Mark Muraven who was by then a professor at the University of Albany set up a

Mark muraven who was by then a professor at the

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Mark Muraven, who was by then a professor at the University of Albany, set up a new experiment. He put undergraduates in a room that contained a plate of warm, fresh cookies and asked them to ignore the treats. Half the participants were treated kindly. “We ask that you please don’t eat the cookies. Is that okay?” a researcher said. She then discussed the purpose of the experiment, explaining that it was to measure their ability to resist temptations. She thanked them for contributing their time. “If you have any suggestions or thoughts about how we can improve this experiment, please let me know. We want you to help us make this experience as good as possible.” The other half of the participants weren’t coddled the same way. They were simply given orders. “You must not eat the cookies,” the researcher told them. She didn’t explain the experiment's goals, compliment them, or show any interest in their feedback. She told them to follow the instructions. “We’ll start now,” she said. The students from both groups had to ignore the warm cookies for five minutes after the researcher left the room. None gave in to temptation. Then the researcher returned. She asked each student to look at a computer monitor. It was programmed to flash numbers on the screen, one at a time, for five hundred milliseconds apiece. The participants were asked to hit the space bar every time they saw a “6” followed by a “4.” This has become a standard way to measure willpower—paying attention to a boring sequence of flashing numbers requires a focus akin to working on an impossible puzzle. Students who had been treated kindly did well on the computer test. Whenever a “6” flashed and a “4” followed, they pounced on the space bar. They were able to maintain their focus for the entire twelve minutes. Despite ignoring the cookies, they had willpower to spare. Students who had been treated rudely, on the other hand, did terribly. They kept forgetting to hit the space bar. They said they were tired and couldn’t focus. Their willpower muscle, researchers determined, had been fatigued by the brusque instructions. When Muraven started exploring why students who had been treated kindly had more willpower he found that the key difference was the sense of control they had over their experience. “We’ve found this again and again,” Muraven told me. “When people are asked to do something that takes self-control, if they think they are doing it for personal reasons—if they feel like it’s a choice or something they enjoy because it helps someone else—it’s much less taxing. If they feel like they have no autonomy, if they’re just following orders, their willpower muscles get tired much faster. In both cases, people ignored the cookies. But when the students were treated like cogs, rather than people, it took a lot more willpower.” For companies and organizations, this insight has enormous implications.

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