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.


Jeff Remson

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?

frankenduf

how does hypnosis short circuit self control?

Michael

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?

robyn goldstein

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.

Clancy

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.

James

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.

Jazi

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.....

Patrick

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"?

robyn ann goldstein

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.

AaronS

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?

Simon Crosby

They say in the book that there is only one type of willpower.

Joe Z

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?

Alex

I've noticed at high school wrestling meets all of the dads are fat. Presumably they were wrestlers once. Is this an example of long-term loss of willpower?

R Firpo

The title made me think of the Gary Puckett and the Union Gap Song:

Lady Willpower, it's now or never
Give your love to me
And I'll shower your heart with tenderness
Endlessly

vimspot

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?

Candy

Whenever I hear about self-control/willpower, the Marshmallow Test conducted by Walter Mischel comes up. They found that four-year-olds who were able to wait longer to get two marshmallows (rather than giving up, ringing a bell, and only being allowed to eat one), were better off academically in their teens.

Are there any good strategies to teach young children ways to reign 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?

Jacob

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?

Jann Briesacher

Following Taubes work on how carb overload is starving people to death and Davis' work on the changes in wheat structure (my poor summaries here not their words), positing "willpower" as a bodily process fueled by glucose seems to have clear implications for explaining, among other things, why school children who eat honey buns for breakfast, candy all morning, pizza and corn for lunch, and chips all afternoon have little-to-no impulse control... they simply have no usable fuel.

Add Stephen Phinney's work showing athletes on ketogenic diets having seemingly-unlimited energy reserves, and it makes total sense that persons on controlled-carb eating plans have little trouble turning down foods that aren't acceptable: they have sufficient energy reserves to fuel their willpower in the background without them ever noticing the process. (We only really notice willpower when we fail to marshall the wherewithal to "exercise" it.)

When some highly visible person starts connecting the dots here ... it's going to be very interesting.

Read more...

gina

Gary Taubes is a genius! No one accepted -- or even bothered to investigate -- what he wrote in Good Calories, Bad Calories because food has become like a religion in this country, and the conventional wisdom within our society -- furthered by the Freakonomics guys in at least one of their NY Times columns) -- is that fat people lack willpower and are morally inferior.

Great comment. Thank you for mentioning that other book. I'd never heard of it.

PreemptivePlacebo

With the advent of condoms and other contraception methods human beings gained the ability to take control of reproduction. Simultaneously cultural barriers to sex began to fall. Suddenly we were presented with a new form of self-control. Yet the rate of unplanned pregnancy is near 50%.

1) Do those unplanned 50% represent a natural selection of a low-self-control trait?

2) Since we now have the responsibility control something that was once culturally taboo and thereby beyond our control, do we contribute to willpower overload with each new advance that gives us a little more control over ourselves? Is it a Catch-22?

PreemptivePlacebo

3) Can we create beliefs and rules for ourselves that allow us bypass the need to engage the willpower-circuit? For instance, can I reverse the current way of thinking and decide that broccoli and brussel sprouts are an indulgence while McDonalds hamburgers make me want to gag? Taste and desire are subjective, right? Can I manufacture the desire for those things that are good for me and produce revulsion for those that are not? If I did this would I not avoid the need to exercise self-control at all?

James

I don't know if those attitudes can be deliberately manufactured, but I have them. I'd have to exercise a certain amount of willpower to eat a McDonalds' burger if other choices are available, and quite a bit in order to stay inside working on this computer when I could be taking the dogs for a hike.

Humm... Maybe I don't actually have that much willpower?

adora

Can will power be quantified? If not, how would I know I'm improving?

Kevin F.

Do you think willpower is directly correlated with intelligence? Maybe not in the sense that there is a direct relationship but in the fact that someone more intelligent may be able weigh risk versus reward or possibly when saving money an intelligent person may have an easier time predicting how long it will take to reach a goal? Or is willpower something completely separate based maybe more in thick headed-ness?

Eric S

Or if you are more intelligent and spend more time weighing risk/reward, does that lead to decision fatigue and therefore less willpower? Is this is why "smart" lawyers and doctors end up having sexual indiscretions while the "dumb" blue collar guy stays faithful?

Leon Y

What are the downsides to willpower?
I saw an article in the new york times by a psychologist saying people with addictive personalities were visionaries because their dopamine tracts were stunted and so they required far higher levels of stimulation.
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/opinion/sunday/24addicts.html

Is it possible that by having strong willpower you can be left out by people who have less willpower who maybe better adapted to a changing world where once what was considered neccessary for success and required strong willpower is no longer the case, but those with strong willpower are stuck with the old ways?

I know conscientiousness doesn't = willpower and while some studies in work places show more conscientious people are more successful and have higher incomes on a state level or national level there seems to be negative correlation between conscientiousness and income.

http://www.aleph.se/andart/archives/2008/09/openness_is_creative_but_does_it_earn_money.html
studies in the uk also show people in working class families have far higher levels of conscientiousness

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Eric M. Jones

Many here point out similar problems with the thesis. "Willpower" however you understand it, is a rather narrow view of how to achieve ANYTHING. How about ditch the sociopathic notion of willpower and grow some common sense? How about meditate?

A GF of mine was harrassed and stalked by a demented fat guy down the block. Did the demented fat guy lack WILLPOWER? Maybe he just should have been more forceful? Cummon....

The notion that anyone NEEDS more willpower is based on the idea that you know what goal is worth achieving...and how to achieve it.

Sometimes one just needs to STOP doing what he is doing and smell the flowers.

Besides, the way the universe works is that the direct course is not often the best way to achieve worthwhile goal. Important goals are like ghosts...evanescent and hard to approach directly.

Ask yourself: Did Napoleon fail to conquer Russia because he lacked willpower? Willpower is the only tool of a diseased ego.

You need a little wisdom here fellas.

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Jorge de Leon

How do you face the idea that willpower is an illusion, but it make us feel great? Meaning it seems our consciousness executes decision making when is just a response of our brain activity derivated of neurological connections?

I havent read your book. I will do. (That's a promise, how declared promises induce willpower?)

Grettings from Mexico, where a lot of willpower is needed.

Tom Reeves

Willpower and motivation seem very closely correlated. During my day-to-day life, I have no real motivation to run (I'm comfortable at my computer, running is exhausting, etc.), but put me in the middle of a jungle with a tiger chasing me, and suddenly my motivation to run exceeds my desire to be lazy. In a more realistic scenario, I had gained weight over the years and really didn't mind so much - eating everything I wanted as much as I wanted was the path of least resistance, and enjoyment of food was my primary motivator. But then I began to have medical issues, and fear of surgeons with sharp scalpels shifted my motivation from food pleasure to avoidance of surgery. So my question is, how much of willpower (or self-discipline) is linked to motivating factors?