The Sugary Secret of Self-Control

Steven Pinker reviews Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength in the Sunday NYT Book review:

What is this mysterious thing called self-control? When we fight an urge, it feels like a strenuous effort, as if there were a homunculus in the head that physically impinged on a persistent antagonist. We speak of exerting will power, of forcing ourselves to go to work, of restraining ourselves and of controlling our temper, as if it were an unruly dog. In recent years the psychologist Roy F. Baumeister has shown that the force metaphor has a kernel of neurobiological reality. In “Willpower,” he has teamed up with the irreverent New York Times science columnist John Tierney to explain this ingenious research and show how it can enhance our lives.

…Together with intelligence, self-control turns out to be the best predictor of a successful and satisfying life. But Baumeister and Tierney aren’t endorsing a return to a preachy puritanism in which people are enjoined to resist temptation by sheer force of will and condemned as morally irresolute when they fail. The “will” in willpower is not some mysterious “free will,” a ghost in the machine that can do as it pleases, but a part of the machine itself. Willpower consists of circuitry in the brain that runs on glucose, has a limited capacity and operates by rules that scientists can reverse-engineer — and, crucially, that can find work-arounds for its own shortcomings.

“Willpower” is filled with advice about what to do with your willpower. Build up its strength, the authors suggest, with small but regular exercises, like tidiness and good posture. Don’t try to tame every bad habit at once. Watch for symptoms of ego fatigue, because in that recovery period you are especially likely to blow your stack, your budget and your diet. For that matter, don’t diet in the first place, since it starves the very system that implements self-control. Learn from Ulysses and tie yourself to the mast or fill your ears with wax so temptations are blocked out or you are unable to act on them. The authors also recommend Web sites and software that can audit, broadcast, punish or pre-empt lapses of will — a godsend, in particular, to Internet junkies and other infomaniacs.

Pinker concludes “Nonetheless, Willpower is an immensely rewarding book, filled with ingenious research, wise advice and insightful reflections on the human condition.”

Still curious?
This is a follow up to Do You Make Too Many Decisions?

Buy the book or read the rest of the review.

Steven Pinker is Harvard College professor of psychology at Harvard University. His latest book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” is out.