Last week, we solicited your questions for John Tierney and Roy Baumeister, authors of the new book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. You responded with a variety of interesting questions, and now Tierney and Baumeister return with some in-depth answers.
Thanks to everyone for participating.
Q. 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? -AaronS
A. No, there’s just one single resource (or commodity). There’s one source of mental energy for resisting temptation and performing other acts of self-control, and this willpower is also depleted by making decisions. What you experience may reflect the fact that willpower is limited and so people have to allocate it: they use it at the office to work effectively and diligently, but have messy homes and are short-tempered in the evening. Or people who show wonderful self-control at dealing with personal relationships but can’t seem to meet their deadlines.
Q. 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? -Michael
A. You’re hardly alone, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up. Plenty of people with strong willpower have trouble with weight (like Oprah Winfrey, whom we discuss in the book). Although weight-control is often the first thing people associate with willpower, the connection is actually much weaker than in other activities. Willpower has a much bigger effect on other parts of your life (school, work, personal relationships, etc.). People with strong willpower are a little better than average at controlling their weight, but only a little. Weight control is singularly difficult in part because willpower is fueled by glucose in the bloodstream, which comes from food. Hence there’s what we call the dieter’s Catch 22: In order not to eat, a dieter needs willpower. But in order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat.
Q. Your book suggests glucose plays an important role in regulating self-control and endurance and points out the paradox of dieting. Are you aware of any related experiments involving ketogenic dieters — or other alternate nutritional lifestyles — and how do you think this might impact willpower? -Jacob
A. We don’t know of any experiments yet. This may be a promising area for further research.
Q. Jonathon Haidt uses the metaphor of a rider on an elephant to describe the mind in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. The idea is that our rational conscious self is the rider and our unconscious self is the elephant, which has two important implications:
– Our unconscious is a surprisingly powerful driver of our actions (by definition we are not aware of it)
– Force alone cannot control our unconscious automatic reactions.
He argues that the only way to control our will is to tame the elephant through meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy and medication. Do you agree that those three activities are powerful interventions, and do you believe they are the most effective interventions? -vimspot
A. We agree that these can be powerful interventions, but they’re hardly the only ways to exercise self-control. We discuss many more strategies in the book. Haidt’s elephant metaphor is vivid and useful, but it’s sometimes been used by his fans to exaggerate the power of the unconscious mind. We think a better metaphor is another bit of animal imagery used by Haidt in introducing his notions of the unconscious. He recalled a panicked moment from his youth while riding a pony. As the pony walked toward the edge of a cliff, the young boy got scared and felt clueless and powerless to force it to turn. And then — surprise! — the pony turned of its own accord and plodded safely along the path, easing the boy’s fear and providing a metaphor of how the unconscious mind acts without help or guidance by conscious thought.
Now, it’s true that no pony would let a boy direct it off a cliff, but that doesn’t mean that the pony operated without conscious human guidance. The pony would never have taken the boy for a ride unless some human with large frontal lobes had trained it to tolerate a saddle and a rider. Just as the pony had to be systematically taught to take children along predictable paths and return them safely to the barn, so does the human unconscious have to be trained by the conscious. Ultimately, the pony does what it’s told.
Q. How does hypnosis short circuit self control? -frankenduf
A. Hypnosis works largely with unconscious processes. People who are susceptible to hypnosis are good at letting their conscious control relax. In a sense, it is less a matter of short-circuiting (i.e., overcoming or rendering ineffective) self-control than of deliberately relaxing it, so that these unconscious processes can operate. Just exactly how hypnosis works, and why some people are so much more susceptible than others, remain mysterious.
Q. 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”? -Patrick
A. There’s extensive evidence that successful people have strong willpower. People with high self-control get better grades, make more money and save more money. They’re happier and healthier. They do better at marriage and other personal relationships. Some recent work shows that they’re also more generous and fair when dealing with others — self-control isn’t just about selfishness. It evolved because we’re a social species and need self-control to get along with one another.
Psychologists consistently find that “positive outcomes” in life tend to be accompanied by two qualities: intelligence and self-control. Researchers haven’t managed, despite lots of efforts, to figure out how to permanently increase intelligence. But they have found ways to improve self-control. That’s why we think it’s psychology’s best hope for helping people and improving society. Your willpower is a lot easier to increase than your I.Q.
Q. 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? -Joe Z
A. There’s probably some genetic component, but that’s hardly the only reason that self-disciplined parents tend to have self-disciplined children. Their own self-control enables them to develop self-control in their children. It takes willpower to continually monitor children and enforce rules instead of letting things slide. This can be especially difficult for single parents, because they have to run the home and handle all the responsibilities themselves. When their willpower gets depleted, they can’t hand off to a partner with a back-up supply.
Q. Are there any good strategies to teach young children ways to rein in their impulses? Also, are there any studies that provide evidence that teaching young children impulse control strategies might lead to social/academic success later in life? -Candy
A. There hasn’t been a good controlled study teaching impulse control to some children (and not to a randomly assigned control group) and then following them over many years to assess whether they do better in adult life. But there are studies with shorter time spans that show improved performance as a result of teaching self-control. And there’s an abundance of data showing that children with good self-control are more likely to succeed in adulthood.
We agree with the British nannies (one is featured in the book) who think it’s quite possible to teach children to control themselves — and that this is the greatest gift parents can give their children. Too many parents seem to reward their children for losing control, such as when parents initially say no but then relent when the child throws a tantrum. The child soon learns that losing control is an effective strategy, precisely the wrong lesson.
Parents should set clear goals and rules along with rewards and punishments. The punishments don’t need to be severe; what’s more important is that they’re administered quickly and consistently. Older children should participate in the process of setting the rules. Disciplined activities, such as regular homework and piano practice, do plenty of good toward building self-control — especially if parents recognize and reward children for improvements in self-control.
Q. Can willpower be quantified? If not, how would I know I’m improving? -adora
A. During lab experiments, willpower is quantified by measuring how long someone can work at a task, or squeeze a hand-grip exerciser, or hold a hand in ice-cold water. That enables researchers to see how a person’s willpower at the start of an experiment compares with the level at the end of the experiment. But that’s generally not a practical or useful method for you to use in tracking your willpower over a long period of time. Your level of willpower will fluctuate depending on various factors — the time of day, what you’ve eaten, and how much it’s been depleted by the challenges you’ve had to confront during the day.
But you’re right: it’s essential to measure yourself so you can see if you’re improving. You can’t easily make a direct measurement of your overall level of willpower, but you can do it indirectly by setting goals and monitoring your progress. A simple way to strengthen willpower is to pick small things that you would like to change. It might be something like cleaning up the dishes right after dinner instead of letting them sit around. Once you succeed at that (and it becomes a habit that doesn’t require much conscious exertion anymore), pick something else. Don’t worry about it when you are coping with severe demands elsewhere in life, but during relatively peaceful lulls in your life, make these changes. As you gradually succeed at more important and difficult ones, that would indicate that you’ve made progress.
Q. Can willpower be marketed? Weight-loss is a billion dollar a year industry and yet the best solution to obesity, heart disease, and cancer is healthy living. How can one make money with that? -Jeff Remson
A. Well, let’s see. Could one perhaps make money marketing willpower by selling a book about it?
But you’re right, so far marketers have done a much job selling sin than self-control. There are obvious profits from junk food and cigarettes; self-control is a way of acting and a psychological trait, so it cannot be bottled and sold in a literal sense. But savvy investors like Esther Dyson are betting on a new wave of entrepreneurs selling digital tools for improving self-control. We talked with Aaron Patzer, the founder of Mint.com, which is continuously tracking the financial transactions of more than 6 million people, helping them set goals and warning them when they go over their budgets. Not only is this helping customers, it’s generating astounding amounts of real-world data about the best ways to improve self-control. When we asked the analysts at Mint.com to measure some trends for us, they were able to look at more than 2 billion transactions.
And Mint.com is just one example of what’s called the Quantified Self movement, which is providing gadgets and apps and software for monitoring just about everything you do: how many calories you burn walking and running, what you eat, how long you sleep, precisely how you spend your time on the computer. These tools help you conserve willpower by outsourcing part of the job to computer chips and social networks. We used some of these tools and strategies in writing the Willpower — and managed to get the manuscript done two months early, an unprecedented feat for Tierney, a chronic procrastinator (as Dubner, his former editor, will attest).