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Where does willpower come from?

There are 563 toasters for sale on Amazon.ca. Most of the listings offer detailed technical specifications and reviews from customers and consumer magazines. In the quest for the best, “it’s so easy to be seduced, so easy to search some more,” says Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and the author of the 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.

No surprise then that when faced with many choices, the willpower to sift through the options is sapped, and the brain freezes.

There may be a limited number of choices the brain can handle at one time, says Lesley Fellows, a neurologist at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill University who studies the neuroscience of decision making. People are usually able to hold in their minds a string of seven numbers, but not much more. “Presumably it takes up brain power to hold onto that information and keep track of it,” she says.

By limiting the number of choices to evaluate, you can avoid the paralysis associated with decision fatigue, though you may not end up with the best toaster, says Schwartz.

Not only does more choice not promise perfection, it tends to lead to regret. “If you choose something and it is not perfect – and so very few things are – it is extremely possible to imagine that something else is better,” says Schwartz.

Where does willpower come from?

Baumeister’s research suggests it is tightly linked to sugar and that consuming sugar restores depleted willpower. In one study, Baumeister gave people lemonade made with sugar or artificial sweetener after a series of decision-based tasks had worn them down. Only the drinkers of the sugared-lemonade could invigorate their brain performance. “Decision-making processes deplete glucose and they suffer when it is low,” he says.

Not everyone agrees with this concept of willpower. Research done by Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, showed that decision fatigue is real and willpower can be limited, but only if you believe that.

“But when people believe that willpower is self-renewing-that when you work hard, you’re energized to work more; that when you’ve resisted one temptation, you can better resist the next one-then people successfully exert more willpower,” Dweck and Stanford psychology professor Greg Walton wrote in an editorial in the New York Times. Their recent work shows that people who believe in willpower don’t need sugar boosts to maintain their performance.

And the study of the tough judges? Although they tended toward parole soon after breakfast, lunch or coffee breaks, the study couldn’t directly tie sugar to decision-making, nor whether any of the decisions were unwarranted.

Still Curious? Read Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength — authors John Tierney and Roy Baumeister argue that willpower is a limited resource and that when we overdraw from this finite bank of mental energy, typically levelheaded people lose their self-control and start to make bad decisions.

Original source: http://www.montrealgazette.com/story_print.html?id=6030734