CH1 L32: Head Vs. Heart (The Willpower)

  1. In the last post, we discussed that in order to modify emotional decisions, we need to have a trained brain and enough energy. We also studied one type of battles between head and heart: holistic evaluation [1]. Through this post, we’ll investigate other areas on which head and heart might not see eye to eye.
  2. Let’s study how we emotionally react to changes. Earlier, we learned that fear [2] worked as an alarm, so the brain would spend some energy on solving problems. If changes are too faint to pass the response threshold, we won’t feel them [3]. That’s why we don’t react to the innumerable changes around us. So, we need to develop thinking skills to detect the changes. For instance, we can hardly feel 0.5º Celsius change, however, it can dramatically affect our climate [4].
  3. Besides, small changes can add up to a large sum which can shock us, like small cracks in a wall that make it collapse. The reason is simple: due to minergy [5], the brain is emotionally reluctant to spend energy on negligible things. Again, we need a strong and trained rational mind to foresee it and warn us.
  4. Apart from those who lie in a relationship; thus the truth can be shocking; if gradual changes remain unnoticed, after a while, you might think that you’re living with a totally different person/stranger. Because we’ve overlooked the fact that everything and everyone changes including ourselves [6]. 
  5. In ordinary physical cases, it’s easy to detect changes which our emotions are honed for. When you smell a rotten apple, you feel disgusted: the emotional signal to the brain that the apple isn’t edible any longer. Nevertheless, in highly emotional situations we might ignore obvious physical changes.
  6. An extreme case would be keeping the corpse of a beloved even days after their death, ignoring the disgusting smell of decomposition; or some types of necrophilia [7,8].
  7. The most dramatic (epic or tragic) battle between head and heart happens over the short-term and long-term benefits or dangers; whether you sacrifice your small and ephemeral desires to have a bigger and long-lasting gain or not. 
  8. We should acknowledge that compared to 100000 of years when humankind strived to survive on a daily basis, thus they ate whatever they found and didn’t save anything for tomorrow, for several thousand years we learned to think about future. So, we’ve gradually developed the skill which is called self-control.
  9. Self-control turned out to be a crucial skill to survive without which you might fall into a trap, running to pick an apple. To delay gratification, as we know requires energy to resist temptations. Obviously, it’s easy to spend several minutes to make sure that it’s safe to pick the apple; however, it’s very difficult to study for roughly 16 to 20 years [9] to find your dream job and make a living. Because throughout these years, you need to sacrifice your desires many times which is the indicator of your success.
  10. An enlightening classic psychology test in the late 60s and early 70s revealed the secret to success: “The Marshmallow Test” [10].  Around 90 young kids were invited to participate in the experiment. Each kid went to a room in which there was a plate with a marshmallow. Then the instructor told them that if they’d wait for 15 minutes after I came back, I’d give you another marshmallow. Then the instructor left the room and they observed the kids behavior through a one-way mirror.
  1. The brilliance of the test was revealed after 15 years when in the follow-up studies they found out those who waited for a longer period, got higher SAT [11] scores, were in more stable relationships and, in general, more successful.
  2. Though the test has been doubted by other researchers [12], questioning the sampling, the sample size, and other factors, the main idea is still profound. One of the criticisms states that if you live in a poor family and you don’t know if you could have the food later, you’d eat it instantly. Though this argument is sound and valid, in my opinion, it doesn’t change the outcome of the marshmallow test. Because those kids under the circumstance above-mentioned have a lower chance to strengthen their willpower. That could be a reason why they’re more susceptible to taking short-term decisions [13].
  3. The willpower isn’t a built-in ability. Like any other skills, you’ll learn how to use and develop it; and undoubtedly your environment has a considerable impact on your willpower to control the emotions; however, all in all, your willpower determines your success or failure.
  4. To wrap up both posts about the struggle between emotions and rational thinking, we need to have enough energy reserved to resist the emotional decisions and to develop self-control. One solution to this problem would be to turn to make such decisions into habits. as we discussed before, habits are less effortful [14], so a strong mind habitually resists temptations.


[1] Link to the previous post.

[2] We started the discussion about fear in the 3rd post [Link] and we’ve seen its effect on thinking throughout many posts so far.

[3] You can find the bell-shaped curve of performance against stress hormones in the 17th post. Link

[4] You can study an article about the effect of 0.5º celsius increase in temperature (from 1.5º to 2º) on the climate. Link

[5] I came up with the term minergy which explains our tendency to spend minimum energy to get something done and used it to explain our behaviours in many context. Link

[6] That’s why we need self-awareness because we sometimes say or do something unprecedented which we might’ve detected if we’d noticed the small changes in our thoughts, emotions, beliefs, etc.

[7] Link to the wikipage about necrophilia.

[8] On a personal note, I was literally laughing out loud while I typed necrophilia, because I’d anticipated to take some detours in the beginning, but I could never foresee that I’d write about necrophilia in a math blog.

[9]  A fair question would be “How can we manage seeking long-term benefits not to kill our happiness?”

[10] Link to the wikipage about “the marshmallow test”

[11] Link

[12] Link to the new study which has cast the whole concept of the marshmallow test into doubt. They argued that sample size in the original marshmallow test was small, besides they were the kids from the Stanford campus; thus, the sampling was biased.

[13] There are many factors that can affect kids’ willpower. For example, if you lived in a poor family and you learned that you had to make sure that everyone else had food before eating, then you’d most likely develop a strong willpower.

[14] Link to the first post about habits


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