Faithlife Sermons

Lost my Willpower

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Mike Harmon cannot tell you how he lost his willpower, but he is certain that it is gone. On a recent Thursday night, sitting in a grungy recliner at the Stop Smoking Hypnosis Clinic of Baltimore County, the middle-aged man shrugs his shoulders. "I don't have it anymore," he says. "It's gone."

Neecy Riley, a woman sitting next to him, also could not locate her willpower. "I need something beyond me," she said. "My willpower isn't doing it."

Mike and Neecy headlined a recent story on NPR. The whole story had to do with how you and I go about changing our behaviors: you know stopping bad habits, putting down the cigarettes, shutting the refrigerator door when that Edy’s French Silk is just calling your name and you want to just get you a spoon and dive into the little round . . . O, I’m sorry I was losing it there for a minute. What were we talking about? O, yeah, WILLPOWER.

Anyway, that story on NPR went on to discuss an interesting experiment on will power. It said that one person who has looked at this question in detail is a psychology professor at Columbia University named Walter Mischel. Mischel, who is sometimes referred to as the grandfather of self-regulation research, designed a series of very famous experiments in the 1960s now popularly known as the marshmallow tests.

To do the experiments, he put hundreds of 4-year-olds in a room, one by one, with a marshmallow or cookie on the table in front of each. He told them he was going to leave the room and that the child could either eat the treat immediately or, if they could wait until he got back, and have two instead.

Some of these kids could hardly last a minute. Others waited as long as 20. And Mischel believes you can learn much of what you need to know about the process of exerting willpower from the strategies employed by these children. They basically used two. The first one was distraction. The children that lasted the longest would distract themselves: They kicked the table, they sang little songs, they played with their hair. They did anything they could do to keep themselves from thinking about that beautiful yummy marshmellow.

The other strategy the successful children used was to change they way they thought about the marshmellow. So, for example, to help the children resist the treat, before leaving the room Mischel told the kids to imagine the treat in front of them differently. He told them ". . . to think about those marshmallows as if they were just cotton puffs, or clouds. Those instructions to the 4-year-old had a dramatic effect on their ability to wait for the thing that they couldn't wait for before.”

So let’s get this straight. What the research says is that, if we want to develop willpower, if I am going to successfully avoid diving into French silk, I’ve either got keep myself from thinking about ice cream or lie to myself about what ice cream is. Hmm. I’ve just got to tell you that these strategies just don’t sound very effective to me. Sounds like to me that, if I’m going to really get free of some sin or failure that’s been plaguing me, I need to look somewhere else besides psychological experiments.

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