Monday, October 31, 2011

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister & John Tierney

Social psychologist Baumeister and science journalist Tierney have teamed up to provide a popular account of type of academic work that Baumeister and his colleagues have conducted. This body of research has given us a new perspective on the age-old problem of the will. Actually, as scholars as diverse as Hannah Arendt and Garry Wills have written about the fact that St. Augustine developed the idea of the will in Western culture, a concept that the Greeks never really developed (although they were quite concerned with issues of self-control and self-regulation). Augustine was trying to understand why he didn’t always do as he would have himself do, a problem explored in Greek culture (witness Odysseus binding himself to the mast, Aristotle on habit, and St. Paul on why he does what he would not), but never directly addressed. No writer until Augustine addressed this topic head-on. In any event, having perceived myself as suffering a weak will, I’ve certainly read on the topic, and I find this book a welcome and useful addition to this literature.

The authors do a good job of mixing the findings of academic research with reports on contemporary and historical individuals as exemplars of willpower. David Blaine, the magician and stunt artist (which I do not intend as a derogatory term), David Allen (of GTD fame), Eric Clapton (recovering alcoholic), Oprah (dieting victim), and Stanley (of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” fame), all provide true stories of individuals dealing with particular problems of will. This mix of reporting academic research with real-life examples works well (although how their findings and conclusions fit with Victorian willpower isn’t as completely explored as I would like).

The takeaway: we have a certain amount of willpower (which can increase with training), but which declines with use (thus drawing on the some ideas of Freud as the ego as a fixed reserve). Interestingly, researchers have found that a dose of sugar (energy) works to increase willpower when it begins to flag. In addition, dieting, as the “perfect storm” for challenging willpower, gets an interesting chapter to itself. Think about it: you’re exerting extra willpower and you’re short on energy, so the brain orders (loudly) “eat!”. That’s why it’s important to develop life-long good habits.

One other area that they don’t explore is the Buddhist mindfulness tradition and other traditions (Gurdjieff, for instance) and how the academic research might fit with spiritual and philosophical ideas of willpower. Indeed, many religious traditions contain examples of extraordinary self-control and awareness. How does this all fit in? I suggest that we have to write that chapter ourselves.

In the end: a fun, interesting, and useful book. Recommended.

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