Roy Baumeister is a psychologist and an expert in the field of self-regulation, also known as willpower. Ray Tierney is a science writer for the New York Times. Together they published Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. This book examines a number of recent research-based discoveries about willpower and details concrete steps to boost this strength.
The Big Ideas
- Willpower is much like a muscle or a strength we all have in varying amounts.
- This muscle can be exercised; doing so can leave us depleted of willpower.
- Steps can be taken to save up and build new stores of willpower.
- People with greater levels of willpower are more successful in life using measures that include scoring higher on SAT tests, gaining popularity with peers, procuring higher salaries, and enjoying better health.
Willpower is much like a muscle. Research has shown that you can strengthen it by adopting certain behaviors, although your willpower becomes weakened when you rely on it too much. For example, setting a goal with specific outcomes in mind builds your willpower because you become focused on achieving that specific goal. “Clean out the garage” is not a specific goal. “Clean out the garage this Saturday, starting at 9AM” is much more specific.
In the extended summary below, Baumeister and Tierney investigate willpower from every angle, offering steps you can take to improve your own self-control, your willpower.
Is Willpower More Than a Metaphor?
Dr. Baumeister sets out at first to determine if willpower is something more than just an idea. One experiment showed that it is.
Imagine two groups of hungry people sitting in a room with a bowl of radishes before them, but also with a platter of just-baked chocolate chip cookies nearby. One group is told they must only eat radishes. Later a second group is told they can help themselves to the cookies. Unbeknownst to the people, researchers watched them from behind a two-way mirror. Those who were told to eat only radishes did resist the temptation to eat cookies, although they did pick them up, smell them and carefully put them back on the platter so the researchers wouldn’t know they had been touched.
Later the two groups were asked to do a geometry puzzle to test their cleverness. Actually the puzzle was impossible to solve. The radish-eating group gave up the task in about eight minutes, while the cookie eaters continued trying for over 20 minutes.
Researchers concluded that the radish eaters had “used up” their willpower by resisting the cookies and had less willpower available to continue trying to solve the puzzle. Many subsequent studies found the same results: willpower can be depleted, which is what psychologists call “ego depletion.” In fact, some studies have even shown that “ego depletion causes a slowdown in the anterior cingulate cortex, the brain area that’s crucial to self-control.”
Where does willpower fit into our lives? It’s use can be divided into four areas…
- Controlling our thoughts
- Controlling our emotions
- Controlling our impulses
- Controlling our focus on the task at hand.
According to Baumeister, we all have a “finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it….[and] you use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.”
Willpower is measurable and it is definitely more than a metaphor.
Where Does the Power in Willpower Come From?
Psychologists used to believe that mental and emotional issues were just that. Then, in the late twentieth century, new ideas from the field of biology and neuroscience began to influence psychology, leading finally to a new understanding that includes neuro-chemistry and brain function in the treatment plan.
Baumeister proposes that willpower comes from glucose, that form of sugar that every cell in our body and especially our brains need to live and function. Our brain alone uses about 20 percent of all the glucose in our bodies, even though our brain accounts for only a few percent of our total body weight. Glucose is the fuel that allows our brain to compute, our heart to beat and our lungs to breathe. Glucose is what our food turns into when it is digested.
Baumeister answers the question about the origin of willpower simply: “No glucose, no willpower. The pattern showed up time and time again as researchers tested more people in more situations.”
What to do when you’re feeling low in willpower? Make sure you are getting a balanced diet. Cut back on sugar in favor of protein. Cut down on alcohol. A balanced intake of food goes a long way toward building your stock of willpower.
A Brief History of the To-Do List
Some of us hang a to-do list on the refrigerator. Some of us make New Year resolutions. Some of us make long-term goals. “The first step in self-control is to set a clear goal,” according to Baumeister. Yet other than completing an occasional refrigerator list of groceries, many of us are poor at follow through on our to-do lists and goals.
However, laboratory research shows that people who follow through on short-term goals succeed “apparently because meeting these daily goals gradually builds their confidence.” Doing the work necessary to meet a goal becomes a habit and that strengthens willpower.
Making a decision uses up some of your willpower. Making many decisions in, say, a day’s time can totally deplete your willpower leaving you subject to making terribly bad decisions. Consider the judge responsible for reviewing records of prisoners to determine if they should be paroled or returned to prison.
Scientists reviewed over 1,000 decisions made by judges. About one in three prisoners were granted parole but a shocking fact emerged from the data. “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.” Furthermore, the judges took a mid-morning break around 10:30 each day. Only ten percent of prisoners who saw the judge just before the break were granted parole, while 65 percent of them appearing just after the break were freed.
It wasn’t the blindfolded Lady Justice meting out decisions. It was glucose. The judges in the morning had just eaten breakfast and they ate a snack at mid-morning break. “As judges made one decision after another, their brains and bodies used up glucose, that crucial component of willpower…They had fewer available mental resources to make further decisions.” So they made decisions that were less risky for themselves (keep him in prison rather than risk the prisoner returning to a life of crime) in spite of the unfairness to the prisoners.
Baumeister says decision fatigue depletes our willpower and our depleted willpower causes us to make “easier” decisions like “keep the status quo” or “don’t rock the boat.” Perhaps you’ve seen this in business when bosses and executives just don’t want to hear a new idea after they’ve already used up their supply of willpower. Or, perhaps when your spouse comes home tired after a long day’s work and is not interested in talking about vacation plans:
“Hi dear, welcome home. I’ve been wondering, should we go to Florida or Maryland for vacation?”
Spouse replies, “I don’t know. Why don’t you just decide for us?”
Very likely it’s a case of decision fatigue and a low balance of willpower.
Where Have All the Dollars Gone?
Did you know there’s a region of your brain called the insular cortex that makes decisions on (among other things) spending money rather than keeping it in your purse or wallet? Studies using functional MRI brain scans show that the insular cortex “lights up” when people are presented with choices about spending money on gadgets, gizmos and other personal cravings.
If you happen to be a spendthrift or addicted to shopping at every opportunity, your control of your own behavior (willpower) is probably lacking. To improve, you need to first become aware of your spending behavior, which psychologists refer to as “self-awareness.” Baumeister recommends using tools like Mint.com that keep track of your spending and show you at any moment “ow you’re doing. Mint.com is available for your PC and Mac as well as an app for Android and iPhone users.
Whether you use technology like Mint.com or not, there are three steps to getting more control over your spending.
- Set a goal for each category of spending – restaurants, groceries, etc.
- Monitor your spending behavior in each category.
- Assess your results and make changes as needed.
For example, if you decide to adjust your $200 per month spending habit at restaurants, don’t adjust the new budget amount to zero. Make adjustments in tolerable steps. You might choose to drop your budget to $150 and gradually work it down to your new target.
You can increase your willpower by becoming more aware of your own behaviors.
Can Willpower Be Strengthened?
Research findings “point toward the remarkable benefits of exercising willpower. Without realizing it, people gained a wide array of benefits in areas of their lives that had nothing to do with the specific exercises they were performing.” So if willpower is like a muscle, how does one exercise it?
Baumeister suggests changing a routine habit into a new habit. For example, decide to speak “proper English” rather than peppering your speech with “ya know” and “yeah” and “like.” The discipline required to change a habitual behavior seems to increase willpower across the board.
Likewise, start a new behavior with the intention of making it into a habit. It could be a change in eating, getting regular exercise or even, say, using your non-dominant hand for everything you do between the hours of 9AM and noon. No matter what the new behavior is, it requires discipline to convert it into a habit, and that strengthens your willpower as well.
Outsmarting Yourself in the Heart of Darkness
If you’re facing a challenge to your willpower – maybe the need to lose weight or to control your emotions – “pre-commitment” may be just the tool you need to win. It’s a way to outsmart yourself!
Pre-commitment can take many forms, but it’s essentially a matter of telling others that you are going to achieve your goal. It brings the support of others into your world as well as their disapproval if you fail.
The web service at stickK.com makes this a formal process with no room to cheat. You choose your goal. It might be spending more time with your family, improving grades in school, saving money, etc. The web site creates a contract that lets you specify how much penalty you will pay if you fail and to whom the money should be sent, for example, to a charity. It asks you to identify a referee who vouches for the truth of your weekly reports as well as people who will support you in your efforts to change.
Did a Higher Power Help Eric Clapton?
The iconic superstar, Eric Clapton, suffered from alcoholism and drug abuse for many years, often sitting up late at night drinking whiskey from a bottle with a shot gun at his side, contemplating suicide. Two separate rounds of drug and alcohol rehabilitation failed to cure him. He was subject to what psychologists call “hyperbolic discounting.”
Baumeister explains: “We can ignore temptations when they’re not immediately available, but once they’re right in front of us we lose perspective and forget our distant goals.” Clapton was OK until he allowed himself to enter an environment where drinking takes place.
Clapton’s solution, the one that saved his life and has withstood the test of time, usually comes only to people at their lowest of low points. He surrendered to a higher power. At an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting he spoke about “handing your will over to the care of a higher power and told the group how his compulsion to drink had vanished he instant he got down on his knees…and asked for God’s help.”
Where one’s willpower fails utterly, surrender may be the only solution left.
Raising Strong Children
Set goals and standards, pay rewards, establish habits and teach your children to play to win – four themes that are important in raising strong children.
- Goals and standards – Children need and want clear rules. It’s important to hold children accountable for compliance with whatever rules are established, and to be consistent in enforcing the rules.
- Pay rewards – As kids get older it’s important to ask them what goals they have, and then to motivate them to reach their goals by setting up rewards for, say, doing chores, doing homework, etc. At a certain age money becomes perhaps the best motivator because it allows children to reach toward their person goals – whether that’s a new video game or attending summer camp.
- Establish habits – Even in the earliest months of life, parents can choose to make the child responsible for his or her own satisfaction. For example, an infant may cry when hungry. Mom can acknowledge the signal and then take a few moments to offer the meal. The child learns to ask for food without hysterical screaming. For older children, teach them to save money in a piggy bank. Research shows such kids become savers in their adult lives.
- Play to win – Our schools and society have rewarded “trying hard” rather than “winning” over the last few decades. Some children sports leagues offer a trophy for every player rather than only the winning team. It’s apparently based on the belief that young psyches will somehow be damaged if they aren’t recognized as winners. But winning is winning and it’s more important to reward winning than rewarding “trying.”
The Perfect Storm of Dieting
Research has shown that people with great stores of willpower are only slightly more likely to successfully diet to lose weight. Willpower does not provide a lot of help when you want to lose weight. Baumeister says, “Instead of squandering your willpower on a strict diet, eat enough glucose to conserve willpower, and use your self-control for more promising long-term strategies.”
You might use the “pre-commitment” approach noted above. Join stickK.com or Fatbet.net to make a bet on your goal to lose weight. Or, use the if-then approach. If you are going to a party where fattening foods will be served, say to yourself: “If they serve potato chips, then I will refuse them and eat only vegetables and other healthy alternatives in moderation.” The if-then strategy gives you an advance plan that helps you avoid surprises that would tempt you to overeat or to eat fattening foods.
Weigh yourself every day. It’s a matter of self awareness and self management.
Finally, it sometimes helps to tell yourself you can have a certain food later, but not now. It seems to satisfy the craving to some degree and might let you avoid unneeded calories.
“Our willpower has made us the most adaptable creatures on the planet, and we’re rediscovering how to help one another use it. We’re learning once again that willpower is the virtue that sets our species apart and that makes each one of us strong.”
IMEO (In My Eudaimonion Opinion)
This is a fantastic book! While the study of willpower has a long way to go, the authors do a great job of explaining what willpower is and how we can take baby steps toward greater self-control.
Take Action, Humanoid!
- Know your limits – Realize that your willpower is a resource that gets depleted throughout the day. Don’t push yourself with difficult decisions when you’re in the “depletion zone.”
- Watch for symptoms – Be aware of subtle changes in the intensity of emotions you feel. Notice if you are feeling more impulsive or prone to say things you wouldn’t ordinarily say. When you begin to notice the depleted feelings, take it easy on yourself. Don’t make any big decisions.
- Pick your battles – Looking to make big changes in short periods of time are doomed to failure for most people. When it comes to making decisions to do or not do certain things, pick the ones with which you can be successful.
- Make a to-do list – Organize yourself whether on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Keep the to-do list simple and achievable and, most of all, do what’s on the list.
Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength
Author: Roy F. Baumeister, John Tierney
Publication Date: 2012 (304 pages)