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5.0 out of 5 stars Good Survey About How Willpower Works (and Sometimes Doesn't)!, September 13, 2011
This review is from: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (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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