Willpower Project 8 of 11: INFECTED! How Willpower is Contagious.

This is part 8 of my willpower project. If you’re just getting on board now, you may be interested in jumping back to part one to get the full picture. The story so far is that willpower is a conflict between your impulsive self and your planning self. You can grow your willpower so that more of your choices align with long term goals, thus making your life better.


I won’t lie to y’all. This chapter is the first time I’ve been deeply skeptical of McGonigal’s work. Her premise is that willpower, and other behaviors, are contagious meaning that we can transfer behaviors from ourselves to others, and we can “catch” behaviors from other people. Willpower included.

My brain rejected this pretty quickly, and even her first study (which cites that the best predictor of an Air Force Academy cadet’s fitness was the least fit cadet in his squad) had me highly incredulous. I mean seriously, how does one out of shape dude in a squad of Air Force Cadets cause the whole lot of them to lose fitness? Thank you Kelly McGonigal for consistently cited academic research! Throughout the chapter McGonigal won me over through her diligence in citing research to support all of her claims. (Take note writers. Evidence helps you convince people. Claims alone are insufficient.) My rational brain took the time to  listen to evidence and win over my quick emotional rejection of the material. McGonigal also cites later in the chapter that this is a commonly rejected portion of her course because people hold strongly to the idea that through rugged individualism we can block out social pressures. The data does not bear that out. We’re incredibly susceptible to social influence, and it is often the only thing that works to change behavior.

So what’s this all about then? It’s about social impact. Many of our behaviors are heavily impacted by our social environment and willpower is among those behaviors. This is what I was experiencing back in Chapter 3. When asked to track willpower levels throughout the day, I noticed that location and those around me played an important role in my ability to make willpower-based decisions. Different locations and different people had positive and negative impacts, but I couldn’t really name it beyond that. McGonigal would say that their behaviors are contagious. I think it’s the term contagious that initially set me off so much. It’s a nice flashy buzzword, but being influenced to do something because of those around you it’s not really the same to me as catching a cold because someone sneezed. (The video is bizarrely beautiful and disgusting at the same time. I love science.)

The experiments for this topic are extremely relevant even if I’m not a fan of McGonigal’s word choice. All three of the experiments this time are highly similar as each one applying visualization. Depending on the context it’s either visualization of a goal and its potential hurdles, a powerful role model, and those who might be proud when we succeed. Each one of these tries to intentionally leverage social influence in a positive way. None of these visualizations are particularly complex, and their purpose is clearly explained. What’s more interesting is how McGonigal presents mindfulness with respect to social influences.

I’m very curious about who influences me, and how much. McGonigal claims (with evidence) that there are two important factors that influence how … influenced we are by someone else: the extent to which their behaviors align with our goals, and how connected we are with that person. This means that I should be highly influenced by people I care deeply about who also exhibit behaviors that align with my goals. When my wife exercises, this should positively impact me. When someone unknown to me smokes, this shouldn’t really impact me. I’m highly interested to see how much I can track the impact that others have on my willpower, and who has a high impact.

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