Posted on

The Chocolate and Radish Experiment

In 1996 Roy Bauermeister developed an experiment to better understand “will power”. For most of us, will power is something to be marshalled, built up like a muscle, or an inner super hero we would call upon to help us overcome a temptation. And for those people who were successful at making lifestyle or diet changes, well, they just had better will power and the rest of us hadn’t conjured up enough will power to say “no” and were consequently, viewed as having weaker will power. Or dare I say, “we were just lazier”.

Dr. Bauermeister and his colleagues designed an experiment that brought in 3 test groups. The first group was invited in to fill out a questionnaire. In the room was fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, hot out of the oven (I already want one of those cookies) and a bowl of radishes. They were instructed to not eat the cookies because they were for another project, but they could eat the radishes. After 15 minutes they were led off to a room to do a geometry equation that was impossible to solve (that part was unbeknownst to them). The second group came in to the room with the cookies and the radishes and they were allowed to eat the cookies, but not the radishes and after they were finished with their questionnaire led off to a different room to solve the same impossible equation. The 3rd and last group entered a room without cookies or radishes, filled out the same questionnaire and attempted to solve the same impossible equation.

The groups that could eat the cookies and didn’t have cookies or radishes persisted for 19 minutes and the ones who had resisted eating the fresh baked chocolate chips only persisted for 8 minutes. Their ability to persevere had been depleted earlier denying those chocolate chips cookies. Basically, the groups that could eat the cookies or had no cookies offered to them were able to persevere twice as long the group that had to exercise their will power to not eat those fresh baked chocolate chip cookies! This was the first experiment that changed the notion that will power was something you just conjured up when needed or built up like a muscle; will power is a depletable resource. And to make matters worse, you only have about 15 minutes of it available at a time. And we use will power for a lot of decision making things, like checking emails, getting the kids to school, to getting on a treadmill, to trying to eat less sugar…the list goes on and on.

I know that I have way more will power at the start of the day, than I do at night, which ironically is the time that I will succumb to a temptation to a snack or “brake” my commitment to lifestyle change or… To make matters more challenging, the brain runs on Glucose (sugar) and when it is feeling tired from all the decision making it begins to demand some fuel, particularly a sugary fuel and it is not concerned about what kind, so even your brain can work against you to make those lifestyle changes.

The solution is more KNOWLEDGE not more WILL POWER. Now that I know that will power can be depleted, the antidote is a plan, a good old-fashioned plan pre-thought-out and put-into-practice plan. If I am craving sugar, I’ll have an apple—not a donut or cliff bar.

Now you have a little knowledge, what is your plan to be successful—eat better, lose weight, run a 5k, or go to bed earlier? Whatever your goal is, you will have to plan for success in advance and not count on will power for success. You can do it, but you will have to have a plan for lasting results.


Health Advocate and Farmer,