How views about willpower affect you and your grades

There has been a lot of research into how self-control (defined as “restraint exercised over one’s own impulses, emotions and desires” Merriam-Webster, 2015) is affected by performing tasks that require self-control. One hypothesis with a large amount of experimental evidence to support it is the strength model of self-control (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998; Baumeister, Vohs, & Tice, 2007). This holds that people’s self-control is a limited resource and that once used up, people will be less able to exert self-control later and will therefore be less likely to restrain themselves (Hagger, Wood, Stiff, & Chatzisarantis, 2010). This loss of your self-control resource is called “ego depletion”. Believing this then supposedly allows you to allocate you resources more efficiently and thus improve self-regulation (Vohs, Baumeister, & Schmeichel, 2012).

However there have been several studies that suggest ego depletion itself is not the cause of reduced self-control at a later time; it’s the person’s beliefs about whether their self-control resources is depleted or not that results in lapses of self-control (Job, Dweck, & Walton, 2010). So it’s not that your self-control resources is actually depleted; it’s that you believe they have and you will therefore be less likely to put in the effort required to maintain self-control. This is contrasted with those who believe in a nonlimited theory of willpower who do not experience a decrease in self-control across demanding tasks (Miller, Walton, Dweck, Job, Trzesniewski, & McClure, 2012).

A study by Job, Walton, Bernecker, & Dweck (2015) looked at the effect different beliefs about willpower had on everyday self-regulation (e.g.procrastination, consumption of unhealthy foods, poor time management, excess spending, and failure to control emotions). The participants had to say when they had experienced “self-regulation failures” in the past week. The data was therefore based on self-report, which comes with a host of problems (social desirability bias, lying), some time after the event occurred (so the participants may have forgotten). They were also  required to predict how many demands they would face in the coming week (academic tasks e.g. “tests to take”, and social stressors e.g. “experience of social exclusion”). Their natural self-control ability was also calculated (through a questionnaire).

They found no significant difference in anticipated demands between students with different theories about willpower. When students experienced/reported high demand, those with a limited resource-theory reported a greater number of self-regulation failures on procrastination. The other measures either didn’t reach significance or only just reached it (so I’m not going to focus on those). There was no significant difference between theories of willpower when demands were low. The possibility that students who endorsed the limited resource-theory were simply worse at self-regulating behaviour was controlled for and they still found a significant effect of different theories of willpower on self-regulatory failures (during high demand). This implies their beliefs about willpower affected their reported self-regulatory failures, as opposed to their natural ability to control themselves being the only causal factor.

The next step was examining whether beliefs about willpower affected an objective measure (in this case, GPA or grade point average for us non-Americans). Even when controlling for prior GPA, the students who agreed with the limited resource-theory scored lower on their GPA (though this variable only just reached significance). They also found that students who believed in the limited resource theory (and were on a course with a high work-load) scored significantly lower GPA’s than students who endorsed a nonlimited view of willpower on the same course (this last result was found even when the participant’s natural self-control was controlled for).

This is an interesting study as it suggests students who hold willpower is a limited resource are more likely to procrastinate and thus achieve a lower grade in their final tests. I feel running this as a longitudinal study and using better methods of recording self-regulatory failures would be a good next step.

Baumeister, R.F.; Bratslavsky, E.; Muraven, M.; & Tice, D.M. (1998). Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74 (5), 1252-1265.
Baumeister, R.F.; Vohs, K.D.; & Tice, D.M. (2007). The Strength Model of Self-Control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16 (6), 351-355.
Hagger, M.S.; Stiff, C.; & Chatzisarantis, N.L.D. (2010). Ego Depletion and the Strength Model of Self-Control: A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136 (4), 495-525.
Job, V.; Dweck, C.S.; & Walton, G.M. (2010). Ego Depletion- Is It All In Your Head? Implicit Theories About Will-Power Affect Self-Regulation. Psychological Science, 21 (11), 1686-1693.
Job, V.; Walton, G.M.; Bernecker, K.; & Dweck, C.S. (2015). Implicit Theories About Willpower Predict Self-Regulation and Grades in Everyday Life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108 (4), 637-647.
Merriam-Webster. (2015). Self-control. Available at: Last accessed 07/04/2015.
Miller, E.M.; Walton, G.M.; Dweck, C.S.; Job, V.; Trzesniewski, K.H.; & McClure, S.M. (2012). Theories of Willpower Affect Sustained Learning. PLoS ONE, 7 (6), e38680, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0038680.
Vohs, K.D.; Baumeister, R.F.; & Schmeichel, B.J. (2012). Motivation, personal beliefs, and limited resources all contribute to self-control. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48 (4), 943-947. (function(i,s,o,g,r,a,m){i[‘GoogleAnalyticsObject’]=r;i[r]=i[r]||function(){ (i[r].q=i[r].q||[]).push(arguments)},i[r].l=1*new Date();a=s.createElement(o), m=s.getElementsByTagName(o)[0];a.async=1;a.src=g;m.parentNode.insertBefore(a,m) })(window,document,’script’,’//’,’ga’); ga(‘create’, ‘UA-63654510-1’, ‘auto’); ga(‘send’, ‘pageview’);

Overcoming stereotype threat

Stereotype threat is the experience of anxiety when you could potentially confirm a negative stereotype about your social group e.g. women are inferior to men at maths, black people are less intelligent than white people. Steele (1997) found that negative stereotypes can negatively impact a person’s ability on specific tests (if they belong to the negatively stereotyped group) as they become worried about fulfilling the stereotype and this anxiety impinges their score. But how can this effect be overcome? There have been a variety of methods which have sought to negate this effect, and I will detail some of them here (successful intervention techniques underlined).

Ambady et al. (2004) either primed the participants gender before they answered a set of questions in the study (by flashing words that were linked to being female e.g. “aunt”, “girl”) or primed them with neutral stimuli. They were then asked to either individuate themselves by listing positive and negative aspects of themselves and provide examples of these personality traits manifesting themselves or answer comparably formatted questions about lions. They found that the gender primed individuated participants performed as well as the non gender primed participants and better than the gender primed non-individuated participants.

Schmiel et al. (2004) made students focus on their (self-rated) most important characteristics  e.g. being a musician, athlete etc. They were then exposed to the different conditions. In the intrinsic self-affirmation condition, the participants were asked to say why those aspects of their nature made them feel good regardless of socially imposed standards and performance contingencies e.g. “Being a         makes me feel           “. Participants in the extrinsic self-esteem condition were made to think about the contingent nature of their most-valued features (the worth of those traits being dependent on other people’s judgement) e.g. “When I am a successful         I receive        “. They found that female participants who affirmed the intrinsic worth of their characteristics performed better than extrinsic self-esteem condition females on a mathematical problem solving task.

Martens et al. (2006) found that female participants who affirmed a valued attribute (by describing how these characteristics were personally important and an instance when they had displayed this trait) performed better than female participants who had not (though the sample of this study was very small).

Good et al. (2008) presented final year calculus students (at a prestigious university) a standardised maths test which was preceded by a paragraph that either emphasised this tests’ ability to measure maths proficiency (stereotype threat condition) or one that highlighted that there were no gender differences in score for this test (non-threat condition). They found that female participants in the non-threat condition scored higher than stereotype threat females (they had higher accuracy and answered more questions) and males in both conditions. They found that removing the gender bias before starting a maths test reduced stereotype threat in female participants (though this analysis was only found for Anglo-American participants).

McGlone & Aronson (2006) administering a spatial reasoning test to male and female college students. Prior to this, the researchers presented the participants with one of 3 questionnaires: one that primed gender (by asking questions that made them think about their gender), another that primed the fact they were at a private school (by asking them questions to do with the fact they had earned admittance to a private school), and the third primed the fact they were residents of the Northeastern United States (control group). They found that the the female students who had been primed with the idea they had earned their place at a private school (their “achieved” identities were made salient) performed better than those whose gender had been primed (though this effect wasn’t very large).

Ambady, N.; Paik, S.K.; Steele, J.; Owen-Smith, A. & Mitchell, J.P. (2003). Deflecting negative self-relevant stereotype activation: The effects of individuation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 401-408.
Good, C.; Aronson, J. & Harder, J.A. (2008). Problems in the pipeline: Stereotype threat and women’s achievement in high-level maths courses. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29 (1), 17-29.
Martens, A.; Johns, M.; Greenberg, J. & Schimel, J. (2006). Combating stereotype threat: The effect of self-affirmation on women’s intellectual performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42 (2), 236-243.
McGlone, M.S. & Aronson, J. (2006). Stereotype threat, identity salience, and spatial reasoning. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 27 (5), 486-493.
Schmiel, J.; Arndt, J.; Banko, K.M. & Cook, A. (2004). Not all self-affirmations were created equal: The cognitive and social benefits of affirming the intrinsic (versus extrinsic) self. Social Cognition, 22 (1), 75-99.
Steele, C.M. (1997). A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance. American Psychologist, 52 (6), 613-629. (function(i,s,o,g,r,a,m){i[‘GoogleAnalyticsObject’]=r;i[r]=i[r]||function(){ (i[r].q=i[r].q||[]).push(arguments)},i[r].l=1*new Date();a=s.createElement(o), m=s.getElementsByTagName(o)[0];a.async=1;a.src=g;m.parentNode.insertBefore(a,m) })(window,document,’script’,’//’,’ga’); ga(‘create’, ‘UA-63654510-1’, ‘auto’); ga(‘send’, ‘pageview’);

When sex doesn’t sell

The idea of using “sex” or “sex appeal” to help sell a product is not new. It’s been used to sell alcohol, cars, jeans, perfume, sports shoes, the list is almost endless (the fact that it is almost exclusively a heterosexual males definition of “sex appeal”, especially with cars and alcohol, is perhaps rather damning of our society but not something I am going to discuss). And you can see why, it genuinely does increase sales of these products (see here for evidence). But another famous (and arguably more controversial) example is when almost naked women are used to promote ethical causes e.g. PETA’s many adverts. 

The logic makes sense: putting semi-naked women in adverts with products increases sales and makes the brand more recognisable and memorable, so these results should apply to other products and causes e.g. stop wearing fur. 

But does using sex appeal really result in greater support for these causes? That’s what Bongiorno et al. (2013) wanted to find out. In their study they showed male participants PETA ad campaigns that either featured women fully clothed or scantily clothed. The ads were promoting the same campaign, controlling for possible effects of different campaigns being more popular. They were then asked to rate how aroused they were, the uniquely human characteristics of the women in the ad (lower ratings on the scale indicated dehumanisation) and their behavioural intentions to support PETA in the future. 

They found that support for PETA was reduced in the “sexualised women” condition and this effect was explained by the dehumanising effect of having the women scantily clad rather than because the men were more aroused (reduced support for PETA was mediated by negative uniquely human ratings). 

This is a very interesting result but there are some problems with it. The participant’s arousal levels were self-reported so the reliability of those results can be called into question (you can’t be sure that the participants would give exactly the same results if they were presented the materials again), as well as the validity (is it actually measuring arousal?). A physiological measure of arousal would have been more accurate (though the experiment would have to change from an online questionnaire to a lab experiment, which is more expensive and harder to organise). The participant’s support for PETA was also measured via self-report so a more objective measure (e.g. how much they would donate to a PETA cause) would be more reliable. It was also asking about their behavioural INTENTION to donate, rather than how much they think they would donate or indeed how much they actually would actually donate, so the validity of their results (how much we can be sure that they are measuring changes in support levels) is not 100%.

They performed a follow-up study with a much larger sample and mixed gender. They also asked the participants to think of ways to help PETA in the future. They found the same result (reduced behavioural intention to support PETA mediated via dehumanisation of women) and fewer suggestions were offered in the “sexualised women” condition. 

Whilst the study isn’t perfect, I do think it is a good indicator that using sexual imagery (specifically almost naked women) to gain support from men for an ethical campaign actually results in less support for that group. So if you want to advertise for an ethical campaign, do it ethically (otherwise you will deter supports of both genders). (function(i,s,o,g,r,a,m){i[‘GoogleAnalyticsObject’]=r;i[r]=i[r]||function(){ (i[r].q=i[r].q||[]).push(arguments)},i[r].l=1*new Date();a=s.createElement(o), m=s.getElementsByTagName(o)[0];a.async=1;a.src=g;m.parentNode.insertBefore(a,m) })(window,document,’script’,’//’,’ga’); ga(‘create’, ‘UA-63654510-1’, ‘auto’); ga(‘send’, ‘pageview’);


Bongiorno, R.; Bain, P.; & Haslam, N. (2013). When Sex Doesn’t Sell: Using Sexualised Images of Women Reduces Support for Ethical Campaigns. PLoS ONE, 8 (12).
Reichert, T. (2002). Sex in Advertising Research: A Review of Content, Effects, and Functions of Sexual Information in Consumer Advertising. Annual Review of Sex Research, 13, 1, 241

Good news everyone: Playing video games can result in a boost in brain volume

A recent study (Kuhn & Gallinat, in press) found that participants who played Super Mario 64 (an amazing game by the way) for 30 minutes a day for 2 months experienced a significant increase in gray matter volume in brain areas that control spatial awareness, memory, and strategic thinking. The specific areas that saw an increase were the right hippocampus, the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and on both sides of the cerebellum. This was compared to the control group that did not play video games during the study. MRI scans were taken at the beginning and end of the study to establish changes in brain structure. 

As someone who loves playing video games this is pretty good news, especially since the media often chooses to vilify video games as a scourge of the people. Obviously though this doesn’t mean that you should go and play video games non-stop (more research needs to be done to establish the ideal amount of time spent playing video games) and it will also be dependent on what type of video game you play (again, more research will be needed to work out specific facts). But all in all it’s still good news. 

The full Nature article