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Chapter One, Willpower

star5112 Balancing or falling? CC BY-SA 2.0Picture a group of twenty year-olds scattered around a dance studio, facing each other in pairs, leaning forward on their toes, noses touching. This was the first day of a Performance Studies class I took — for one day, before dropping it — called “Performance and the Body,” or something to that effect. Our introduction to the weekly, four-hour class was to stand as close to our partner for as long as we could, as still as we could. Afterward we debriefed on the challenges of this task, and many of us remarked that it was really difficult not to lob their partner with a big kiss. Nobody yielded to the temptation — one of my stranger feats of willpower.

As mentioned last week, I’m in the middle of reading Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, part history, part psychological study, part self-improvement book. Chapter one begins with a discussion of pop singer Amanda Palmer, a Dionysian, Lady Gaga type who doesn’t exactly conjure the traditionally straight-laced, Victorian idea of “willpower,” and yet, as the authors are wise to point out, who possesses it in abundant supply. She first honed her powers of will by standing stock still on top of a box, dressed as a bride in the middle of Harvard Square. She could manage it for about 90 minutes at a time, not being able “to scratch if she had an itch, wipe her nose if a piece of snot started to dribble down, swat at a stray mosquito…” She was doing nothing, but the discipline of being totally blank-faced and nonreactive was itself a challenge. Reminds me of how my old drama teacher used to yell, “F— YOU!” at us, as in, “focus you.”

Actually, there are four categories of willpower, according to this book:

  • Control of thoughts — this is accomplished by focusing
  • Control of emotions — this is accomplished through “indirect strategies,” such as distracting yourself when you feel negative emotions
  • Impulse control — really a description of how people react to stray impulses
  • Performance control — the ability to complete a task with the appropriate mix of speed, accuracy, perseverance

In chapter one, the authors also suggest that willpower is like a muscle that gets fatigued after use. Apparently we use the same supply of willpower for all tasks: making decisions, writing a term paper, resisting chocolate chip cookies, waking up on time… Author Roy Baumeister coined a term for willpower fatigue, called “ego depletion.” It draws upon Freud’s energy model of the self, the idea that the self is comprised of various, competing energies that must be productively channeled. University of Toronto researchers Michael Inzlicht and Jennifer Gutsell found that ego depletion manifests as slower activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, and also in more extreme emotions — so next time your plagued by violent mood swings, ask yourself how much self-discipline you’ve had to exercise recently.

An amusing study conducted by two Australian psychologists proved the forcefulness of the ego depletion concept. In the study, they administered self-control tests to students at several points throughout the semester. During exams, the students smoked more, doubled their caffeine intake, spent money more impulsively, and generally took on a host of bad habits. Turns out that stress erodes willpower, which explains the students’ poor behavior.

In another study, scientists put hungry subjects in a room with warm chocolate chip cookies, radishes, and chocolate candy. Some were told to eat the cookies and the candy; a separate group was told to eat the radishes. Then they were instructed to work on insoluble puzzles. Those who ate the sweets worked on the puzzles for an average of 20 minutes, whereas the radish-eating participants only persevered for about eight minutes. Their willpower had presumably been depleted by the effort of resisting the cookies. To summarize,

“You 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.”

What’s the take away? Focus on accomplishing, changing, or mastering one thing at a time. And be patient with yourself, whatever the challenge 🙂

A Brief History of Willpower

Sarah Robinson An Affair with Chocolate CC BY 2.0I find myself invoking the old D.A.R.E. mantra, “Just say no!” when face-to-face with a bag of Peanut M&Ms or a gooey brownie or say, an entire jar of Nutella. I have a serious weakness for chocolate, and “just say[ing] no” ain’t that easy. I was at my wit’s end a few weeks ago, bemoaning my lack of self-control, when I happened upon The New York Times bestseller Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. I can’t say I bought it entirely devoid of the hope that it would help me unlock my potential for resisting temptation, but it’s also just an interesting read that unpacks a rather elusive concept. Here’s a summary of what I learned in the introduction:

According to psychologists, two qualities determine success and well-being in life: intelligence and self-control. The latter is a malleable quality — like a muscle, it “can…be strengthened over the long term through exercise,” according to Baumeister. When Baumeister and his colleagues conducted a study of over 200 Germans wearing beepers that randomly sounded, requiring the participants to report on the status of their desires, they concluded that “people spend at least a fifth of their waking hours resisting desires,” that “desire [is] the norm, not the exception.” (The desire to eat topped the list, a temptation the participants claimed to be only mediocre at resisting, as compared to the desire to sleep, have sex, or spend money, which made me feel a little better about the moments when I’ve been caught licking spoonfuls of Nutella out of the jar…) Point being, exercising willpower is tough. The authors suggest that it’s gotten tougher throughout history, citing a rigid social hierarchy, a reduced set of temptations, and the enforcing powers of the Catholic church and the threat of public disgrace as reasons why the notion of willpower didn’t exist during the Middle Ages.

The term came about during the Victorian Age, when the decline of religion and the societal changes associated with the Industrial Revolution, such as urbanization, led people to fret about the upholding of moral standards. “They began using the term willpower,” according to Baumeister and Tierney, “because of the folk notion that some kind of force was involved — some inner equivalent to the steam powering the Industrial Revolution.” The popularity of the willpower concept declined in the twentieth century, not least because the mindset of duty and self-sacrifice led to mass deaths during World War I, as well as the Nazi party’s exploitation of such values as obedience and self-denial, even titling propaganda films “The Triumph of the Will.”

Following World War II, the advertising industry in the newly booming economy encouraged Americans to strive for popularity and prosperity, with books like How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Power of Positive Thinking replacing Self-Help and The Power of the Will. Self-help authors espoused the “feel-good philosophy” of achieving success through self-confidence, the “believe it, achieve it” mentality. It seems that with this greater emphasis on positivity, the country’s collective willpower declined somewhat. For example, in The Quest for Identity, psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis wrote that as a result of declining self-discipline, his clients had an easier time getting in touch with their neurotic tendencies (less “character armor” to break down) but they encountered more difficulty in making changes to their lives. Another reason for “the decline of the will” has to do with the prevailing belief among psychologists and social scientists that the conscious mind is ever subservient to the subconscious, that free will is essentially a fallacy. Even author Roy Baumeister was more focused on fostering self-esteem than self-control when he started his career in the 1970s, riding the wave of personal empowerment philosophy, with books like I’m OK — You’re OK and Awaken the Giant Within. 

The resurgence of self-control as an influential force in human life didn’t come from new theories or hypothesizes, but rather materialized as scientists were testing for other phenomenon. A man named Walter Mischel led a study in the 1960s testing how children resisted immediate gratification, in which children were given a marshmallow that they could eat at any time. If they waited to eat it until the experimenter returned, they would also be allowed to eat a second marshmallow. Most of the children who held out succeeded in delaying gratification by distracting themselves, an interesting finding in itself. Years later, Mischel tracked down the children from the experiment, discovering that the four-year-olds who resisted eating the first marshmallow possessed a host of positive traits connected to willpower as adults, from higher SAT scores to higher salaries to a lower body-mass index.

In Losing Control, Baumeister and his wife, Dianna Tice took stock of the benefits of self-control, and prompted a new wave of experiments on the topic. Self-control was found to be the best predictor of a student’s grade-point average, over IQ and SAT scores. It was also associated with higher levels of empathy, lower rates of mental illness, healthier relationships at home and at work, and better finances, among other things. Meanwhile, anthropologists and neuroscientists studied the evolutionary causes of willpower, concluding that humans developed larger brains along with the capability of self-control because of our social nature. The authors write, “Primates are social beings who have to control themselves in order to get along with the rest of the group… For animals to survive in such a group without getting beaten up, they must restrain their urge to eat immediately.”

The introduction ends by defining the elusive concept of “the will” as making conscious choices with a broader awareness of time, “treating the current situation as part of a general pattern.” I think that’s what I’m after re the spoonfuls of Nutella — “just saying no” enough so that giving in is the exception, not the rule, even if desire is a constant. In “Why Will Yourself to Read This?” the authors do promise some practical wisdom on that front, bolstered by social scientists’ understanding of what willpower is, how it works, and how it informs our understanding of the self. For anyone out there seeking greater productivity, better health, or just a sense of self-mastery, this book is worth a read. I’ll continue to post with more insights gleaned, but for now, more power to you.

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