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Most people think of motivation as involving willpower or the ability of a person to make things happen through desire and determination. Willpower was the focus of best-selling Books such as Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking (1952).

Popular self-help programs typically urge people to remain optimistic and forward-looking. People are told to have faith in their abilities and get started by taking baby steps. Most of all, make things happen by removing worries and doubts that often hold people back.

Cognitive psychologists study agency which is the feeling of making things happen or exercising will. However, that is not necessarily willpower as used in selfhelp programs.

Agency refers to taking ownership of thoughts or actions. It can apply to trivial matters like scoring points in a video game. If you feel like you did it, instead of the program, you are showing a sense of agency.

What most people mean by willpower goes beyond this to making desirable things happen in your life. The term for that ability, used by psychologists, is self-efficacy.

What is agency, to cognitive psychologists, and how does it differ from self-efficacy?

In 1977 Albert Bandura proposed the term self-efficacy as part of a "unifying theory of behavior change." Bandura was updating and extending Robert H. White's effectance concept.

Recall that White described effectance as the "master reinforcer" that pushed people toward competence. That was in a pivotal 1959 article that invited psych­ologists to drop Hull's assumptions and explore motivations aimed at more than biological needs.

To Bandura, self-efficacy was a belief in your own ability to make an effect. It acted like a self-fulfilling prophecy in much the same way that negative self-expectations could be a self-fulfilling prophecy in the other direction.

If you had self-efficacy (and Bandura designed questionnaires to assess this) you were more likely to take action. Then you were more likely to experience the good outcomes you predicted.

Bandura distinguished outcome-expectancy (belief that a particular outcome will occur) and self-efficacy (conviction that one can successfully execute the behavior required to produce an outcome). Both influenced behavior. Both were variations on the concept of expectancy studied for many years by Robert Rosenthal.

We encountered expectancy in Chapter 1 in the context of experimenter effects. Whatever a researcher expects to hap­pen will tend to happen, unless controls such as a double-blind design are in place.

Expectancy will also turn up in the chapter on social psychology. Expec­tations often determine social outcomes (such as children succeeding in school).

Why is expectancy such a powerful and pervasive effect? An expectation is part of a person's model of the world. It affects predictions and actions.

Self-efficacy is the opposite of a phen­omenon called learned helplessness. Learned helplessness was discovered by Overmier and Seligman (1967) during some on avoidance and escape con­ditioning with dogs.

Overmier and Seligman observed that if the dogs could do nothing to escape a shock, they soon gave up. They learned to be helpless. This learning generalized to new escape situations, and the dogs acted helpless in them, too.

Overmeier and Seligman found the learned helplessness effect persisted for about 48 hours. During that time, if the dogs were put in another escape learning situation, they were slower to learn (i.e. they did not try as hard to escape). They had learned not to try.

What is learned helplessness? How was it discovered?

Seligman wondered if such effects might be more durable in humans. Our language abilities allow us to incor­porate helplessness into a belief system.

If people develop a conviction that they are helpless to change their own negative circumstances, they might stop trying to make positive changes. They might just give up.

Seligman found experimental evidence for this. He argued on the basis of many experiments that learned helplessness was related to depression.

Sometimes depression is triggered by an imbalance in neurotransmitters that has little to do with life problems. In other occasions, depression seems to be due to a belief system involving negative thoughts and ruminations (repetitive thoughts).

Seligman found (in brief) that people in a downward spiral of anxiety and depression often repeated things to themselves (ruminated). The rumina­tions had three characteristics:

(1) they involved something bad about the person (e.g. the person is sinful, ugly, stupid);

(2) the bad thing is interpreted as affecting everything the person did (work, social life, etc.), and

(3) the depressed person expected the bad thing to continue forever (it was part of who they are, it could never get better, it would not go away).

What pattern did Seligman find underlying non-biological depression?

Combine these three character­istics into a belief system, repeat it to yourself endlessly, and Yes, you can get into a downward spiral of depression.

Seligman's suggestion for a cure was in the title of his 1990 book: Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (revised in 1998 and 2006). It was a national bestseller, described by a critic as "an interesting mix of a psycho­logical treatise and a self-help book."

Self-efficacy, what most people would call strong willpower, is the opposite of learned helplessness. It is the belief that effective action is possible, and the individual has the capacity to do it.

Counseling psychologists were partic­ularly attentive to this concept. It seemed to address precisely what people needed when entering counseling: a boost in morale, with hope for a better life ahead. Research showed self-efficacy was positively correlated with:

What outcomes were correlated with self-efficacy?

So-called willpower involves more than positive expectations. To solve problems effectively, one must have accurate and realistic models of the problem solving situation, plus the right intellectual tools to come up with solutions.

However, self-efficacy contributes to the likelihood of initiating change. Then it contributes to persistence and good outcomes. This is what people seek when they talk about applying willpower to life's problems.

Avoiding Distractions

Willpower involves more than good intentions and positive thinking. To sustain interest and energy over a long period of time (which is necessary for most important projects) one must combat the tendency to be distracted. One must not give in to temptations that lead one astray.

Metcalfe and Mischel (1999) described self-control and willpower as involving two different motivational systems. One was a "hot" emotional system, the other was a "cool" cognitive system.

The hot system is the basis of fears and anxieties as well as attractions toward good things. It is quick-reacting and often based on instinctive factors. It is stimulus-bound, "controlled by releasing stimuli," like the motor programs of animals discussed in Chapter 8.

The cool system is more controlled, methodical, and systematic. It involves plans formed carefully and applied over the long term.

What two motivational systems do Metcalfe and Mischel identify? What is a key to effective willpower?

Metcalfe and Mischel argue that willpower involves the ability to inhibit impulsive responses that undo one's commitment to valuable long-term plans. As examples of long-term plans they mentioned giving up an addiction or remaining faithful to one's spouse. These are long-time goals that can be under­mined by impulsive behavior.

Metcalfe and Mischel point out that long-term self-control is (1) cognitive (rather than emotional), (2) develops later in life (unlike the urge for gratification which is present in babyhood), and (3) is weakened by stress.

Self-control relies heavily on executive control processes like planning and memory, which "allow the person to keep the goals in mind while pursuing them and monitoring progress along the route." Stress reduction techniques can help, too, if they prevent impulsive behavior.

What did researchers discover about LLRs and SERs?

Psychologists distinguish between Large Late Rewards (LLRs) and Small Early Rewards (SERs). Large Late Rewards are highly desirable things that take a long time to develop, like finishing a degree program. Small Early Rewards are closer at hand but less important, like chatting with friends.

Kirby and Herrnstein (1995) reported that in all species, including humans, the relative attractiveness of a Small Early Reward (SER) is greater if the reinforcement is close in time. For example, chatting can divert you away from studying. If reinforcement is close at hand, a small but immediate reward (SER) can divert behavior away from a larger but more distant reward (LLR).

How can SERs undermine willpower?

This was the problem experienced by Boysen's chimps. They could not resist pointing at the plate that contained more gumdrops, even though it meant the other chimp got them.

You might recall that Dr. Richard Byrne of the University of St. Andrews was enthusiastic about Dr. Boysen's experiment. He thought it provided an important clue about human intelligence and the edge modern humans had over their competitors. We have the ability to use abstract thinking to suppress selfish appetitive behavior.

This is exactly what Mischel and Metcalfe were investigating (SERs and LLRs). It is also what Kirby and Herrnstein referred to as hot and cool motivational systems. You might say Boysen's chimps lacked the ability to use a cool abstract system to regulate their lust for gumdrops.

How did Boysen give her chimps a symbol system?

Boysen carried out an additional step: she used poker chips as a stand-in for gumdrops. When plastic symbols represented the number of gumdrops, the chimps had no trouble pointing to a plate with fewer items on it (meaning they would get a larger number of gumdrops).

The striking thing is that they could not learn to do this when pointing at real gumdrops on a plate. They could not inhibit their "hot" motivational system, set off by the sight of food, even though Boysen had set up the task so that pointing at more gumdrops meant they received fewer themselves.

How does this relate to lobotomies, Neanderthals, and computers?

Humans can provide themselves with language to regulate impulsive behavior. This seems to involve the frontal lobes. If you read about lobotomies in Chapter 2, you might remember how post-lobotomy patients were stimulus-bound and easily distracted from long-term goals.

After lobotomies, humans lacked the comprehensive forward planning ability cited by Posner (1993) as crucial to humans but absent in Neanderthals. This executive power for long-term planning is the "cool" motivational system that permits us to resist immediate temp­tations in favor of long-term goals.

How does one avoid being diverted by SERs?

The pattern Kirby and Herrnstein studied is relevant to all sorts of situations requiring long-term planning, willpower, and discipline. There is always the danger of short-term diversions from a long-term goal.

If short-term temptations are immediate, they will tend to predominate over long-term plans. The only solution is to use your executive capabilities to insulate yourself from short-term distractions.

For example, do not put a TV in the room where you study, or do not buy snacks. Then they will not be close at hand during a moment of weakness. In essence, one must use the cool system identified by Metcalfe and Mischel (1999) to plan ahead and arrange the environment so there are not excessive temptations and distractions for the hot system.


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

Kirby, K. N. & Herrnstein, R. J. (1995). Preference reversals due to myopic discounting of delayed rewards. Psychological Science, 6, 83-89.

Longo, D., Lent, R., & Brown, S. (1992) Social cognitive variables in the prediction of client motivation and attrition. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 39, 447-452.

Metcalfe, J. & Mischel, W. (1999) A hot/cool system analysis of delay of gratification: Dynamics of willpower. Psychological Review, 106, 3-19.

Multon, K. D., Brown, S. D., & Lent, R. W. (1991) Relation of self-efficacy beliefs to academic outcomes: A meta-analytic investigation. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 38, 30-38.

Overmier, J. B. & Seligman, M. E. P. (1967). Effects of Inescapable Shock upon Subsequent Escape and Avoidance Learning. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 1, 23-33.

Posner, M. I. (1993). Seeing the mind. Science, 262, 673-676.

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