Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

Mis à jour : 4 janv. 2019

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

Willpower by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney is one of the most fascinating and useful books that I have read in the past year.

Roy Baumeister directs the social psychology programme at Florida State University and John Tierney writes the “Findings" science column for The New York Times. They constitute a formidable writing team. This is a scholarly book easily and pleasantly read.

I don’t find the table of contents very enlightening so here are a few extracts and some of the topics discussed.

        Willpower is more than a metaphor; it does exist and Baumeister and colleagues around the world “have come to realize that major problems, personal and social, center on failure of self-control: compulsive spending and borrowing, impulsive violence, underachievement in school, procrastination at work, alcohol and drug abuse, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, chronic anxiety, explosive anger. Poor self-control correlates with just about every kind of individual trauma: losing friends, being fired, getting divorce, winding up in prison.” p. 2

        “‘Self regulation failure is the major social pathology of our time’ they concluded, pointing to the accumulating evidence of its contribution to high divorce rates, domestic violence, crime, and a host of other problems. p. 11


  “When she tested prisoners and then tracked them for years after their release, she found that the ones with low self-control were most likely to commit more crimes and return to prison.

        “The strongest evidence yet was published in 2010. In a painstaking long-term study, much larger and more thorough than anything done previously, an international team of researchers tracked one thousand children in New Zealand from birth until the age of thirty-two. Each child's self-control was rated in a variety of ways (through observations by researchers as well as in reports of problems from parents, teachers, and the children themselves). This produced an especially reliable measure of children's self-control, and the researchers were able to check it against an extraordinarily wide array of outcomes through adolescence and into adulthood. The children with high self-control grew up into adults who had better physical health, including lower rates of obesity, fewer sexually transmitted diseases, and even healthier teeth. (Apparently, good self-control includes brushing and flossing.) Self-control was irrelevant to adult depression, but its lack made people more prone to alcohol and drug problems. The children with poor self-control tended to wind up poorer financially. They worked in relatively low-paying jobs, had little money in the bank, and were less likely to own a home or have money set aside for retirement. They also grew up to have more children being raised in single-parent households, presumably because they had a harder time adapting to the discipline required for a long-term relationship. The children with good self-control were much more likely to wind up in a stable marriage and raise children in a two parent home. Last, but certainly not least, the children with poor self-control were more likely to end up in prison. Among those with the lowest levels of self-control, more than 40 percent had a criminal conviction by the age of thirty-two, compared with just 12 percent of the people who had been toward the high end of the self-control distribution in their youth. P. 12

        “That's more or less what researchers discovered after studying thousands of people inside and outside the laboratory. The experiments consistently demonstrated two lessons:

You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it. You use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks. P. 35

        " You might think you have one reservoir of self-control for work. another for dieting, another for exercise, and another for being nice to your family. But the radish experiment showed that two completely unrelated activities - resisting chocolate and working on geometry puzzles – drew on the same source of energy, and this phenomenon has been demonstrated over and over. There are hidden connections among the wildly different things you do all day. You use the same supply of willpower to deal with frustrating traffic, tempting food, annoying colleagues, demanding bosses, pouting children. Resisting dessert at lunch leaves you with less willpower to praise your boss's awful haircut. The old line about the frustrated worker going home and kicking the dog jibes with the ego-depletion experiments, although modern workers generally aren't so mean to their pets. They're more likely to say something nasty to the humans in the household.

"Ego depletion affects even your heartbeat. When people in laboratory experiments exercise mental self-control, their pulse becomes more erratic; conversely, people whose normal pulse is relatively variable seem to have more inner energy available for self-control, because they do better on laboratory tests of perseverance than do people with steadier heartbeats. Other experiments have shown that chronic physical pain leaves people with a perpetual shortage of willpower because their minds are so depleted by the struggle to ignore the pain.

"We can divide the uses of willpower into four broad categories, starting with the A) control of thoughts. Sometimes it’s a losing struggle, whether you're fruitlessly trying to ignore something serious ("Out, damn'd spot!") or can't get rid of an annoying ear worm ("I got you babe, I got you babe"). But you can also learn to focus, particularly when the motivation is strong. People often conserve their willpower by seeking not the fullest or best answer but rather a predetermined conclusion. Theologians and believers filter the world to remain consistent with the nonnegotiable principles of their faith. The best salesmen often succeed by first deceiving themselves. Bankers packaging subprime loans convinced themselves that there was no problem giving mortgages to the class of unverified borrowers classified as NINA, as in "no income, no assets." Tiger Woods convinced himself that the rules of monogamy didn't apply to him – and that somehow nobody would notice the dalliances of the world's most famous athlete.

"Another broad category is the B) control of emotions, which psychologists call affect regulation when it's focused specifically on mood. Most commonly, we're trying to escape from bad moods and unpleasant thoughts, although we occasionally try to avoid cheeriness (like when we're getting ready for a funeral, or preparing to deliver bad news), and we occasionally try to hang on to feelings of anger (so that we're in the right state to lodge a complaint). Emotional control is uniquely difficult because you generally can't alter your mood by an act of will. You can change what you think about or how you behave, but you can't force yourself to be happy. You can treat your in-laws politely, but you can't make yourself rejoice over their month-long visit. To ward off sadness and anger, people use indirect strategies, like trying to distract themselves with other toughts, or working out at the gym, or meditating. They lose themselves in TV shows and treat themselves to chocolate binges and stopping sprees. Or they get drunk.

    "A third category is often called C) impulse control, which is what most people associate with willpower: the ability to resist temptations like alcohol, tobacco, Cinnabons, and cocktail waitresses. Strictly speaking, "impulse control" is a misnomer. You don't really control the impulses. Even someone as preternaturally disciplined as Barack Obama can't avoid stray impulses to smoke a cigarette. What he can control is how he reacts: Does he ignore the impulse, or chew a Nicorette, or sneak out for a smoke? (He has usually avoided lighting up, according to the White House, but there have been slips.)

    "Finally, there's the category that researchers call D) performance control: focusing your energy on the task at hand, finding the right combination of speed and accuracy, managing time, persevering when you feel like quitting. In the rest of the book, we'll discuss stategies for improving performance at work and at home, and we'll look at techniques for improving self-control in all the other categories, too – thoughts, emotions, impulses." Pp. 35-37

Chapter 2 is entitiled Where does the power in willpower come from? The brief answer is “No glucose, no willpower.”

In chapter 9 entitled Raising strong children: self-esteem versus self-control, the authors make a quote that I like very much, Brats are not born. They’re made.

One last quote: "... While parents and educators have been promoting the everybody gets-a-trophy philosophy, children have been seeking games with more demanding standards. Players need concentration to fight off Ork after Ork; they need patience to mine for virtual gold; they need thriftiness to save up for a new sword or helmet.

    "Instead of bemoaning the games' hold over children, we should be exploiting the techniques that game designers have developed. They've refined the basic steps of self-control: setting clear and attainable goals, giving instantaneous feedback, and offering enough encouragement for people to keep practicing and improving. After noticing how hard people work at games, some pioneers are pursuing the "gamification" of life by adapting these techniques (like establishing "quests" and allowing people to "level up") for schools and workplaces and digital collaborations. Video games give new glamour to old-fashioned virtues. Success is conditional – but it's within your reach as long as you have the discipline to try, try again. p. 212

“The researchers concluded that people spend about a quarter of their waking hours resisting desires... The most commonly resisted desire in the beeper study was the urge to eat, followed by the urge to sleep, and then by the urge for leisure, like taking a break from work by doing a puzzle or game instead of writing a memo. Sexual urges were next on the list of most-resisted desires...”

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