The word willpower conjures things like laundry day, drunk texting and chocolate cake. It is what motivates us to resist what we desire, and to tackle tasks we’d rather avoid, in the name of personal betterment. While the motivations behind washing your clothes or avoiding dessert seem rather clear, a new study found that fuzzier unconscious motivations can steer our actions, and that high-achievers and wannabe bosses may have more capacity to dodge cake, or do pesky chores if there’s a reward at the end.
Those who crave power and leadership roles have more in the willpower department, according to researchers at the Technical University of Munich whose findings were published recently in the online Journal of Personality. Since willpower is a finite resource, and easily depleted, the professors asked study subjects to perform two willpower-measuring tasks involving popular films, no prior acting experience required.
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In the first, subjects reenacted a scene from Dead Poets Society, playing a domineering father character reprimanding his son, while a control group watched and took notes. Then the group was asked to will itself not to laugh or smile during a funny clip from the movie, Ice Age.
Those who acted the part of the bullying father were more likely to control their emotions and not laugh or smile when instructed not to than the control group, who had simply watched the role play. Findings suggest what might seem obvious, that people who hunger for power or success have greater reserves of resolve to pursue goals than those who don’t. A politician shows greater stamina dialing for campaign funds because she is motivated by the prize of winning office. An actor may tolerate exhaustive grooming, and rigorous diet and exercise hoping to fit a part.
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But here’s the catch: wanting a specific, finite accomplishment, like a part, is not enough, a broader underlying desire to lead or succeed must exist, too. In other words, think big, think ambitious.
While the science didn’t reveal how those loftier desires are seeded, the researchers did make recommendations for how employers might optimize employees’ unconscious motivations and direct their willpower stores toward the right projects. They suggested giving leadership positions to those who thrive when they control people, and creative jobs that produce results to approval seekers.
Yarrow is a TIME contributing writer and journalist living in Brooklyn. @aliyarrow