Review and Summary of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney


“But something may be done that we will not:

And sometimes we are devils to ourselves,

When we will tempt the frailty of our powers,

Presuming on their changeful potency.”

-William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida

“Nothing surely is so potent as a law that may not be disobeyed. It has the force of the water-drop that hollows the stone. A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”

-Anthony Trollope

“The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one… anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”

-Robert Benchley

Roy Baumeister’s name is synonymous with the scientific study of willpower, a term that has steadily fallen out of favor in the West since its heyday in the Victorian era. Whether its decline will continue is anyone’s guess. As antiquated or absurd as the word may seem to modern readers, it is an essential virtue that Baumeister and others have linked with success, happiness, and even charitability. In other words, self-control creates better citizens and better societies. It is unfortunate that it has become equated with stiffness, blandness, and misery. After all, to be anything but a mewling infant incessantly beset by perfectly avoidable misfortunes is to be a robot!

Yet common ideas about willpower, like our impressions of other critical but deceptively familiar concepts, are not quite right. Folk psychology occasionally captures kernels of truth, but it is just as likely to fall on the wrong side of the fence. Using the techniques available to us we may believe, rightly or wrongly,  that the fault lies with us – a healthy but occasionally dysfunctional response that leads us to begrudgingly accept that we cannot become early risers or make ourselves practice our scales every afternoon. Yet by going deeper, by seeking out what the cutting edge has to tell us about what is effective and what is not, we can construct a blueprint that may deliver results.

The Stanford marshmallow experiment is widely cited for a good reason. It is rare that such a seemingly trivial test provides insights into how someone’s character in childhood can shape the rest of their lives. Long after the experiment had finished Mischel continued to hear stories about the participants, which compelled him and his fellow researchers to track down the participants. On average those who managed to wait 15 minutes for a greater reward scored 210 points more on the SAT than their less patient peers. Yet self-discipline does not just improve scores on exams that exist solely to fill the coffers of the College Board. Tasks that seem to rely more upon other traits are deeply affected by our capacity for self-regulation. Managers with high levels of self-control are rated more favorably by their employees than others, presumably because they were better at viewing a situation from multiple perspectives – something hotheads and dictatorial personalities do not do well.

The Radish Experiment showed that resisting chocolate chip cookies reduced a person’s willingness to work for extended periods of time on insoluble geometry problems. It also showed that flooding your brain cells with glucose (temporarily) boosts your morale and that, on occasion, psychological investigators can be quite sadistic. It also pointed at two key components of willpower that would be tested more extensively. One is that willpower is a finite resource. The other is we all have one will, which must cope with all the demands our work, families, and social lives place upon it. Resisting the doughnuts at the office draws from the same piggy bank as your irritating coworkers and roommates.

But before you bawl over in terror and crawl into some dank corner to sob uncontrollably I must tell you that there is a flipside to this seemingly dreadful design: by exercising one’s will with tasks that place significant demands on it, including arbitrary ones like organizing our papers or reciting a mantra, we can steadily carve out more organized lives for ourselves. Baumeister and others have referred to willpower as a muscle because it can be strengthened. Since we have all been endowed with a single reservoir that flows into countless tributaries that clamour for our ever-dwindling stock of patience (while multiplying like fanged rabbits from one of Fibonacci’s nightmares), our only option is to work on what we have been given.

Heroin addicts in Burlington, Vermont (and presumably in other cities) give us a glimpse into the underworld of the chemically dependent brain. When asked to write about “the future” the members of the control group envisioned themselves being promoted, getting married, buying a house, etc. The addicts focused on events that would transpire within a week or two. Warren Bickel found that habitual drug users, with the exception of pot smokers, have a similarly foreshortened “temporal horizon.” Other groups found students with long-term goals tended to perform better than their peers and showed monthly planning is much more useful to students than daily planning. A year after the study ended the monthly planners were still outperforming the dailys. A bit of reflection on particularly goal-oriented periods in your own life will probably provide some personal proof of this concept.

Not surprisingly, consistent effort has been found to be vastly superior to the heroic “bursts” procrastinators pray for before drifting off to yet another night of fitful sleep. Procrastination, it is claimed, can be used to stall indulgence. We simply tell ourselves that we will enjoy the vice we have in mind “later.” I have not tried this myself, but I suspect it is not nearly as effective as saying “later” to laundry, bills, or uncomfortable phone calls. The Zeigarnik Effect, named in honor of Bluma Zeigarnik, is an especially insidious consequence of piling tasks on an already overcrowded plate.

One evening Kurt Lewin, her professor and a seminal figure in Gestalt psychology, was awed by a waiter’s ability to remember long orders – and by how quickly he forgot the orders once the food was delivered. Uncompleted tasks nag us; they take up space. It seems that these reminders abate in subjects who make a plan outlining how they intend to finish the task. Based on this observation Baumeister and Tierney assert that the effect is the unconscious mind’s request to the conscious mind to “make a plan.” Look, they even Italicized it. If something is nagging you, make a plan. .

The self-esteem movement has been under fire for years, mostly by people who like to think they have earned their sense of self-worth (they haven’t). Since it is an excuse to praise yourself for doing nothing it is unlikely to die off suddenly. However, it has become clear to those in the know that it has not delivered on the incredible promises it started making in the 1970’s. While low self-esteem has been linked to many self-destructive behaviors, it seems the causality is wrong – or at least not always right. As the authors starkly state: “It works the other way: Being a sixteen-year-old pregnant heroin addict can make you feel less than wonderful about yourself.”

I don’t believe the authors are naive enough to think the stream only flows in one direction. Surely in some cases low self-esteem leads to undesirable behavior. This section is concluded with wonderful cheekiness: “when the going gets tough, people with high self-esteem often decide they shouldn’t bother. If other people can’t appreciate how terrific they are, then it’s the other people’s fault.” This leads to a comparison between the parenting styles of Americans of European descent and Americans from East Asia.

Although accounting for (at the time of the book’s publication) two percent of the country’s population, people of East Asian descent account for a full quarter of the students at top-tier universities in the United States. The massive differences in success rates between Asian and other American children are probably not wholly (or even largely) the result of genetics. It is amazing how quickly rabid nurturists, the types of academics who begin frothing at the mouth at the mere mention of DNA, suddenly become implacable hereditarians when they feel the need to throw the blame off of themselves. The authors cite a couple studies and list a few anecdotes showing how Asian parents put a premium on long-term planning and emphasize rewards for genuine accomplishments over self-esteem for its own sake.

It should be noted that even with “tiger mothering” the child’s genetic mediocrity will, in the end, rise to the surface. No, this is not just my overly harsh assessment. Yes, he will probably be more successful than his burger-flipping peers but, in the grand scheme of things, utterly unextraordinary. No. Forcing a child to play the cello for three hours a day will not turn him into Pablo Casals. Coercing a child into “algebra competitions” will not produce an Emmy Noether or a Grothendieck. Yes, Richard Feynman competed, but it was on his own accord, fueled by his own unique genius and passion. As of right now there is no recipe for instilling the lifelong enthusiasm for learning that makes a Feynman.

Decision fatigue, Tierney alleges, is why sweet treats are placed at the front of a store. After shopping and standing in a line customers are too exhausted to resist the delectables by the register. One disturbing story illustrates how harmful decision fatigue can be: “On average, each judge approved parole for only about one of every three prisoners, but there was a striking pattern to the decisions, of all the judges as the researchers found. The prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 65 percent of the time.Those who appeared late in the day won parole less than 10 percent of the time. Thus the odds favored the prisoner in our Case 1, who appeared at 8:50 AM…Whatever their personal philosophy – whether they were known for being tough on crime or sympathetic to the potential of rehabilitation – they had fewer available mental resources to make further decisions.”

In other words, all the lofty legalistic philosophy imbibed or spouted by these people to rationalize their decisions following their ruling is bunk. They’re just tired. Bottomline: if you have had to make a lot of choices, don’t make anymore until your fatigue has subsided.

Experimenters have found one way to make a particular group of subjects more impulsive (as if we need more impulsivity in the world): men who were shown pictures of attractive women were more prone to taking immediate rewards over larger future payoffs.

One piece of “good news” (in other words, the sort of factoid that can be used to justify a habit that isn’t widely approved of) is a group of researchers at Harvard have concluded that benefits can be derived from playing video games since, like a musical instrument or a similarly challenging hobby, they require the player to learn rules and follow precise steps. While Starcraft is probably not your child’s ticket to the Ivy League, it is better than television. However, you may want to put a mirror in their room.

Wicklund and Duval looked into how self-consciousness impact work ethic. In other words, if you know (or believe) you’re being watched or if you can see your reflection, you are likely to slavishly adhere to the values you claim to cherish and attend to the job you promised to do. One psychologist tried this out on trick-or-treaters who, even while wearing costumes, were less likely to take more than one piece of candy when the mirror was facing them. Without a mirror – or the self-awareness it induces – the little imps felt they could disobey their instructions. We needn’t look at a literal image of ourselves in order to be hit by the realization that we have not been acting as we should.

In his autobiography Anthony Trollope kept a record of how many words he wrote each day. He preemptively responds to those who felt this kind of self-discipline is beneath an artist:  “When I have heard such doctrine preached, I have hardly been able to repress my scorn. To me it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration, or the tallow-chandler for the divine moment of melting.”

Trollope was a fabulously prolific author. While he penned his fair share of tripe, a few of his novels remain undisputed masterpieces. The method is so simple. As the authors mention, willpower is not magic. It has limits. You cannot force yourself to be happy or sad – not genuinely, anyway. Subjects told to not smile during a comedy or not to show any emotion during a tragedy showed significant amounts of “ego-depletion” – similar to people who have passed up delicious cookies. Tapping into those emotions requires a memory or image that conjures them, and the willingness to spend time learning how to tap into them at the drop of a hat. However, if you are not an actor or a salesman. I see no reason to commit to this sort of practice.

Amanda Palmer’s street performance act involved standing still – being a human statue, even when boorish pedestrians would try to antagonize her. David Blaine claims before a stunt his discipline skyrockets, only to fall precipitously afterwards. I can’t say I cared much for the celebrity anecdotes the authors felt the need to include – presumably to connect to a wider audience. One more tidbit that made me chuckle: in spite of the lamentations of many would-be trail-blazers, psychologists have failed to find a link between procrastination and perfectionism. Perfectionism is just a noble-sounding excuse for laziness.

When one smoker quits it can move through their social network. They also note that if a person quits smoking their self-control in other areas improves. These small changes can have a tremendous impact on our lives and the lives of others. Willpower is a treasure that is worth cultivating and this is a wonderful book that, I hope, will change your life for the better.

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