Skipping the Free Buffet

Rational? I’m at a hotel and was given a coupon allowing me to eat the excellent breakfast buffet at no cost. Sounds good; but instead, I go next door to Caribou Coffee and buy a coffee and blackberry scone for $5. Is this utility-maximizing? 

I think so. I know that if I get the “free” buffet, I’ll eat a lot—probably orange juice and a large Belgian waffle with lots of syrup. Having pigged out over Thanksgiving, my weight is already up. Spending the $5 is a self-control mechanism: I know that once I’m done at Caribou, I’ll be sufficiently less hungry that I won’t want to spend time at the buffet (and won’t have eaten more than I should). There’s more to utility than increasing income and/or reducing spending!

The Authors of Willpower Answer Your Questions

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.

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.

Self-Controlled Vacations

A week in a condominium in the Tuscan hills—all courtesy of the exchange of our own time share unit. Is this a good economic deal for us? In a narrow sense, no: the exchange fee, plus the annual fee in the “time share bank,” plus the taxes and upkeep on our own time-share unit almost equal what it would cost to rent the Tuscan unit for a week.

But: having an unused time-share week being wasted imposes psychic costs on us—and that forces us to take a one-week vacation. Also, the time-share bank provides information on a pre-selected set of vacation units, thus saving us search costs. We're quite happy to pay for a self-control mechanism and pay to reduce the transaction costs of arranging a vacation.

The Menstrual Theory of Impulse Buying

Recent research on willpower suggests that it's a limited resource that can be depleted. Now there's evidence that something else affects willpower: women's menstrual cycles.

Manipulating Yourself for Your Own Good

Standard economic theory implies that we maximize our happiness if we have more choices. Yet we limit our choices — impose self-control mechanisms — voluntarily in order to improve our well-being. For example, I just signed a book contract with a small advance payment. I don’t need the extra money right now, but having taken […]