Bring Your Questions for Willpower Authors Roy Baumeister and John Tierney

What’s the most coveted human virtue — empathy? honesty? courage?

Or how about …  self-control?

That’s the assertion of the new book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength*, by Roy Baumeister, a research psychologist at Florida State, and John Tierney**, a New York Times science writer. The book builds off Baumeister’s research on the physical aspect of willpower, which he and his research collaborators found behaves like a muscle: it can be strengthened through exercise but it becomes fatigued from overuse. Willpower is generated in large part by sleep and diet, and feeds off of the glucose in our bloodstream.

Baumeister and Tierney argue that our ability (or inability) to exercise self-control is most often the key between success and failure. And it’s hard not to see their point: I type these words on the very day that a special election is being held in New York to replace the disgraced (and aptonymic) Congressman Anthony Weiner.

As Baumeister and Tierney point out, “Poor self-control correlates with just about every kind of individual trauma: losing friends, being fired, getting divorced, winding up in prison.”

The authors have agreed to answer your questions about their book and related topics, so fire away in the comments section. As always, we will post their responses shortly. And here, to prime the pump, is the book’s table of contents.

1. Is Willpower More Than a Metaphor?
2. Where Does the Power in Willpower Come From?
3. A Brief History of the To-Do List, From God to Drew Carey
4. Decision Fatigue
5. Where Have All the Dollars Gone? The Quantified Self Knows
6. Can Willpower Be Strengthened? (Preferably Without Feeling David Blaine’s Pain)
7. Outsmarting Yourself in the Heart of Darkness
8. Did a Higher Power Help Eric Clapton and Mary Karr Stop Drinking?
9. Raising Strong Children: Self-Esteem Versus Self-Control
10. The Perfect Storm of Dieting
Conclusion: The Future of Willpower-More Gain, Less Strain (As Long as You Don’t Procrastinate)

*I liked this book well enough to blurb it: “Willpower (the thing) lies at the curious intersection of science and behavior. Willpower (the book) lies at the intersection of Roy Baumeister, an extraordinarily creative scientist, and John Tierney, a phenomenally perceptive journalist. Ignore it at your peril.”

**I used to edit Tierney in the Times Magazine. To me, there are three important, separate skills that a good non-fiction writer must possess: reporting, thinking, and writing. Even among successful writers, very few possess all three in abundance. Tierney is among those few.

COMMENTS: 40

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  1. Jeff Remson says:

    Can willpower be marketed? Weightloss is a billion dollar a year industry and yet the best solution to obeisity, hearth disease, and cancer is healthy living. How can one make money with that?

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  2. frankenduf says:

    how does hypnosis short circuit self control?

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  3. Michael says:

    A question about something that has always bothered me about willpower. I consider myself a very disciplined, strong willpower’ed, self-controlled man. I’ve never had troubles with productivity at work, failing to study or do homework at school, devotion to my significant other, financial discipline or failing to save, procrastinating on things I need to do, or managing my free time to maximize my happiness.

    But I do have one self-control issue, I’m fat. I can’t stay on a diet or exercise regimen for more than 3-4 months before simply giving up. If there is a single thing that is willpower, how can I have such high willpower on most of my life, but such horrible willpower on a single aspect of it?

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    • robyn goldstein says:

      I know what you mean. I tried the diets. Never worked. Tried exercising, still do- erratically. I love to dance (salsa) and when I can, I do. But, I have found 1) walking the dogs a blessing. (no choice) and 2) making dieting a way of life not a gimmick, thanks to a psychologist friend. I began with the idea of eating anything I want and found that I could not stand eating only sweet things (as in doughnuts, chocolate bars). I graduated to eating healthy, chocolate from time to time (sometimes a bit daily when in need of comfort food). The no-diet diet has worked. I am not fat, not thin, but certainly happier than I have ever been. And now I am even taking vitamins. Still find the regimen a bit hard to follow. But in the interest of a healthy heart, I do it as best as I can.

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    • Jann Briesacher says:

      Go read Gary Taubes’ new book, “Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It,” ISBN: 978-0307272706 and William Davis’ “Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health,” ISBN: 978-1609611545. These two books explain the circle of eat, get tired and hungry, eat, get tired and hungry… Read alongside “Willpower,” they explain nearly everything in our failing school systems but Justin Bieber’s popularity.

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  4. Clancy says:

    Thinking about the relationship between willpower and glucose, what is the relationship between willpower and insulin and insulin resistance? Studies have shown a link between insulin resistance and cognative function and I wonder if willpower is related.

    I can’t help wondering if the obesity epidemic is the start of our civilisation’s death spiral.

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    • James says:

      I don’t know about “death spiral”, but I’ve sometimes wondered if the human race is not starting to split into two distinct species, because it does seem that the population is going to two extremes, either super-fit or super-fat. After all, when else in history did significant numbers of people do things like triathlons for fun?

      People who do exercise for fun tend to marry similar people, and likewise with the couch potatos. If there’s a genetic component, that should be reinforced in their offspring, and in a few generations we’ll have two species that don’t willingly interbreed.

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  5. Jazi says:

    In the book chapter on diets, the authors are against diet. They hold that dieting is not the way to get thin, and that being fat is no indication to weak self control, it is a completely different domain.

    The way suggested to get thinner is via sophisticated small changes that are not an exhausting day to day struggle. Strategic moves that do not bother the person or tear him to pieces…..

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  6. Patrick says:

    People assume that strong willpower is a necessary condition for success. Does evidence indicate that most people we would call “successful” also exhibit a high degree of willpower? How necessary is strong willpower to “success”?

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    • robyn ann goldstein says:

      Dear Patrick;

      I would say that in my case, willpower is what is necessary to finish what I started. What do I mean? The closest thing that comes to it was a final accounting exam that I took. We were given a problem and had two hours to do it. I did- perfect score. I know that I need a bit more time at least to `finish’ the last chapter my way. But will power is the name of the game at the moment- as in distractions like blogging serves me no good at least at present.

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  7. AaronS says:

    Is willpower a single commodity (so to speak), or is there, as I suspect, a one type of willpower for, say, dieting, another one for academic study, another for this, another for that?

    It’s the only way I can explain the failures that go along with my successes.

    Further, I used to think that one little hinge had made the biggest impact on my life: my weight. That I might have married earlier, might have married better (doubtful!), might have had more opportunities in business, might have made the football team, etc., if I would just have been able to control my weight.

    Alas, far too late I have realize that the enemy was not my weight…it was my lack of willpower, which manifested in my size. And yet, like I said earlier, I have significant success in other areas? WHAT GIVES?

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  8. Joe Z says:

    Is there a genetic component to willpower? Or does the fact that dedicated kids come from dedicated parents just a result of a good family diet and will power practice?

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