Firm Muscles Associated With Strong Willpower

It is a common finding that when people try to strengthen their mental resolve or try to resist a temptation they may clench their fists, grit their teeth or scrunch their muscles. Researchers tried to explore the fact that firmed muscles that usually result from trying to recruit willpower also firm willpower, using an array of experiments. This might “help one grasp long-range thoughts, and, consequently, help one engage more effectively in self-control.” The results from across the five studies showed that simply firming one’s muscles can firm one’s resolve and facilitate self control.

Over the past century, there have been studies that have tried to uncover ways to help people overcome immediate temptations and focus on accomplishing what is good for them in the long term. At times, people indulge in simple firming of the muscle, such as gritting their teeth or clenching their fists. These gestures and movements prepare them to take the right decisions when in a dilemma. However, there have been no concrete studies to show that this firming of muscles is linked to firming of willpower. This study explored the link so as to help people make better choices using simple muscle-firming techniques.

•    Five different experiments asked participants to use simple muscle-firming techniques like bunching up the fist, extending the fingers, contracting the calf muscles and stiffening the biceps.
•    The experiments involved 54, 47, 91, 66 and 98 undergraduate students in the five experiments respectively.
•    The self-control tasks given to the participants were of two types. The first group of experiments required accepting pain in return for future gain (e.g., consuming a bad-tasting but healthy tonic); whereas, the second group of experiments demanded forgoing instantaneous pleasure for potential gain (e.g., choosing a healthy apple over a chocolate bar).

•    Results from the first experiment showed that participants who exerted self control by firming muscles to face a disturbing piece of news were more charitable with their money for the cause.
•    Two other experiments showed that self-control depends on the actual willpower people summoned when engaged in self-control and that muscle firming augments willpower.
•    Participants were also able to resist momentary pleasures of immediate temptations in favor of long-term goals.
•    The last experiment showed that when people firm their muscles prior to exerting self-control, subsequent self-control efforts are impaired, presumably because the summoned willpower is exhausted and wasted.

Next steps
In this study, the participants were unaware that their muscle-firming action was in any way related to self-control. Researchers plan to conduct future, larger studies, where the participants would be aware of utilizing their muscle power to exert self-control. Researchers also plan to conduct a varied range of experiments to explore the workings of self-control and possible factors that influence it in positive or negative ways.

This study explored the effects of firm muscles on willpower and self-control, and found a positive connection between the two, using five different experiments. Most people face the dilemma of choosing what is pleasant over what is good for them in the long term. When caught in such a tussle, they often unknowingly apply muscle-firming techniques such as clenching fists, gritting teeth or scrunching up muscles to fight a temptation or to overcome an immediate unpleasantness. Once larger studies prove the concept right, these methods of muscle firming may be consciously used to help people make the right choices in trying situations.

For More Information:
From Firm Muscles to Firm Willpower
Publication Journal: Journal of Consumer Research, April 2011
By Iris W. Hung; Aparna A. Labroo; National University of Singapore and the University of Chicago, Illinois

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.
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