one that we’re trying to eliminate from our diet, we tend to give ourselves permission to eat it because of the donation we’re enabling.

Another discovery psychologists have made is one they call goal liberation. Once we feel that a goal has been reached, our minds tend to start looking for a new goal to achieve. When we cross something off our “to do” list, we get a surge of endorphins (the natural feel-good chemicals in our brains). Immediately, we look for another goal to give ourselves the same mild euphoria, and may subconsciously give ourselves permission to eat that extra piece of cake, skip a workout, or other-wise lose sight of our targeted behavior patterns.

Again, remaining mindful of why we want to make the changes we’ve set for ourselves is the best way to avoid the moral licensing trap. Whenever we need to exercise willpower, it’s because we have desires in conflict. One goal is in competition with another; part of us wants to stay with the desire to eat in a healthy manner, but another part wants to indulge in unhealthy eating.

Yet another fascinating discovery has to do with how we view our future selves. Most people relate to these future persons as complete strangers, not as themselves at all. For instance, doing without a cigarette today so that our future self can be healthy (and not die of tobacco-related illnesses) can actually feel painful, as if we’re giving away something we want right now to someone we don’t even know. One related break-through in therapy involves creating three-dimensional avatars of a client’s future self and encouraging her to interact with and become friends with that person. This seems to be successful in breaking down the sense of alienation we tend to have toward a vague conception of our future selves.

Interestingly, it seems that when we establish our “good person” credentials (by driving a hybrid vehicle, for instance, or donating to a charity), we tend to pay less attention to other ways we may be violating our ideals. The hybrid driver may drive more, or faster, or less carefully than before. The individual who gives to an organization that fights prejudice and racism may pay less attention to subtle ways their own
biases may manifest in their everyday lives.

The experience of wanting things is driven by dopamine, a brain chemical that sets up an almost frenzied desire to have the object of our desire, accompanied by the belief that getting it is a matter of life and death. The stress hormones that are released in the midst of this experience make us quite willing to work for that goal. It turns out, however, that our desires are actually poor predictors of what will actually make us happy.

This is how addictions work: Whatever the object of our addiction, it hijacks the wanting system in our brains and convinces us that it will make us happy, but it’s never enough to satisfy us. Addiction obliterates the prefrontal cortex, the decision-making, analytical part of the brain. Again, researchers suggest that taking morality out of the equation can help you to remain on track with your goals.
Instead of congratulating yourself on an ethical victory, just stay with your desires. Remember how good it feels to be tobacco- or drug-free, to not have the albatross of addiction around your neck all the time. Chances are, you will have a better chance of staying with your goal of remaining addiction-free this way.

Just about everything worthwhile in life requires willpower. Exercising it often, like a muscle, causes it to grow strong.