You Have More Willpower Than You Think

One of the trendiest ideas in popular psychology in the last few years has been that of “ego depletion” or willpower as a limited resource. Many different books have been written on the topic, with the most recent being field luminary Roy Baumeister’s magnum opus on the topic, aptly entitled “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength”.


For reasons varied and unknown, the idea of mental capacities as limited and expendable has been promptly and enthusiastically taken up by our society in recent history. After all, it’s a lot easier to feel better about cheating on our diets, or yelling out in frustration at the end of a long day at work, when we have “scientific justification” for being so rash. In addition, most of us spend a non trivial portion of our days mentally accounting for our money – judging the appropriateness of getting the twenty dollar steak at dinner instead of the eight dollar burger, and so on. We’re familiar, maybe too much so, with the bank account metaphor, and apply it liberally throughout our cognitive lives.

Thus, because of a variety of coalescing factors, we have gotten to the point where we sell ourselves short – seeing ourselves as limited, even weak, creatures incapable of saying no and exerting self control. Life, then, is not a robust creation full of adaptive agency but, rather, a precarious kluge ready to break down to temptation at any moment.

But, as is the case in science, not all findings are truths. Recent studies have failed to replicate the finding that willpower is, indeed, a limited resource. Other research, done in 2013 by Carol Dweck and colleagues, has shown that one’s beliefs about willpower affect how much willpower one has. Far from being a limiting factor, willpower seems to be a reflection of one’s beliefs and biology. Beliefs are things, and they can change how we survive and thrive within the world. If you see yourself as containing a limited amount of self control, it’s unlikely that you’ll make the extra effort to forgo desert, or hit the gym, since you’ll “burn out anyways”.

Even though a substantial amount of research has challenged the idea of limited willpower, millions of people throughout the world have incorporated this spurious idea into their mental models of themselves and people in general. In addition, many different products and policies have been created with this “fundamental fact about the human brain” in mind. This is an unfortunate feature of the popular psychology industry, which turns almost every single surprising research area or finding into an easy-to-digest book with an (often) counterintuitive revelation. However, science is a process that is ever refining and destroying itself – collecting more observations and building a better and better model of the world. Scientists are fairly good at continually updating their understandings of these things. But how many regular consumers and book readers are now going to read an article or book that contradicts what they learned from “that other science book on willpower”? They probably won’t; and that’s a shame. This means that they’ll be acting in the world with a woefully inaccurate model of how they work and what they’re capable of. There is no greater shackle than a false idea and, as the willpower field shows, ideas once “true” can become questionable, even false, in due time.

The key is to stay up to date. Otherwise, we may see ourselves as limited beings, who struggle to avoid eating cupcakes, rather than beings of some agency that never tire from such trivial exertions. Maybe at that point we’ll dream a bit bigger and spend our time thinking about how to change the world, or follow our passions, instead of sighing at the end of a long, exhausting day of stopping ourselves from checking Facebook and eating that extra slice of pizza.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.