Is it Possible to Run Out of Willpower in Recovery?

Is willpower a limited resource, or is it something you can draw on indefinitely? See what new research says about willpower in addiction recovery.

Willpower in Addiction Recovery


  • The things we want to do are often not the things we end up doing.
  • Is there a limit to how long and hard you can resist relapse? The scientific view on this question continues to evolve.

The nature of willpower may have a great deal to do with your success in addiction recovery. Humans are acutely aware of the gap between knowing what ought to be done and actually finding the resolve to do it.

In fact, this is a core part of the human experience: the things we want to do are often not the things we end up doing. That’s the essence of the so-called ‘willpower gap’.

Needless to say, this is certainly an important topic for people in recovery, as it takes an immense amount of willpower to walk away from addiction and embrace a new way of life.

The Science of Resisting Temptation

One of the biggest breakthroughs in the study of willpower came in the late 1990s, when psychologist Roy Baumeister conducted an experiment at Case Western Reserve University. In the experiment, two groups of test subjects were brought into a waiting room with two plates of food. One plate held fresh-cut radishes, and the other fresh-baked cookies.

In one scenario, the participants were told that they could eat as many radishes as they wished, but they had to leave the cookies where they were. The other group was told the opposite: eat as many cookies as you like, but don’t touch the radishes.

After the initial waiting period, both groups were given a puzzle to solve. In truth, the puzzle was unsolvable, but neither group knew this. The group that had been actively resisting the cookies in the waiting room gave up on the puzzle an average of eight minutes into the experiment. The other group, which had only had to resist a plate of radishes, lasted an average of 19 minutes before giving up on the puzzle.

Beyond Addiction Journeys of Hope and Growth

The conclusion was relatively straightforward: actively exercising willpower to resist eating the cookies had depleted the test subjects’ resolve. Willpower was a finite resource, or so it seemed.

The implications of this study were enormous. If someone could run out of willpower, then it was all the more important that they reserve their resolve for more important scenarios. In other words, don’t place yourself in front of a plate of cookies that you don’t want to eat – especially if you’ll need to exercise willpower in other more important situations later in the day.

A Man Walks Into a Bar…

There are several important takeaways in regards to addiction treatment. To begin with, in recovery, you need to limit their exposure to willpower-testing scenarios. Spending time in a bar with friends while actively not drinking would ultimately serve to deplete your resolve. This could make it easier to relapse later in the day.

If willpower is a finite resource, then it’s all the more important for those in recovery to limit their exposure to temptation. This is a strong argument in favour of total abstinence, as avoiding alcohol or their substance of choice altogether will find them faced with fewer situations in which they have to exercise self-discipline.

Strengthening Your Willpower in Sobriety

The same goes for limiting contact with people and scenarios that are likely to tempt them. Maintaining success in recovery requires efficient use of willpower reserves, and the best way to ensure this is by cutting out non-essential temptation.

Despite the excitement generated by the willpower-depletion paradigm, however, newer research has cast doubt on it. In a study published last summer, researchers were unable to reliably reproduce the results of the cookie-and-radish experiment. They also found strong publication bias, in which studies that didn’t agree with the willpower-depletion theory were downplayed or ignored. If this is the case, it could mean we have to (once again) reconsider everything we believe we understand about human willpower.

But there’s a twist. A new study conducted by psychologist Carol Dweck at Stanford University suggests that willpower is only a finite resource if that’s the way you perceive it. Test subjects who had reason to believe that their own willpower reserves were limited were more likely to behave that way. Others who believed that they could draw upon an unlimited well of resolve could continue displaying willpower.

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The Power of Perception of Your Willpower in Recovery

Regardless of what the latest studies say about the nature of willpower, it’s important for those in recovery to have a well-formed view of how their own resolve works. If willpower is an infinite resource that can be continually summoned to resist the temptation of relapse, we can maintain control over our own recovery even when faced with temptations that are beyond our control. That’s certainly good news.

But this doesn’t change the need to foster situations that support our recovery. At The Cabin Bangkok, we still believe that total abstinence from drinking or using is still the most effective way to limit temptation. Likewise, predetermined ground rules for where you spend time and who you spend it with ultimately minimise the need to exercise extra willpower in the moment. This is a powerful way to strengthen and reinforce your resolve.

Relapse Prevention at The Cabin Bangkok

If you struggle with the willpower gap and find yourself giving in to the temptation to relapse despite a strong desire to do the opposite, the addiction counsellors at The Cabin Bangkok can help. We provide effective, convenient outpatient treatment services and can help you develop a personalised relapse prevention plan to help you get and stay sober. Contact us now to learn more.

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