APA report: Lack of willpower may be obstacle to improving personal health and finances

New APA report explains the science behind willpower and self-control

By Public Relations staff

February 23, 2012—According to a survey (PDF, 827KB) released by APA, 93 percent of Americans made a resolution to change some aspect of their behavior in 2012. Yet people consistently report that a lack of willpower is the top reason they fall short of their goals to lose weight, save more money, exercise or make other lifestyle changes.

The survey, conducted online on behalf of APA by Harris Interactive among 566 adults in December 2011, is a continuation of APA’s annual Stress in America™ poll, which found that many Americans report lack of willpower as a significant barrier to achieving their goals.

A companion report released by APA reveals that people can enhance their willpower if they can learn to deploy it more effectively. What You Need to Know about Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-Control explores leading research into the nature and consequences of people's ability to exert self-control. This research suggests that willpower is correlated with positive life outcomes such as better grades, higher self-esteem, greater financial security and improved physical and mental health.

The capacity for self-control appears to persist throughout a person’s life. Research shows that those with better self-control as preschoolers tend to have better control as adults. But just as muscles are strengthened by consistent exercise, regularly exerting self-control may improve willpower strength over time, recent studies suggest.

The most frequently reported goals that people set for 2012 were those aimed at improving health (57 percent reported a goal to lose weight, 50 percent reported a goal to eat a healthier diet and 41 percent reported a goal to start exercising regularly) or financial status (52 percent reported a goal to save more money, and 37 percent reported a goal to pay off debt), according to the follow-up survey.

For adults trying to make a lifestyle change, however, willpower is an important factor. According to APA’s 2011 Stress in America survey, released in January 2012, one in four reported that willpower (27 percent) or time (26 percent) prevented them from making the change they were trying to achieve. Despite difficulties with willpower, a majority of those responding to the survey (71 percent) believe that willpower can be learned, which is good news since psychological research demonstrates that this is true.

The willpower report and survey are a component of APA’s Mind/Body Health campaign, which educates the public about behavioral science, the connection between psychological and physical health, and how lifestyle and behaviors can affect overall health and wellness.

A package of materials including the willpower report, survey findings and accompanying fact sheets are available for download to share with clients and colleagues. To access these resources, visit the Willpower webpage.