Review: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. 304 pp. $27.95 (hardcover).


Roy F. Baumeister started his career in psychology skeptical that such a thing as willpower even exists. In this, he says, he did not differ from many other psychologists and philosophers.

But then he observed willpower in the laboratory: how it gives people the strength to persevere, how they lose self-control as their willpower is depleted, how this mental energy is fueled by the glucose in one’s bloodstream. He . . . discovered that willpower, like a muscle, becomes fatigued from overuse but can also be strengthened over the long term through exercise. (pp. 1–2)

In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Baumeister and coauthor John Tierney detail the experiments Baumeister conducted in his laboratory, share the results, and highlight their implications. The result is a fascinating and useful, if sometimes maddening, book—one that shows how using willpower effectively is essential to achieving “a happy family, good friends, a satisfying career, robust health, financial security, [and] the freedom to pursue your passions” (p. 1).

In one of the experiments detailed in the book, a group of hungry college students entered Baumeister’s laboratory and immediately smelled the aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.

The experimental subjects sat down at a table with several culinary choices: the warm cookies, some pieces of chocolate, and a bowl of radishes. Some students were invited to eat the cookies and candy. The unlucky one’s were assigned to “the radish condition”: no treats, just raw radishes.

To maximize temptation, the researchers left the students alone with the radishes and the cookies, and observed them through a small, hidden window. The ones in the radish condition clearly struggled with the temptation. Many gazed longingly at the cookies before settling down to bite reluctantly into a radish. Some of them picked up a cookie and smelled it, savoring the pleasure of freshly baked chocolate. A couple accidentally dropped a cookie on the floor and then hastened to put it back in the bowl so no one would know of their flirtation with sin. But nobody actually bit into the forbidden food. The temptation was always resisted, if in some cases by the narrowest of margins. All this was to the good, in terms of experiment. It showed that the cookies were really quite tempting and that people needed to summon willpower to resist them.

Then the students were taken to another room and given geometry puzzles to work on. The students thought they were being tested for cleverness, although in fact the puzzles were insoluble. The test was to see how long they’d work before giving up . . . (pp. 21–22)

As it turned out, the students who had been permitted to eat cookies and thus did not have to summon willpower to resist them worked for about twenty minutes on the geometry problems—as did a control group that wasn’t offered any food at all. The radish eaters gave up in just eight minutes.

Baumeister saw this difference as significant, as did others, and this led him to perform many more experiments. Ultimately, after thousands of them, Baumeister and his colleagues came to two conclusions: one, that willpower is much like a muscle in that it gets tired, or runs out of energy, as a person uses it; and, two, that people “use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks” (p. 35).

Later, they observed something related to the first conclusion, something that directly contradicted a view of the mind that had been accepted and gone unchallenged for decades. Baumeister and Tierney put it this way:

[Psychologists] liked to envision the human mind as a computer, focusing on the way it processed information. In their eagerness to chart the human equivalent of the computer’s chips and circuits, most psychologists neglected one mundane but essential part of the machine: the power cord.

Chips and circuit boards are useless without a source of energy. So is the brain. It took psychologists a while to realize this, and the realization came not from computer models but from biology. The transformation of psychology based on ideas from biology was one of the major developments of the twentieth century. Psychologists were reminded over and over that the human mind exists in a biological body. (pp. 42–43)

Drawing on these facts, along with much of Baumeister’s earlier work, the authors offer practical (if occasionally obvious) advice about how to gain willpower and thus persevere in the pursuit of one’s goals. They note, for example, the importance of eating well—especially for breakfast—and of getting sufficient sleep. Both, they say, improve your self-control, and your self-control will wane if either goes missing.

This focus on the practical value of their research takes up much of Willpower and provides much of its value. Some chapters discuss how one can persevere at tasks requiring what seems like superhuman endurance. Others discuss how making decisions or suppressing emotions or dealing with distractions will sap your willpower—and how to preserve it in the face of such challenges.

Fans of David Allen’s Getting Things Done will particularly enjoy the third chapter, “A Brief History of the To-Do List, From God to Drew Carey.” In it, Baumeister and Tierney combine theory and practice—first showing the crucial relationship between self-control and setting goals.

The first step in self-control is to set a clear goal. The technical term researchers use for self-control is self-regulation, and the “regulation” part highlights the importance of a goal. Regulating means changing, but only a particular kind of intentional, meaningful changing. To regulate is to guide toward a specific goal or standard: the speed limit for cars on a highway, the maximum height for an office building. Self-control without goals and other standards would be nothing more than aimless change, like trying to diet without any idea of which foods are fattening. (p. 62)

Baumeister and Tierney then explain the psychological reasons that the relatively simple system (GTD) presented in Getting Things Done works so well—by showing Drew Carey implementing it at first by himself and then, in a surprising twist, with Allen’s personal help.

Allen actually sits in Carey’s office all day, helps him organize the stuff competing for his attention, goes through Carey’s projects with him, gets him to write down the next actions to take, and so on. Ultimately, readers see how Carey was able to implement the system and achieve its psychological reward.

“Before, I’d see a pile of papers and wouldn’t know what the hell was in them and just be like, Oh, my God,” Carey says. “The day I got to zero, which is GTD talk for having nothing in my in-box—no phone messages, no e-mails, nothing, not a piece of paper—when I got to that point, I felt like the world got lifted off my shoulders. I felt like I had just come out of meditating in the desert, not a care in the world. I just felt euphoric.” (p. 85)

Throughout Willpower, Baumeister and Tierney share examples such as the above, using other well-known characters, to show the value of acting in accordance with the techniques and lessons they highlight. They also share examples that emphasize the consequences of failing to do so. And they do this relatively well across a wide range of practices, covering to-do lists, habit-setting and habit-breaking, dieting, parenting, and goal-setting.

Unfortunately, the book has some serious problems. In the later chapters, it suffers from Baumeister and Tierney being unclear and apparently unknowledgeable about what is and is not a legitimate value toward which to apply self-control. This confusion becomes particularly noticeable in a chapter arguing that having a religion, any religion, teaches self-control. This is so, they say, because religion forces you to do that which you don’t want to do, in part by teaching you that a supernatural being is always monitoring you and by compelling you to go to religious places and events where you’re pretty much guaranteed to be monitored by other people as well. The ultimate takeaway of the book—that monitoring and self-awareness improve self-regulation—is undeniable. But the book’s praise for religion in this regard is at odds with the selfish benefits it offers at the outset.

In their chapter on parenting, Baumeister and Tierney continue to advocate self-control without reference to a clear life-serving purpose. Here, they praise the “authoritarian” style (which they say is common among Asian Americans) “in which parents set rigid goals and enforce strict rules without much concern for the child’s feelings” (p. 196). As with the chapter that touts religion, this one makes some important and useful points—among them, the need to clearly state and consistently enforce household rules, and give older children a say in what those rules are so that they can learn to monitor themselves. Although the authors show that flattery and permissive parenting are generally ineffectual, this does not make the authoritarian parenting style they advocate good. Baumeister and Tierney note that Asian American children are more likely to earn college degrees than “normal” American kids. But the fact that a young adult earns a college degree does not necessarily indicate that his parents’ policies were proper. Moreover, the notion that parents should lord over their children is contrary to the very thesis of this book.

As Baumeister and Tierney make clear elsewhere in the book, willpower is extremely valuable in service of one’s life. But it is valuable only in that context. A person who uses self-control to deny himself life’s pleasures or the career he wants in order to pursue the career someone else wants for him is not living as an independent thinker; he is “living” as someone else’s pawn.

Unfortunately, the book’s thesis is further undermined by the authors’ occasional paeans to altruism. Looking past these errors to its essential aspects, however, Willpower provides information that can be useful in achieving and enjoying the selfish values that Baumeister and Tierney mention at the book’s start. Readers just have to exercise some self-control to separate the sense from the nonsense.

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