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Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength
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211 of 229 people found the following review helpful
on October 12, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I have been contemplating on the subject of willpower for a while and was very excited to get this book when it came out. While there is a good amount of interesting material here on the science of self-control, overall, I would say this title didn't quite live up to my expectations.

As one of the reviewers pointed out, there is a multitude of different pop sci books out there. Some are written by the researchers themselves and others by journalists who digest and interpret the information second-hand. In my experience, there is a clear distinction in style between someone who is a primary subject matter expert and someone who is just synthesizing secondary information. The researcher-authors tend to focus more on the actual experiments, strike a decent balance between pop and hard science, do a much better job explaining the meaning of the findings, and are usually pretty cautious about overly extrapolating the results. Journalist-authors tend to err much more on the side of watering down the science (perhaps because they have an incomplete understanding themselves) and generally strike a "let me explain this to an idiot" type of tone.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that this book is co-authored with the primary researcher, it really falls into the "journalist-author" bucket. I get a distinct impression that John Tierny was responsible for most of the writing, where Roy Baumeister is cited as an author only because the book is mostly based on his research. I think Tierny tries way too hard to oversimplify the science and calls on very extensive celebrity examples to illustrate some of the findings. I don't have a problem with "case studies", but I really don't need to read through pages upon pages about Drew Carey's disorganized personal life and how some fellow who claims to be a personal organizer guru helped Carey get his life back on track. Additionally, I didn't need extensive biography of Eric Clapton to explain self-control in case of alcoholism and the lengthy example of Oprah to illustrate the limitations of willpower when it comes to weight loss. I and probably 99% of the educated public understand the applications and implications of the research findings without having it explained in great detail through the lives of celebrities. At best, this tactic is a space filler and at worst, an insult to the reader's intelligence.

Despite these major flaws, the book does contain a lot of interesting research. Probably the most important finding is that willpower behaves similarly to a muscle, in that it can be exhausted with overuse and trained with various exercises. The authors establish a clear case for a link between high self-control and improved life outcomes and discuss in detail the research behind the success of various techniques to boost willpower as well as the types of adverse events that can result from willpower depletion.

Overall, I would still recommend this book to those who are interested in the subject of self-control and its implications. As I mentioned, there is a lot of good research described, I just wish the book didn't contain as much space filler regarding the "case studies" from lives of celebrities and generally adhered to a more intellectual prose rather than reading like a "science column" in a popular newspaper.
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260 of 288 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 15, 2011
Format: Hardcover
There are few concepts in psychology with as much scientific support as the idea that willpower is a limited resource and when its drained, people (and even dogs) have less willpower for whatever task is coming next in their lives. Perhaps the most sexy finding is that if you use a great deal of self-control or willpower in doing something you end up exhausted in whatever you do next that requires self-control even if it is completed unrelated to the first activity. For instance, you try to resist the sexual temptation of looking at beautiful women at work and without even knowing it, you end up physically weaker during your gym workout. This tends to happen when the two activities are back to back. Other people will be fascinated by the unusual ways that people can build up their reservoir of willpower. I won't give away the juice here.

As a scientist, I am impressed with how the authors stay close to the science.
As a reader, I relish the smooth writing style.
As someone who wants to be entertained, I appreciate the great storytelling ability. For this reason, the ideas in this book are sticky.

Honestly, I find it difficult to imagine an audience that would not benefit from reading this book. Educators. Policy makers. Parents. Self-help book fanatics. Therapists and coaches. People interested in why human beings do the things they do (that is, fans of psychology). If you disagree, let me know. Roy Baumeister is one of the most important psychologists alive and he is not afraid of taking risks and delving into what matters- sex, death, love, happiness, suicide, and even UFO abductions. Its about time people outside of science get a taste of his excellent contributions.

I couldn't recommend this more strongly.

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78 of 86 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
Roy Baumeister is a psychologist who has spent decades exploring how willpower works, and what exactly it is. Here, he teams up with journalist John Tierney to write a popular book surveying his and other folks' research on the subject. The result is somewhere between a work of social science and a self-help book. Not only do we get insights on how willpower works, but also get tips on how to make it work for us.

Perhaps one of the most interesting (and in the field of psychology, controversial) Baumeister and Tierney detail several studies that have subjects to some hard decision making tasks, and move on to other moderate decision making tasks. The results: those who engaged in hard decision making tasks gave up quicker on the next round of tasks (as opposed to the control group who were given easier tasks first). Another interesting finding is that glucose increases one's self-control abilities, as evidenced by studies where some groups were giving a sugary soft-drink before engaging in self-control tasks (while others weren't) and, as a consequence, were better able to exercise self-control. (The authors are quick to tell us that they aren't endorsing large sugar intakes to increase self-control, but that protein consumption can also do the trick.)

Later chapters focus on the idea that willpower works best when others are holding us accountable. There is a chapter detailing several websites that help people achieve their goals by either posting results (budgetary, weight loss, etc) on a public space, or having us assign a friend or colleague to monitor our progress (and give rewards). Another chapter focuses on Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups whose success rate MAY be attributable to the fact that members are assigned sponsors, who offer encouragement, monitor progress, and let us know that we are not alone.

Still other chapters focus on how we can strengthen our willpower with exercise. The finding here is that increasing one's willpower in one area has a spillover effect such that it helps willpower in other areas. As a personal example that jibes with this, I notice (and I know I'm not alone) that when I go to the gym regularly, I also become more disciplined in my work habits and eating habits. In other words, the more you accustom yourself to using your willpower, the easier it will become to use it.

All of this is somewhat controversial, because so many books and articles of late have written in a way that deny, or seem to deny, the very existence of willpower. Books on genetic hardwiring of certain tendencies often have the effect of denying that we can control ourselves (or even that there is a "we" that controls "ourselves" at all). Baumeister was a skeptic of this type when he began his research, but became gradually convinced that willpower seems like a real phenommena that we can actually use to control ourselves.

This is a very interesting read both for those who are curious about what the literature on willpower says, and for those who want some good and usable recommendations on how to use willpower in daily life.
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567 of 709 people found the following review helpful
on September 23, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Will power is an interesting and important topic. A good authoritative book on the subject written for general audience is long overdue. So I eagerly waited to read this book. Unfortunately, this book is not it. It is a readable book but with no significant payoff to the reader.

In recent years, a new genre of books - academics and scientists writing for lay audience - has become very popular. Many such books (for example, Influence by Cialdini, Freakonomics by Steven Levitt, Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert) are surprisingly well written; others are well-meaning but plodding (for example, The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Positivity by Barbara Frederickson); but almost all of them are clearly focused on their subject.

Not so with this book.

If authors know what this book is about, they don't tell the readers. But, to be fair to the authors, it doesn't appear that they have a clue themselves.

What is Willpower? Well, the authors aren't sure. It could be decision making skill. The authors have the solution. Watch your glycemic index. Or it could be strategies to cope with things when you DON'T have self-control. Authors helpful suggestions include that if you are an alcoholic, don't be around people who drink. I could have never thought of that. Or...

How to increase your willpower? Well you cannot. But wait, if you are organized, then you will increase your willpower in other areas. Well not really. When something becomes a habit, it does not deplete your energy. So you have more willpower, even though you don't. Are you following all this? If not, let's take a detour here. Let's go on some completely irrelevant excursions into the Heart of Darkness, Eric Clapton's transformation and behavioral economics. And if you are still confused, here is another suggestion. Maybe you should become religious. The authors know of a study in which religious people are found to have more will power than those who don't. Good enough for us.

Are the authors bothered by contradictory findings? No, not a bit, not our intrepid authors. They have explanations for things that might baffle more enquiring minds. When you lack the willpower to resist the second temptation, it's because your ego is fatigued. When you do have the willpower to resist the second temptation, it's because your willpower is strengthened by your earlier resistance. If parole officers decide to be less lenient when their glucose level is low, that's because they don't have the willpower at all to decide (to be lenient). Deciding not to grant parole is the same as not deciding. Theoretical consistency and reality checks are no concern of the authors. Must be wonderful to find a fantasy niche in science where one's theories are unfalsifiable, no matter what reality says.

Is the book a summary of what researchers found thus far on willpower? Well maybe. But the authors did not find much worthwhile research done by anyone else except by one of the authors. Anything else that is mentioned just supports Baumeister's research. Bit players all.

Is the research reported solid? Yes of course, most of them are based on single studies on voluntary university students. Why bother replicating when you can stretch the implications of single studies to develop beautiful theories? Why consider the possibility of alternative explanations? Why consider testing anything in a more realistic or broader context?

This book lacks the theoretical rigor of books like Howard Rachlin's The Science of Self Control or the breeziness of books like Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational. This book (Willpower) is like a large meal that lacks taste and flavor. Come to think of it, nutrition as well.

Why two stars? I am a generous guy, that's why.

This book is an embarrassment to the genre created by the likes of Bob Cialdini, Dan Ariely, Steven Levitt and Dan Gilbert.
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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon November 13, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney

"Willpower" is a mildly helpful book on how to harness willpower to make positive changes to ourselves and our society. According to social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and in collaboration with journalist John Tierney, the current research into willpower and self-control is psychology's best hope for contributing to human welfare. The authors provide many case studies of various degrees of interest that illustrate the many facets of willpower. This interesting yet at times unfocused 305-page book includes the following ten chapters: 1. Is Willpower More than a Metaphor?, 2. Where does the Power in Willpower come From?, 3. A Brief History of the To-Do List, from God to Drew Carey, 4. Decision Fatigue, 5. Where have all the Dollars Gone?, 6. Can Willpower be Strengthened?, 7. Outsmarting Yourself in the Heart of Darkness, 8. Did a Higher Power Help Eric Clapton and Mary Karr Stop Drinking?, 9. Raising String Children: Self-Esteem versus Self-Control, and 10. The Perfect Storm of Dieting.

1. Accessible prose, a book for the masses.
2. An interesting topic, how to improve willpower.
3. The book is full of psychological case studies involving willpower and self-control.
4. A recurring theme best captured by the following quote, "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 the body's bloodstream. He and his collaborators discovered that willpower, like a muscle, becomes fatigued from overuse but can also be strengthened over the long term through exercise."
5. Understanding the importance of self-control. "Poor self-control correlates with just about every kind of individual trauma."
6. Ego depletion. "The results showed that ego depletion causes a slowdown in the anterior cingulate cortex, the brain area that's crucial to self-control. As the brain slows down and its error-detection ability deteriorates, people have trouble controlling their reactions. They must struggle to accomplish tasks that would get done much more easily if the ego weren't depleted."
7. The impact of stress. "What stress really does, though, is deplete willpower, which diminishes your ability to control those emotions."
8. The source behind willpower and interesting findings. "The link between glucose and self-control appeared in studies of people with hypoglycemia, the tendency to have low blood sugar. Researchers noted that hypoglycemics were more likely than the average person to have trouble concentrating and controlling their negative emotions when provoked." In short, no glucose, no willpower.
9. An interesting section on PMS. "During this luteal phase, women are more liable to go on drinking binges or abuse cocaine and other drugs. PMS is not a matter of one specific behavior problem cropping up. Instead, self-control seems to fail across the board, letting all sorts of problems increase."
10. Steps to improving self-control. "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."
11. How Drew Carey got organized.
12. The Zeigarnik effect. "Uncompleted tasks and unmet goals tend to pop into one's mind."
13. Find out what decisions deplete the most willpower.
14. Interesting discussion on self-awareness and the links to self-control. "The two psychologists came up with a word for these ideas: standards. Self-awareness involves a process of comparing yourself to standards."
15. Willpower workouts. "But other exercises do help, as demonstrated by the groups in the experiment that worked on their posture and recorded everything they ate. When they returned to the lab after two weeks, their scores on the self-control tests went up, and the improvement was significantly higher by comparison with a control group."
16. Debunks some myths about alcohol. "Contrary to popular stereotype, alcohol doesn't increase your impulse to do stupid or destructive things; instead, it simply removes restraints. It lessens self-control in two ways: by lowering blood glucose and by reducing self-awareness."
17. An interesting section on the efficacy of AA programs. "Social support is a peculiar force and can operate in two different ways. Plenty of research suggests that being alone in the world is stressful. Loners and lonely people tend to have more of just about every kind of mental and physical illness than people who live in rich social networks."
18. Tips on raising children and a look at cultural differences. "Delayed gratification has been a familiar theme in the homes of immigrants like Jae and Dae Kim, who were born in South Korea and raised two daughters in North Carolina. The sisters, Soo and Jane, became a surgeon and a lawyer, respectively, as well as the coauthors of Top of the Class, a book about Asian parents' techniques for fostering achievement."
19. Dieting and willpower. "That's what we call the Oprah Paradox: Even people with excellent self-control can have a hard time consistently controlling their weight. They can use their willpower to thrive in many ways--at school and work, in personal relationships, in their inner emotional lives--but they're not that much more successful than other people at staying slim."
20. An excellent final chapter that summarizes the many findings of the book.

1. The authors give too much credit to religion for improving wellbeing. I can make a very strong case to cite the opposite as being the case. The most secular countries by and large offer the highest quality of life. I suggest you read "Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment" by Phil Zuckerman.
2. Psychology always seems to border on pseudoscience. Some research comes across as weak and lacking scientific vigor. Neuroscience is an infant field and promising field but we must be careful to avoid reaching "strong" conclusions from tenuous research.
3. The book is so research heavy that it forgets to engage the reader.
4. The book contains a notes section but it fails to use the link capability of the Kindle. Argh.
5. The parts are better than the whole. Some case studies are better than others but it doesn't translate necessarily to improving the whole product.
6. Not much on contradictory research. Too convenient and one-sided.
7. What is the scientific consensus on the case studies presented?
8. Not as much of a page turner as I'd hoped for.

In summary, this book could have been much better. Willpower is a fascinating topic but I felt the authors didn't engage enough with the readers to make this a better reading experience. I also felt that the book lacked scientific rigor. What is the scientific consensus? What do the contrarians say? Some of the case studies are in fact very interesting and there appears to be some good research and helpful advice. Willpower is worth reading with the reservations noted.

Further recommendations: "Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity" by David Allen, "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business" by Charles Duhigg, "The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It" by Kelly McGonigal Ph.D., "The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results" by Gary Keller, "Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman, "Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work" and "Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard" by Chip and Dan Heath, "Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don't" by Jeffrey Pfeffer, "Outliers" and "The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell, "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success" by Rick Newman, and "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us" by Daniel H. Pink.
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110 of 140 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
"The elusive forces behind a person's willpower have been the subject of increasing scrutiny by the scientific community trying to understand why some people overeat or abuse drugs and alcohol. What researchers are finding is that willpower is essentially a mental muscle,..." -- Tara Parker-Pope, How to Boost Your Willpower

Good impulse control was always celebrated as a positive personal character, long considered as the backbone trait of emotional maturity by Western standards. Moreover, people who are unable to delay gratification are said to require instant gratification and might endure poor impulse control, that should be mentally important for academic achievement and success in adult life. Research indicates that animals do not defer gratification, accordingly, the problem of delayed gratification is intellectual and philosophically fundamental to human nature. Europeans abandoned Willpower, as a foundational moral virtue in their post-WWII rush toward instant gratification. Americans followed suit, but blamed it on Dr. Spock, whose childcare advised a more flexible and affectionate bringing of their children, as a plan of instant gratification!

One of the recent discoveries in social science by Baumeister, claims that willpower actually operates as a muscle, and so it can be fortified with practice, and exhausted on overuse. Willpower is sustained merely by glucose, and can be reinvigorated simply by replenishing the brain's store of fuel. That tells you why self-discipline is so vital to individual success. Baumeister's latest research into willpower suggest that psychology is the best venue for advancing human self-control and personal welfare. He maintains that we typically spend around four hours every day wrestling with temptation, proving that lack of self-control is human's greatest weakness, and 'Willpower' could irritate the root cause of the problem it is trying to reduce by promoting the idea of self-control.

It is captivating to learn that exerting willpower leads to a slowdown in the brain location that imposes self-control. This means that if a demand on your willpower is followed closely by another, called 'ego depletion' by Baumeister, that will eventually cause you to give up and acknowledge defeat. More engrossing is to hear the authors' assertion that this failure is caused only by physiology, since the practice of self-control lowers the level of glucose, which supports brain activity of the body. But it is far less misleading to be told that the key to sustained self-control is proper nutrition, that guarantees the glucose supply you need, with plenty of rest, which helps glucose processing. This is actually the same old advice not to make important choices when you are tired. In conclusion, the authors draw from a series of experiments that, "It takes willpower to make decisions."

Combining modern social science with practical wisdom, Baumeister and Tierney share their psychological findings on willpower. They articulated a liberating book that takes pains to avoid Old School morals, in favor of experimental data collected by Baumeister in a quarter century research project. Willpower is a well documented self-help manual, that offers an abundance of helpful strategies to offset the human weakness of will. But the authors have fell inexplicably short of exploring the ways of willpower reinforcing by way of systematic changes to the environment, in addition to the individual's own. As our society has moved away from the virtues of thrift and self-denial, it often feels helpless because we face more temptations than ever.

However we define happiness, a close-knit family, a satisfying career, financial security-we won't reach it without mastering self-control. The authors "want to tell you what's been learned about human behavior, and how you can use it to change yourself for the better."
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26 of 31 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Roy F. Baumeister has always been one of my heroes throughout my 30+-year career as a social psychologist. He is a supurb scientist with a spectacular mind. When I first received the announcement that he had teamed up with New York Times writer John Tierney to write a book on willpower, I ordered it immediately. I really wanted to love the book.

Unfortunately this book is far below my expectations. The writing is not lucid and captivating, rather it is disjointed and underwhelming. The topic is facinating, and Professor Baumeister certainly knows it well, but it is not clearly reflected within these pages. Perhaps the book needs to be rewritten for clarity by someone like Malcomb Gladwell who can connect with the masses.

Therefore, although the science of willpower is an intersting topic, I would encourage a budding scientist or interested layperson to look elsewhere to begin their journey. I report this evaluation with the greatest of sadness, as I have upmost respect for Professor Baumeister.
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76 of 96 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
The conclusion about willpower is not that you should "tough it" but that you should "smart it". Believing the old saying" Knowledge is power" ,reading the book will certainly help obtaining a state of the art understanding that self care is essentially more important to strengthen will power than being self punitive and harsh!
The writers practice what they preach! The book is written in a very user friendly language ,and a vast amount of scientific research is introduced in a highly readable,easily understood fashion. Also,this book is evidence based. each and every statement is backed up by scientific evidence .You will not find cliches and unproven myths. By using an evidence based approach the writers show their deep respect to readers from all walks of life. This book should become a role model for future writers of self help"" ideas in how to respect and communicate meaningfully with their readers.
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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on September 15, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
"However you define success - a happy family, good friends, a satisfying career, robust health, financial security, the freedom to pursue your passions - it tends to be accompanied by a couple of qualities. When psychologists isolate the personal qualities that predict "positive outcomes" in life, they consistently find two traits: intelligence and self-control. So far researchers still haven't learned how to permanently increase intelligence. But they have discovered, or at least rediscovered, how to improve self-control. Hence this book."

"The first step in self-control is to set a goal, so we should tell you ours for this book. We hope to combine the best of modern social science with some of the practical wisdom of the Victorians. We want to tell how willpower - or the lack thereof - has affected the lives of the great and the not-so-great. We'll explain why corporate leaders pay $20,000 a day to learn the secrets of the to-do list from a former karate instructor, and why Silicon Valley's entrepreneurs are creating digital tools to promote nineteenth-century values. We'll see how a British nanny tamed a team of howling triplets in Missouri, and how performers like Amanda Palmer, Drew Carey, Eric Clapton, and Oprah Winfrey applied willpower in their own lives. We'll look at how David Blaine fasted for forty-four days and how the explorer Henry Morton Stanley survived for years in the African wilderness. We want to tell the story of scientists' rediscovery of self-control and its implications outside the laboratory."

Now, I hope these two quotes from the Introduction give a sense of what this book is about - it's one-half psychology and one-half self-help. It's a great read and I would think everyone would have something to gain because the subject matter is universally applicable - learning tricks to strengthen our willpower and recognizing the warning signs that our willpower is being exhausted. Here are some other practical quotes: "Ego depletion thus creates a double whammy: Your willpower is diminished and your cravings feel stronger than ever." "What stress really does, though, is deplete willpower, which diminishes your ability to control those emotions." "You could sum up a large new body of research literature with a simple rule: The best way to reduce stress in your life is to stop screwing up. That means setting up your life so that you have a realistic chance to succeed. Successful people don't use their willpower as a last-ditch defense to stop themselves from disaster, at least not as a regular strategy...people with strong self-control spent less time resisting desires than other people did."

In sum, this is a very helpful book. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the psychology of human motivation, or someone looking for a practical self-help book. I would say that either Peck's book, The Road Less Traveled, 25th Anniversary Edition : A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, or Ellis's book, A New Guide to Rational Living, would make a fine follow-up of to this book.
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41 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on October 3, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I am about an hour into this book in the audio version. I had high hopes. I am a psychologist myself and Baumeister has credentials. I keep an eye out for sources of information and inspiration for professional and personal uses. But I am increasingly uncomfortable with the apparent simplistic equation of glucose repletion with "ego energy" aka will power. I wish someone with serious nutrition credentials would weigh in on this. The admonition to eat well in order to function optimally is hardly new and does not require justification via this theory about will power. Worse, I think it mixes apples and oranges with regard to literature cited about the effects of "low glucose". I know just enough to feel very uncomfortable with the presentation - I suspect it is seriously flawed. Just because the senior author is well established in his field (social psychology) does not automatically make him qualified to interpret the nutrition/brain chemistry side. I look forward to any enlightenment on this.
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