Willpower: The science of why it fails

IF you’ve been on a diet and decided to use willpower to cut out cakes, biscuits, sugary foods – in fact, most of the things you really love – then I’m sure you’ll remember how difficult supermarket shopping became. Willpower was probably enough to get you through the first few shopping trips and you were strong enough to resist the nice things you’d banned from your life. However, you’ll know only too well that willpower is like your leg muscles – use it too much and it gets tired and weak.

When willpower fades, dieters blame themselves for being weak and when this happens repeatedly they brand themselves a failure.  It’s a self-esteem killer and it’s so unfair because if you’re relying on willpower to help you lose weight the odds are stacked really heavily against you.

Scientists, advertisers and marketers have known this for nearly 70 years, since long before supermarkets made their way to Britain from America. 

Today marketing, advertising and retailing have become sophisticated that the tricks they use to make you buy mean it’s almost impossible to resist those high-profit, sugar-filled goodies they want to hook you on.

The good news, though, is that once you know their secrets you can put them to use in a positive way to nudge yourself into healthier eating habits that will help you lose weight. And all without one ounce of willpower in sight!

Dr David Lewis,  psychologist, co-founder of Mindlab International and author of many books including The Brain Sell, points out that in the USA and UK alone, shoppers spend an estimated £20 billion a year on impulse buys – not because they’re weak but because the marketers are clever. They know that sometimes we all get overtaken by an irresistible urge – “I don’t need it but I’ve just got to have it.”

It doesn’t matter if it’s a chocolate éclair or a £75 pair of shoes, there’s not enough willpower in the world to say No.

Dr Lewis’s extensive research into the neuroscience of acting on impulse in this way supports the notion that it is controlled by desires, emotions and sometimes anxiety, operating below the level of conscious awareness.

You don’t know you’re doing it, so how on earth can you expect willpower to stop it?

Back in 1952 an economist called Hawkins Stern at the Stanford Research Institute in Southern California was studying consumer behaviour and published a research paper “The Significance of Impulse Buying Today.”

He described a phenomenon he called Suggestion Impulse Buying, which “is triggered when a shopper sees a product for the first time and visualises a need for it.” Stern discovered that customers buy things not necessarily because they want them but because of how they are presented to them.

You know the ones, they’re placed at the end of the supermarket aisles with a big ‘buy one get one free’ sticker on them! Or even worse, those sweets and chocolates at the checkout – just where you happen to be standing waiting!
The second reason sweets are at the checkout is because of “decision fatigue.”  Your willpower is like a muscle and like all muscles it gets tired after constant use. The more decisions you ask your brain to make, the more fatigued your willpower becomes.

Supermarkets are a class act when it comes to ‘decision fatigue’.  How often have you been into a supermarket and seen the sweets/chocolates and cakes at the entrance? I’ve certainly not come across one!

Every supermarket I go into has the fruit and healthy things very early on in the buying process.  And then, when you’re getting tired up pops the aisle that has all the goodies and treats in!

No willpower! What a surprise!

How many people then reward themselves for pushing around a trolley in a crowded supermarket?!

If the sweets are at the beginning of your journey, they are easily resisted. However, by the time you get to the checkout, your willpower has been severely diminished by the amount of choices you’ve had to make.  Bingo, you can’t resist the sweet stuff!

The importance of this to anyone wanting to change to healthier eating and to lose weight is that it shows that our environment greatly affects our actions.

The American Journal of Public Health published a six-month study done in Boston, Massachusetts, where secret changes made in a hospital cafeteria helped thousands of people to develop healthier eating habits without changing their willpower or motivation in the slightest way.

The idea was that by changing the environment and the way food and drink was displayed in the cafeteria, people could influence people to eat healthier without thinking about it.  So fridges which contained only sugary, fizzy drinks had bottles of water added to them. And baskets of bottled water were placed throughout the room.

Nobody said anything to anyone who used the cafeteria, so any changes that took place had to be the result of this unconscious persuasion.

After six months sales of sugary drinks were DOWN by 11.4 per cent and sales of bottled water were UP by 25.8 per cent.

Similar results were found with food. By putting fruit and vegetable snacks at the front of counters it nudged people to buy more of them.

Here’s what makes this even more important in our everyday lives. A generation of research into willpower has revealed that it isn’t something you either have or don’t have, it’s a resource you can use and restore. The strength of your willpower is governed by how much you use it during the day.

That’s a biggie for anyone trying to lose weight! Because if your willpower is running low because you’ve been using it a lot, then you’re even more likely to make decisions based on the environment around you.

So how can you change your environment – your kitchen, your workplace, even your fridge – so that you can influence your behaviour for the good?

How can you change your home so you can eat healthily without having to think about it? So that it promotes good behaviours and prevents the bad ones.

If you’re feeling tired and stressed – and who isn’t stressed at some point, especially when they’re dieting – you’re not going to go through a lot of effort to cook a healthy dinner or get in shape with a workout.  You tend to go for what’s quickest and easiest.  This is probably how the Friday or Saturday night take-away came about!

Here are some top willpower tips

Organise your room, your office, your kitchen, and other areas, so you don’t have temptations in the way when your willpower is at its lowest.

Place healthier foods in more visible spots in your fridge, pantry and around the kitchen. Supermarkets know that they sell more of any item which is displayed at eye level.

Avoid shopping for food when you’re hungry.

In one study Dr Lewis conducted, hungry shoppers not only bought significantly more food but more high-fat and high-sugar items. “Just bear in mind that a modern shopping mall or supermarket is actually a giant machine design to sell things,” says Dr Lewis.

In that way, you’ll be making it more likely that you’ll grab healthy food even when your willpower is fading.

And if all of this is just too difficult, then there is a solution!  We created Slimpods to make life so much easier.  They remove the need for willpower because they ‘prime’ your mind to notice the healthy choices over the unhealthy ones

This means you are no longer a victim of your environment or the people who want you to fill your trolley with sugary treats!

12 thoughts on “Willpower: The science of why it fails”

  1. Thank you, that’s been really interesting for me and will make me so much more aware of my environment and how I can make it less “toxic” for myself.

  2. Thank you for this interesting article. I wonder how much impulse buying I have done in the past. I will be more aware of my environment too. Maybe I can save some money in the future? 😉

  3. Really insightful. Maybe I should start my shopping from the far end of the supermarket. That’s the key to giving will power a fighting chance.

  4. Really interesting to understand this. It’s made me want to be stricter about creating my meal plans for the week and to stick to the shopping list it creates. Fascinating stuff. Thanks for bringing to the forefront of my mind. The knowledge is my power?

  5. This has made me realise the crafty techniques used to temp you whilst shopping, there are always sweets at the tills in morrisons & asda. Lately though, ive noticed at aldi’s tills, they have bottled water & healthy snacks like nuts & seeds. This has certainly raised my awareness towards the temptations used in the supermarkets! ?

  6. I try not to have any sugary foods in the house as I know that i will eat them!!! At 68, and dieted for most of them I am all will powered out.

  7. Very interesting made me smile as I could see myself at the checkout trying to ignore what was on the shelves. Thank you for sharing this.

  8. I think this is the most powerful, informative and useful email from Sandra so far. Whilst I already know about marketing techniques I always thought I was just weak not being so totally manipulated.

  9. Oh my goodness this really makes sense, so changing things around in the fridge so at eye level is vegetables and healthier food.Also I think I will be more aware of how items are placed in the supermarket and how vulnerable you can be at the end of a shopping trip because you’re tired and have had enough of shopping at that point.

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About Sandra
Founder of Thinking Slimmer
Food addiction expert
Member of All-Party Parliamentary Obesity Group
Huffington Post contributor
DipCHyp HPD NLP MasterPrac
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