A new study provides evidence that beliefs about one’s own willpower can impact how people respond to their romantic partner’s annoying and bothersome behavior. The findings, published in the British Journal of Psychology, suggest that those who believe their willpower can be depleted tend to respond more compassionately to their partner’s undesirable actions.
“Typically, willpower beliefs have been studied in relation to people’s personal outcomes, with limited willpower beliefs being associated with less desirable outcomes (e.g., less goal pursuit, lower well-being),” said study author Zoë Francis, an assistant professor of psychology at University of the Fraser Valley.
“But, looking for an upside, I thought that limited willpower theorists might also have an advantage in social interactions, if they were more likely to notice, understand, and respond to other people’s mental fatigue.”
“We decided to look at romantic relationships, specifically, as a context where people might be especially motivated to ‘excuse’ someone else for an annoying behavior if they believed that the person was mentally fatigued,” Francis explained.
To better understand how willpower beliefs influence romantic relationship dynamics, the researchers used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform to survey 428 individuals who were cohabitating with their partner.
The participants were presented with hypothetical scenarios in which their partner acted in bothersome ways, such as by not listening or by not doing household chores, and were asked how understanding or annoyed they would be.
In some scenarios, the partner was described as having a relaxing day prior to their bothersome behavior. In other scenarios, the partner was described as having a tiring or stressful day.
The researchers found that participants tended to be more understanding of their partner’s bothersome behavior when the preceding day was viewed as mentally fatiguing.
In addition, the degree to which participants adapted their response varied based on their willpower beliefs. Those who believed that their willpower was a limited resource tended to change their responses more than those who believed in unlimited willpower.
“This study, along with many others, demonstrates how each of us perceives and interprets the world through a set of assumptions, beliefs, and expectations. And even though many of those beliefs and expectations may be based on our own personal experiences and how we personally respond to situations, we may subconsciously assume that other people will feel and act in similar ways,” Francis told PsyPost.
“Of course, another person may actually respond to a particular situation differently than you would, even if that other person is your romantic partner! Since our interpretation of others (even our romantic partner) is going to be imperfect and colored by our existing beliefs, it’s typically best to err on the side of being compassionate and kind. Your partner probably didn’t leave clothes on the floor with the intention of bothering you!”
The study – like all research – includes some caveats.
“These studies asked people to respond to hypothetical scenarios, and we know that there are often differences between how people say they will respond, and how they actually respond. So, while these studies suggest that personal willpower beliefs are used in people’s interpretation of their partner’s annoying actions, these differences in interpretation might not directly result in differences in actual compassionate behavior in real life,” Francis explained.
“In fact, we have done other work that suggests limited theorists can be overall less supportive of their partners, even though they perceive their partners as more fatigued, because they themselves are tired,” she noted.
The study, “Intended responses to romantic partners’ annoying behaviours vary with willpower beliefs“, was authored by Zoë Francis and Veronika Job.