A deluge of new research papers have been addressing the issue of willpower and how it works. As it turns out, our willpower acts very much like a muscle.

A recent paper suggests that using willpower to deny ourselves something reduces our self-control later. For example, walking around a shopping mall filled with luxury goods without buying something reduces our ability to turn down a piece of chocolate cake when we put our feet up in a café afterwards. Much in the way a one-hour run would reduce your ability to do squat-thrusts afterwards.

Some clever experiments have been designed to test this, as reported in a recent article in The Australian;

“A group of hungry volunteers who were left alone in a room containing both a tempting platter of freshly baked chocolate chip biscuits and a plate piled high with radishes. Some of the volunteers were asked to sample only the radishes. These peckish volunteers manfully resisted the temptation of the biscuits and ate the prescribed number of radishes. Other, more fortunate, volunteers were asked to sample the biscuits…

“… the volunteers were asked to try to solve a difficult puzzle. The researchers weren’t interested in whether the volunteers solved it. (In fact, it was insoluble.) Rather, they wanted to know how long the volunteers would persist with it. Their self-control already depleted, volunteers forced to snack on radishes persisted for less than half as long as people who had eaten the biscuits…”

Further studies have shown how exercising your willpower in one area of life over a period of weeks or months will strengthen your willpower muscles across the board. Avoiding fried food for a month could improve your ability to study for exams. Hitting the gym four times a week could make you less likely to spend your pay packet the day you get it.

“People asked by experimenters to be self-disciplined about their posture for two weeks were afterwards stronger willed when it came to a test of physical endurance, compared with other people allowed to slouch about in their usual comfortable way during the fortnight.”

This is the month of Ramadan in the Muslim world and most adults here in Indonesia avoid eating, drinking, and sex from sunrise to sunset for the duration of the month (until Idul Fitri). They are also expected to control their emotions during this month and avoid conflict. Having tried the fast myself (and just about survived one sweltering tropical day) it is an extremely challenging feat of self-control. Which begs the question; what benefits do Muslims gain for the rest of the year after this intensive one-month willpower work out?

If the research is to be believed, there should be an improvement in their ability to resist temptation of every kind. They should come out of the fasting month with a renewed self-control in all disciplines, from completing homework on time to physical endurance. But – to carry the muscle metaphor a little further – one can only assume that the newly buff “willpower biceps” will atrophy pretty soon after Idul Fitri if they are not exercised.

Either way, studying the link between observing Ramadan and subsequent levels of self-control could make for a great research paper.