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English Detective #10, April 9,2013. Explaining Willpower: research on self-control.
April 09, 2013

English Detective #10, April 9, 2013. Explaining Willpower: what scientists have learned about self-control

Introducing this issue:


This issue begins (after the new vocabulary list) with a Word Detective investigation of the meanings of the words ‘will’ and ‘will power.’

Then there is a TED talk and two articles (from Scientific American and the New York Times, two well-respected American news sources) discussing scientific research into will-power: what enables people to make difficult choices in the present for the sake of the future. Before the last article there is also a crossword practicing words for scientific research (including some of last week’s vocabulary as well as this week’s), and at the end a quiz reviewing those words.

I would like to add a reminder about these vocabulary practices. English words often have several (sometimes unrelated) meanings. I try to discuss or practice the most common ones, but there are often others I don’t even have space to mention.

For example, ‘register’ is often a verb meaning ‘to sign up’-- put your name on an official list. (You can register for college or register to vote.) As a noun ‘register’ means a list or record of some kind (as does ‘registry.’) A cash register is a machine that produces a list of your purchases and adds up the total cost. However, register can also mean to show or indicate: “When I told him I had won the lottery, his face registered disbelief.” A dictionary will list several more meanings. (I found at least 14 different ones.)

If the meaning you have learned for a word doesn’t make sense in a new context, there is likely to be another, possibly very different, meaning. Think about what makes sense in the context of what you’re reading. If it’s important to understand it exactly, look it up.


Your First Clue: Vocabulary we’ll Emphasize in this Issue

acknowledge, arbitrary, equivalent, framework, grade, initial, instructed, odd, outcomes, participants, presume, primary principle, promotes, register, relevant, restore, status, subsequently, voluntary

If you already know most of the words, work on the ones you aren’t so sure of, or enjoy the readings and take a break from intensive study this week. There will be a whole different group in the new newsletter.

Word Detective: ‘will’


We use the word ‘will’ in several very different ways. It is a modal verb to show the future: “The next issue of this newsletter will be about business management.” ‘Will’ is also a noun expressing a person’s desire, intention, or determination. Jesus spoke a lot about the will of God, and said he came not to do his own will (what he wanted to do) but the will of God. ‘A will’ is also a legal document stating how a person wants his property to be divided after he dies.

‘Will power’ is a person’s ability to choose to deny some strong desire or impulse in favor of a greater goal. It enables someone to study hard instead of going to a party, to do an unpleasant job to take care of his or her family, to refuse a piece of chocolate cake that looks so good right now in order to look or feel better later. (We also call these choices ‘deferred gratification.’)

The articles and video in this issue discuss what scientists have learned about willpower: the mental mechanisms that enable people to postpone what they want now for the sake of future good.

Click here for a TED video. It discusses the long-term results of experiments using marshmallows (a soft candy) to test how much willpower different children had.

Click here for a very different perspective on the marshmallow experiments.

Right-click here to download a crossword practicing brain research vocabulary from this issue and the last one,...and here for the answers.

The following New York Times’ article talks about how willpower research reveals practical ways to increase our willpower.

There are probably some words you won’t recognize in this reading. You can guess many of them, like boost (to increase), from the context. I’d like to explain one short section I think may be hard to guess.

In paragraphs 5 and 6 it talks about how researchers asked participants to suppress or stifle their reactions. This means they should not show how they felt. (Suppress and stifle both mean to stop or prevent something.) That depleted, or used up, their power to control themselves. They did not have the mental energy left to focus properly on the test. The article goes on to say that bringing blood sugar levels back to normal also restored self-control.

> Here’s the article.

Test your Deductions

Click here for the quiz and answers.

Coming in the next issue, April 23: Business Management.

In case you missed these: Earlier issues of English Detective have articles on a number of topics, plus practice with over 200 words from the Academic Word List. You can check them out with the link to the back issues page below (or find what words were practiced each issue here.

P.S. If you’re not already getting English Detective, you can subscribe by completing the form here. (It's free!)

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